When he entered office two years ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao quickly raised expectations among people looking for kinder, gentler policies from Beijing. During the SARS epidemic in early 2003, Hu seemed to give China's state-owned media more room to report honestly on the country's health problems. At the same time, Hong Kong's political activists hoped Hu would prove more liberal than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, in allowing democracy to develop in the city. And Taiwan's leaders were looking for signs that Hu would be less hostile than Jiang, who refused to deal with Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian and sent cross-strait relations into a deep freeze.
Yet as Hu prepares to take center stage at this year's session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in March, it's clear that he isn't living up to his billing as China's Great Healer. Indeed, on Taiwan, he "will be tough, even tougher than Jiang," says Richard W. Hu, a politics professor at the University of Hong Kong. President Hu is keeping the heat on Chen by readying a new anti-secession law. Beijing also has shown no interest in easing up on dissidents or in loosening restrictions on the media. And Hu has ruled out democratic elections for Hong Kong's next leader.
What's behind the hard line? For starters, Hu is still consolidating power. While Jiang's supporters are losing influence, Hu is relatively new to the top job and hasn't yet exerted complete control over the Communist Party. Moreover, nationalist sentiment is so strong among party officials and ordinary Chinese that Hu cannot be seen as giving ground in key areas. That's why tensions have been rising with Japan, where Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been pushing a more assertive defense policy and provoking neighbors by visiting a shrine honoring Japanese, including war criminals, who died in World War II.
The most emotional issue is Chen's attempt to further distance Taiwan from the mainland. "I don't think there's any support in the Chinese elite for anything other than a hard line on Chen," says Andrew J. Nathan, a Sinologist at Columbia University. Hu has two approaches to Taiwan, notes Shi Yinhong, a political scientist at People's University in Beijing: "On the one hand, there is the hard line aimed to deter Chen shui-bian's actions toward independence. On the other hand, the Chinese government wants to show its will to take efforts toward peaceful reunification." Beijing recently proposed direct flights from China to Taiwan for mainland-based Taiwanese traveling during February's Lunar New Year.
But Hu is also championing the anti-secession law, which would allow the government to punish actions contributing to Taiwan's independence. Many Taiwanese fear that, down the road, Beijing could use the law to justify military action. "This has changed the status quo," says Philip Yang, director of the Taiwan Security Research Center in Taipei, who notes Hu's worrisome track record when dealing with "splittists." For instance, as governor of Tibet in 1989, Hu declared martial law to suppress support for the Dalai Lama.
With China's influence growing from Asia to the Americas, Hu seems to feel little external pressure for political reform at home. Optimists looking for him to promote a new, more open China should settle in for a long wait.
By Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong, with Dexter Roberts in Beijing and Matt Kovac in Taipei
Edited by Rose Brady