Hu Jintao was the president of China from March 2003 to March 2013. Described as a "baby-faced technocrat," he was regarded as bright and capable but was still largely a mystery because he fails to do anything that had his unique stamp, preferring to stay close to the party line, and making little impression other than showing his face here and there. One Western diplomat told Newsweek, "He's a cipher to everyone. He stands for nothing in particular."
Forbes magazine called Hu Jintao the most powerful man in the world. Time called him “cautious, colorless and corporate...the kind of guy you wouldn’t think twice about.” Parade magazine named him as world’s 6th worst dictator based on China’s human rights record and crackdowns on religions and minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs.
Alfred Chan, a expert on Chinese leaders at Huron College in Canada, told the New York Times, “My general impressions was that Hu was a Communist of the old mode. His career was totally shaped by the Communist system. I think many expectations of him were exaggerated because he works under the constraints of party discipline.” The ‘scientific outlook on development’ was considered to have been President Hu's and Premier Wen’s most important contribution to Communist-Chinese statecraft since they came to power in late 2002. Parade magazine listed Hu as the "World’s Fifth Worst Dictator."
Hu Jintao’s Life
Hu Jintao was born in December 1942 in Jixi, Anhui Province into a merchant family from Anhui and was raised in Taizhou a small city in Jiangsu Province. He was a direct descendant of the Ming dynasty general Hu Zongxian, known for fighting Japanese pirates. His father was a tea merchant who taught his son the importance of Confucian values. A a schoolchild Hu was known for he keeping his head down, following the party line and not complaining. He graduated in 1965 with a degree in hydroelectric engineering from Tsinghua University, China's MIT. Unlike his sister he managed to avoid being sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and was described as a member of the ‘stand-around faction’ that avoided trouble by not taking sides.
Hu Jintao was the first Chinese leader to grow up mostly after the revolution that established communism in China in 1949.After graduating from Tsinghua he stayed on at the university as a political advisor and won respect form students for his willingness to listen to their problems. At this time he joined the Communist Youth League. A classmate told Hu’s biographer, “He was very coolheaded. He always knew when to sing and when not to sing.”
Hu married Liu Yongquing. They have two children: a son and a daughter. His daughter got a master’s degree in finance at Columbia University under an assumed name and married a well-known capitalist, Daniel Maso, the head of Sima, a Nasdaq-listed Internet media firm. The couple honeymooned in the United States.
Hu’s hair was dyed, oiled and neatly combed. He almost always was seen in public in well-cut dark blue suit with a red tie, standard attire for top party officials. He was on record of making a joke only once, in 2001, when he gave the governor of New Jersey advise on how to keep his hair from greying.
Hu Jintao’s Character
Hu was regarded as conservative and loyal. He had remained in step with the Communist Party and had rarely done anything out of line with the party. Hu was said to have a photographic memory and a keen eye for detail and was regarded as thoughtful and reserved. He rarely speaks in public. His most important speech of the year was usually given behind closed doors to Communist Party insiders.
Hu enjoys playing ping pong. According to his official biography, Hu "occasionally danced solo at parties" when he was a young man. These days he was regarded as charming and sure of himself but mostly all business. Henry Kissinger wrote in Time, “Having met with Hu on many occasions, I invariably found him thoughtful, extremely well prepared and very courteous. His mastery of the subject matter seems to make small talk unnecessary to him.”
According to the Washington Post: “Hu was subdued. People who have met him describe a bland bookworm with a photographic memory, a stiff smile and an overriding sense of caution. Former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick wrote in Time, “I was impressed by Hu’s knowledge and intelligence, which he conveyed with confidence. I also noticed his disciplined caution, a restraint forged over years of careful preparations and promotions...that embodies his attributes of stewardship...dutiful service...and close consultations to build consensus.”
Orville Schell wrote in Time: ‘someone who was more overly ambitious might have lost his cool over challenges, but Hu had managed to convey an air of composure, the better to maintain a semblance of accord between fractious leaders...Hu had ended up being a kind of a closet traditionalist whose sense of political true north was derived as much from the Chinese classics, to which he had turned to search for models of consensus, as it from Mao and Marx.”
Hu Jintao often came off as wooden and distant. Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “It did not help that some of his encounters were poorly planned or clumsily staged. Two years ago, after he sought to spotlight the nation’s low-income housing program by visiting the apartment of a beneficiary, Internet sleuths accused the woman of living elsewhere and renting out the apartment for a $300 monthly profit. Despite her tearful denials to the state news media, the episode proved to have been a public-relations debacle for Mr. Hu. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, January 26, 2013]
Hu Jintao Political Career
with Jiang Zemin
Hu joined the Communist Party while still in college, shortly before the Cultural Revolution began and today still uses some jargon from that period. He never studied outside China and had no revolutionary background. During the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s he was sent to work in northwest province of Gansu and remained there and in other poor Chinese areas for the next 20 years.
Hu rose quickly within the Communist Party bureaucracy in part by cultivating a reputation as studious and noncombative. At 39, he became the youngest at the time to enter the Central Committee, and at 43, the youngest provincial party secretary. While working in Gansu Hu emerged as a powerful local leader of the Communist Youth League. In 1982, at the age of 39 he became the youngest member of the Central Committee. After that he was appointed as the party secretary in the southern province of Guizhou.
In 1988, Hu was appointed to the party secretary in Tibet but reportedly spent so little time in Tibet that when he was there he had problems with altitude sickness. After an uprising there he cracked down hard on separatists and imposed martial law that lasted for about two years. He was not remembered for being particularly harsh or being particularly sympathetic to the Tibetan cause. Many say he simply followed orders.
According to his official biography on the website of the People’s Daily: “Long years of work in remote and poor areas inhabited by ethnic minorities have tempered Hu’s character as well as made him a staunch supporter of the policies of reform and door opening.” His faction was often referred to as “tuanpai,” for the Communist Youth League he once led and mined for allies.
Hu Jintao's Advance in the Communist Party
Hu Jintao was an example of a relative outsider who secured the right patrons to rise to the top. He was anointed by former party secretaries Hu Yaobang and Deng Xiaoping.Hu Jintao was plucked from relative obscurity by Deng after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Deng hoped a clearer succession plan would add stability to the system; he appointed Jiang Zemin as his immediate successor and elevated Hu so that he could later take Jiang’s place.
Deng maneuvered Hu into position as heir to Jiang Zemin. In 1992, at the age of 50, Hu was appointed by Deng to the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo, the country’s effective ruling body. He was one of the youngest ever to hold that position. Also In 1992, Hu was put in charge of the Central School, a think tank that under his leadership studied ways to change the Communist Party so it wouldn’t collapse like the Communist Parties in Rusia and Eastern Europe.
In 1998, at the age of 56, Hu was made vice president, the youngest person in modern history it hold that job, and was appointed to vice chairman of China's state central military commission. This gave him the No. 2 positions in state, party and military. After the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, Hu drew attention by comforting the families of victims. On television he embraced one family member who cried, "Thank the Communist Party." He also made a statement directed at crowds that demonstrated outside the United States embassy after the bombing. He expressed sympathy for their cause but said enough was enough and it was time to back down.
In 2001, Hu made a series of foreign visits: to Britain, Russia, Germany. He made his first trip to the United States in April 2002. While he was a cadre he rarely traveled abroad.
Hu Jintao Becomes President
Hu Jintao was selected as the new General Secretary at the 16th Communist Party Congress in November 2002. In 1992 he had been designated by Deng Xiaoping as the “core” of the fourth generation leaders, A new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee was also elected in November 2002 In March 2003, at age 60, Hu was selected as president at the 10th National People's Congress. . In both positions he succeeded Jiang Zemin, who remained head of the Central Military Commission. Hu remained deferential and even obsequious to Jiang while he moved quickly to establish his own identity, distance himself from Jiang and secure his power base. There were rumors and reports of behind the scenes power struggles between Hu and Jiang. At the Fourth Party Plenum in September 2004, Jiang Zemin retired from the Central Military Commission, passing the Chairmanship and control of the People's Liberation Army to President Hu Jintao. [Source: Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009]
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia: “Beginning in 2001 the Chinese Communist party began yet another transition, both in its membership and leadership. That year, Jiang Zemin urged the party to recruit business people as members, declaring in the doctrine of the "three represents" that the party must represent capitalists in addition to workers and peasants. The following year, Jiang resigned as party leader and was replaced by Hu Jintao. Hu replaced Jiang as president in 2003, and Wen Jiabao became prime minister. Jiang remained extremely influential, however, in both the party and the government, and retained his chairmanship of the powerful national and party military commissions until Sept., 2004. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]
Hu solidified his hold on power when he claimed the position of military chief (leader of the Central Commission of the People’s Republic of China) after Jiang resigned the position in September 2004. In July 2004, Hu promoted six loyalist military officers to general to help solidify his power in the military. Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s closest advisor—a man who wears his sunglasses when he goes swimming, even when he dips his head underwater—was passed over for promotions after Jiang resigned.
According to the Washington Post: “Much of Hu’s perceived weakness was a result of the difficult hand he was dealt when he took over as the top leader in 2002. Jiang was so successful at consolidating power during his last days in office that at least five of the nine members of the Standing Committee were thought to have been his strong allies. Jiang refused to give up his chairmanship of China’s military until Hu and others forced him out two years into Hu’s presidency. Surrounded by Jiang loyalists throughout his presidency, Hu adopted a consensus-driven leadership style, acting more to get folks on the same page than as a visionary, party analysts said. “He was a manager who likes to tweak the machine. It was not in his nature to overhaul the whole thing,” said one former official, pointing to Hu’s training as a hydrology engineer. [Source: November 5, 2012]
As of 2008, Hu held the top three posts: President, Party Secretary, and top military job. Before the Party Congress in the autumn 2007 there were questions about whether Hu should hold all three of China’s top jobs and what kind of shuffling he would do to maintain his hold on power. Allies of Vice President Zeng Qinghing want to see Zeng promoted to President. Zeng himself had called for more “inter-party democracy” within the party. Hu seems unlikely to give up the Presidency without a fight.
Hu Jintao as President
Hu was regarded as the quintessential colorless bureaucrat. He was expected to stick with incremental change approach of his predecessors, making decisions through consensus with other elite members of the party rather than pushing his weight around. His greatest challenge was keeping the Communist party relevant and adapting it to changes in the modern world.
Unlike Jiang, who liked to have been seen mostly with foreign dignitaries and VIPs, Hu—at least early in his tenure anyway’seemed more comfortable with ordinary workers and villagers: visiting herders in bitterly cold Inner Mongolia in the middle of winter and sharing dumpling with villagers in their hut and listening to their complaints about corn prices. Hu had shunned some conspicuous perks such as retreats to the resort of Beidahe. Shortly after becoming party chief he said, “Use power for the people, show concern for the people and seek benefit for the people.”
After becoming General Secretary of the CCP, Hu Jintao had invited caution in the assessments of him made by others. In Jiang’s day the media routinely used the phrase, “the central party the core of which was comrade Jiang Zemin.” When the torch passed to Hu Jintao, the language was a touch more cautious: “The central party of which comrade Hu Jintao was general secretary.”
Hu’s first years in power were marked by making compromises with rivals and building a power base. By 2006 he was strong enough to oust his rivals and bring his loyalists onto positions of power, replacing 40 of the 62 top province level jobs that had been appointed by Jiang with his own people. He also carried out a major reshuffling at the 17th Party Congress in 2007. A pivotal move was the ousting of Chen Liangyu on corruption charges (See Chen Liangyu, Corruption). Chen was appointed by Jiang Zemin and was a leader of the so-called Shanghai Gang. Jiang had conducted a similar move 11 years before to oust rivals in Beijing.
Hu Jintao was officially appointed to his second five-year term at the National People’s Congress in March 2008. He was elected with 2,956 for votes, three against and five abstentions. He was also re-elected chairman of the state Central Military Commission. The second half of Hu’s tenure will have been defined by his appointments into top leadership positions. Perhaps his greatest legacy will have been who he places in a position to replace him. Hu was required to step down in 2013.
Hu Jintao’s Effort to Exert Influence after He Left Office
Hu had shown little interest in lingering in the political limelight but there were indications that he wants to maintain influence behind the scenes. When Hu was in the process of stepping down as president, William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “After a decade in power, President Hu Jintao was using his final weeks on the job to shore up his reputation, maneuver allies into key positions and elevate his interpretation of communist ideology — all in an attempt to preserve his influence over Chinese politics. Hu’s recent moves fit a familiar pattern in China, where top leaders don’t simply retire. They linger behind the scenes, exerting powerful but often unseen leverage until death. How successful Hu and his supporters were in these remaining days could affect the direction of the country’s leadership for years to come. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, November 5, 2012 ]
“Hu was battling strong head winds. He had long been seen as having a weak grip on power. And rampant criticism had bubbled up within the Communist Party about problems that have festered under his watch — including the increasing divide between rich and poor, widespread corruption and the growing need for economic reform.
“To help Hu make his case, the propaganda machine in Beijing was in overdrive for months. Front-page stories have exalted “the golden decade” he had overseen, and state TV had reported pointedly on how incredibly happy the populace was these days. Last month, the government unveiled at least 20 books, eight brochures and nine documentaries chronicling “the brilliant achievements” made possible by Hu’s vague ideology of systematic progress through “scientific development.”
“Hu’s cautious approach, some experts say, had hindered his influence. Asked for his accomplishments, party members point almost reflexively to the unbridled economic growth of the past decade. A few mention better relations with Taiwan and the military’s expansion. When asked about the problems Hu leaves behind, the responses grow longer and more explicit. “Ten years ago, when he took power, everybody was wondering what kind of leader Hu would be,” said David Shambaugh, an expert on Chinese affairs at George Washington University. “Now we know the answer. He was an arch-conservative, cautious, risk-averse, stability-obsessed apparatchik.”
Battle Between Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin
Hu had traditionally favored a greater role for the state in the economy, and emphasised fairer distribution as well as economic growth while his predecessor Jiang Zemin was associated with more business-friendly, free-market economic policies.William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “But Hu’s biggest challenge was the same one he had faced throughout his tenure: his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, 86, who continues to have been the dominant force in Chinese politics. According to several current and former officials, party intellectuals, advisers and analysts — who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of heightened party sensitivities ahead of the once-a-decade leadership transition — Jiang was trying to secure key spots for his allies during the upcoming transition and, by many accounts, was succeeding. The most important appointments, to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. “Hu was trying to do with his successor what Jiang did to Hu and what even earlier Deng Xiaoping did to Jiang,” said an editor of a party publication. “Each generation tries to hold sway over the next.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, November 5, 2012 ]
“Some analysts caution against viewing China’s politics solely through the prism of Jiang vs. Hu. “It’s not always so clear-cut to say who was in which group,” one retired party official said. There were also other players: the military, powerful state-owned enterprises and the rising class of “princelings” to which Xi belongs — leaders descended from former senior officials. But there was widespread agreement that the two biggest centers of power in China today were Jiang and Hu.
“Both were plucked from relative obscurity by Deng after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Deng hoped a clearer succession plan would add stability to the system; he appointed Jiang as his immediate successor and elevated Hu so that he could later take Jiang’s place. Jiang built his camp of allies — called the “Shanghai gang” — drawing from his old base as the city’s party chief. He was known for a showman’s flair that remains rare among the party’s mostly wooden personalities. Hu was more subdued. People who have met him describe a bland bookworm with a photographic memory, a stiff smile and an overriding sense of caution. His faction was often referred to as “tuanpai,” for the Communist Youth League he once led and mined for allies.
“But one person with access to senior Chinese leaders warned that it was “not entirely fair to say this was a fight between two men.” “It would also have been a mistake to interpret the competition as personal hostility or disagreement,” the person said. “This was primarily a battle over personnel.” A former party official agreed. Although Hu and Jiang had different focuses during their tenures, past leaders tend not to meddle directly in policy once retired, the former official said. “That’s why the appointments of their allies matter so much; it becomes their primary way of exerting any influence and protecting their interests.”
“Hu had lost at least one major fight, failing to see his protege Li Keqiang named as his successor. Instead, Xi, a compromise candidate with Jiang’s approval, was chosen for the job in 2007, party experts say, and Li was positioned for the lower job of premier. And if lists being circulated among party officials and experts were to have been believed, Jiang was similarly successful in elevating his allies over Hu’s into many of the next Standing Committee’s seats.
“But some political watchers caution that Hu may have been playing a deeper game, bargaining away slots on the Standing Committee for seats on the less powerful but more plentiful Politburo or perhaps preserving a seat for himself or Li on the commission that oversees the military. A few also theorize that Hu was looking at this period in his presidency differently than Jiang — that he may want to leave the incoming leadership less vulnerable to the machinations of elders. “You could argue that Hu sees himself as a selfless representation of the party, its integrity and institutionalization. He wields power but doesn’t play the game quite the same way Jiang does,” said Chris Johnson, a former top CIA analyst for China who was at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Image Sources: Chinese government (China .org) , Xinhua, Wikipedia, White House
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2021