“It’s not fair to call me mysterious”
— Hu Jintao, 2007, TIME
In the chaotic and aggressive world of politics, there is little room for grace and pragmatism. Yet, these are the qualities that define Hu Jintao, the enigmatic President of China.
According to his official biography, Hu was born in Jixi, Anhui Province in 1942. But several other sources point to Taizhou in Jiangsu Province as his birthplace. The Chinese head of state had his first brush with politics when he became chairman of the Tsinghua University Students’ Union and soon after, joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1964. After graduating from Tsinghua as a hydroelectric engineer, Hu began work in the Ministry of Water Conservancy.
Later, he was transferred to Gansu where he held several positions in the Gansu Provincial Construction Committee (GPCC). But politics beckoned again. A big opportunity emerged when an influential official in the CPC took a liking to Hu and sent him for training at the Central Party School in Beijing. After that, there was no looking back for Hu. He steadily worked his way up to become the Party Chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region. With a ruthlessness belying his mild manners, Hu swiftly and successfully quelled several separatist protests during that stint to earn the trust and respect of his superiors.
He continued to impress key leaders like Deng Xiaoping, who eased his entry into the Politburo Standing Committee. At 49, Hu became its youngest member. His rise to the top was relatively rapid as he donned the mantle of Vice President of China in 1998 and that of President later in 2002.
With a reserved yet open approach, Hu’s presidency is an extension of his personality. Using “harmonious society” and “peaceful rise” as the guiding philosophies of his governance, he has been striving to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor and to promote private enterprise. Hu is famous for his austere ways — a bicycle ride to work is not unusual for the president. Known for his pro-poor policies, Hu has cut taxes for farmers and promoted the spread of education in rural areas.
More recently, this able captain successfully swerved China away from the economic storm that has wreaked havoc in most of the developed world. China has been able to cope with the global recession largely because of its stupendous economic success over the past few years. But the role Hu’s stewardship has played in navigating the country through turbulent waters is undisputable.
The president’s strategic foreign policies have complemented China’s economic boom. With the country expanding into an economic powerhouse, its demand for resources has been growing rapidly. To satiate China’s fuel-hungry factories, Hu has forged friendships with resource-rich countries such as Brazil. He has also used monetary aid and investment as tools to strengthen economic ties with Africa. Over the past few years, trade between Africa and China has vaulted by leaps and bounds.
Leading 1.3 billion people requires nerves of steel and extraordinary vision. Hu believes in “achieving mutual benefit and win-win outcomes,” and he has managed to walk this tightrope with composure and a low-key approach that has brought a quiet charm to Chinese politics. He maintains that “the only way to thoroughly win over the people, to thoroughly become the forerunner of social advancement is to … feel the pulse of the era and reflect the spirit of the era.”
Undoubtedly, the 2008 Beijing Olympics have been a highlight of Hu’s presidency. Aware that China’s every movement would be tracked on the global radar screen, the president went to the extent of inviting foreign journalism study experts and PR firms to train Chinese media persons. And, to create a world class Olympic Media Center, no effort was spared.
But this focus on the media has been the exception, not the rule. Hu does not share the West’s enthusiasm for freedom of the press, which has been suppressed under his administration. The Internet too is subjected to heavy surveillance, leading to the coinage of the phrase — the ‘Great Firewall of China.’
On a personal level, Hu has embraced the traditional communist image of a people’s leader. But at the same time, he has worked hard to keep himself away from the spotlight. The world has been treated to images of Hu socializing with coal miners and sharing a tent with Mongolian herdsmen in freezing climes. But the president has always maintained a certain frosty distance from everybody around him, remaining inscrutable to even his closest colleagues.
Hu’s leadership ends in 2012, but much like his persona, the name of his successor remains shrouded in mystery. The man might be a “cipher,” as a Western diplomat described him in Newsweek, but his contribution to China’s rise is no secret.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019