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Friday, July 9, 2004

Hu's star will keep rising

HONG KONG -- Ever since Hu Jintao took over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2002 and assumed the presidency in 2003, there has been much speculation as to whether he really wields the powers of those offices or whether his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who remains head of the armed forces, is actually the power behind the throne.

It is certainly true that as long as Jiang is chairman of the Central Military Commission, with Hu as his deputy, the party leader and head of state -- as well as Premier Wen Jiabao -- must be constantly aware of the presence and the wishes of his predecessor. Fortunately, however, there does not appear to be any major difference between the two men in terms of broad policies.

Moreover, Hu is clearly able to define his own agenda, though he is sensitive to policy areas that are especially important to Jiang, in particular the Hong Kong issue. This is because Jiang was the one who picked Tung Chee-hwa to be Hong Kong's chief executive, not once but twice.

Hu has also made it clear that he has a different style. On his first foreign visit after assuming the presidency last year, he canceled the traditional practice of holding ceremonies to see off and welcome home state leaders who traveled abroad. Hu clearly does not want to associate himself with ornate ceremonies that are both costly and time-consuming.

Jiang presided over China's booming economy for more than a dozen years and opened the party's doors to entrepreneurs. This period saw the rise of corruption in the country to unprecedented heights. Hu, aware of the public dissatisfaction with corruption within party ranks, has not sought to align himself with the country's newly emerging capitalists but instead speaks constantly of the need for a more simple lifestyle, harking back to the time of Chairman Mao Zedong.

In fact, he seeks to identify himself with the weakest and worst-off segments in society, including peasants, the unemployed and migrant workers. His cancellation of the annual conference of top leaders at the seaside resort of Beidaihe was another attempt to improve the party's image in the eyes of the people, many of whom see Beidaihe and its villas as the playground of powerful party officials living an ostentatious lifestyle.

Hu has surprised many with his quotations of Mao and his visits to revolutionary communist bases, such as Xibaipo, in Hebei province, where the Communists plotted military campaigns against the Nationalists. However, this is being done with a purpose. If Hu simply exhorted party members to give up their luxurious lifestyle, it could be seen as an indirect criticism of Jiang. However, by appealing to the authority of Mao, the party's founder, Hu makes it very difficult for Jiang to object.

Hu seeks not to confront Jiang. All indications are that the two men deal with one another warily but courteously. They cannot be said to be working at cross purposes, but neither are they working together. While Hu is the country's acknowledged top leader, Jiang is able to make his influence felt when he wants to.

One story is suggestive of the power that Jiang still wields: Hu was asked by Tian Jiyun, a former Politburo member, for permission to visit the former party leader Zhao Ziyang, who was disgraced during the Tiananmen Square uprising and is under house arrest. He is now 84 years old and ailing. Hu reportedly agreed, but the decision was vetoed by Jiang.

Though the story may be apocryphal, it reflects the perception of politically savvy people in Beijing of the relative inclinations and powers of Hu and Jiang.

It must be remembered that Jiang, who became party leader in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, was for quite a few years uncertain of himself. It was only after the death of the patriarch Deng Xiaoping in 1997 that Jiang really came into his own.

Similarly, one can expect that Hu will bide his time, knowing that his power can only increase while that of Jiang, who will be 78 years old next month, will inexorably fade.

If the 61-year-old Hu manages to avoid any serious mistakes, he can look forward to a second term, at which time he will not have to worry as much about what his predecessor might think or feel. Time is on his side.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.

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