15: Who's Hu?

Don't know much about China's Vice-President? You might want to take a peek at the guy who's next in line for the top spot

It's Aug. 31, 2002--the end of a long, hard month for Hu Jintao. The Vice-President of China has just returned to the capital from Beidaihe, the seaside resort where leaders of the Chinese Communist Party hold their annual retreat. Things have become a lot more complicated than he expected. Hu, ensconced once more in the official leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, reviews events. Back in the spring, Hu was the unofficial, all-but-designated successor to President Jiang Zemin, 76, and would assume the leadership of the party from Jiang as well. Sure, Jiang would probably hold on to his third job running the Central Military Commission. But for Hu, the road to the top was clear. At Beidaihe, officials would start to pay him court. At the Party Congress in the fall, his succession would be confirmed--and he would take over as party secretary. By March, he would be President.

Then came Jiang's speech to the Central Party School in May. The propaganda machine started pumping out even more praise than usual for Jiang's theories of communist rule. No political novice himself, Hu knew what was up. After all, this media barrage was so loud that even the lowliest cadre would get the point.

Jiang wants more time running the show. Not as President, but as party secretary--still a position of such power in China that it overshadows every other office in the nation. And Hu? The Vice-President knows the job his boss has in mind for him: President in charge of visiting flood victims and greeting heads of state--an official with no policy clout.

Hu still hopes the party elders can get Jiang to back down--maybe by guaranteeing slots for the President's acolytes on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. Regardless, Hu's not ready to give up. Of course, he can confide his thoughts only to his diary. You can't be too careful when control of Asia's most powerful state is at stake...

Dear Diary:

Well, Beidaihe was certainly no walk on the beach this year. Comrade Jiang--he had plenty of tricks up his sleeve. And as for figuring out everyone else's agenda--that was practically a full-time job. For starters, what's up with Li Peng? Isn't he supposed to step down from running the National People's Congress and quit politics completely? Now it looks as if he's planning to retire in name only even though he is 73. Li wants his guys on the Standing Committee--just like Jiang. Everyone knows the nasty role Li played at Tiananmen Square. Then there are all those questions about his relatives' business dealings. I would want to make sure my men were there to stand up for me, too, if I were in Li's shoes. But is Li backing Jiang's new bid for influence? Or is he neutral? I just can't tell.

Meanwhile, the Taiwanese sure picked an ideal time to mouth off about independence. They may even unwittingly help Jiang hold on to his job. Some of those older cadres who think I'm a milquetoast may not want to switch bosses in the middle of a new Strait crisis.

My elderly critics are not the only ones who doubt me. Even the Western media has called me a "cipher." Doesn't anyone think that the fourth generation has the stamina to run a place like China? The twentysomethings in the cities--who are drifting away from the party in any case--don't want to be ruled forever by the same old bunch.

Besides, have Jiang and his crowd forgotten everything they know about me? Deng Xiaoping himself anointed me to follow in Jiang's footsteps. Old Deng liked the way I handled myself in the provinces. And when the party needed new blood, Deng appointed me to the Standing Committee--at 49, the youngest member then by a long shot. And Comrade Deng was on the Long March! You want credentials? I have the same alma mater, Qinghua University, as Premier Zhu Rongji. Our polytechnics don't get any better than that.

I know, I know. I've never had an economics portfolio or run a big city the way Jiang did in Shanghai--one of the biggest power bases for any politician in China. They also think that at 59, I'm absurdly young for the job.

Well, I have hidden strengths too. For one, anyone who knows modern Chinese history realizes that leaders-in-waiting and even just-appointed leaders have to keep their mouths shut until they're fully in command. You open up too soon, you take the fall. That's what happened to Liu Shaoqi under Mao--and Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang under Deng. I'm going to keep my head down and stay out of the fray.

Besides, I know how to be tough and keep my cool. When I ran the show in Tibet, I imposed martial law. Called in the troops and bashed some heads, too. I didn't enjoy it--but I did it. If the cadres think I will sit by and let anyone, outside or inside China, tamper with the party, they should just review my record in Tibet.

And I've built up quite the roster of friends and allies after decades of party work. I have plenty of the up-and-coming talent in my camp. Running the Chinese Communist Youth League gave me the chance to spot the best political operators going. Now I have Ling Jihua--who used to manage my private office--as deputy director of the general office of the party. Only 45 years old, but Ling knows what he's doing. He's overseeing day-to-day operations of the party organizations--which gives him an inside look at all the machinations. Quite a useful friend to have. And what about my older friend from the Youth League, 62-year-old Zhang Fusen? He's Justice Minister. With all the corruption investigations being carried out, it's nice to think he's on my side. And let's not forget Song Defu, another Communist Youth alumnus. If he cleans up that cesspool of corruption in Fujian, where he's party secretary, he'll get lots of credit. By extension, so will I.

Heading the party school since 1992 has helped me fill out my Rolodex, too. I've gotten close to officials who have studied there, year in and year out. Even the Western press has noted how I prodded the school into studying how to reform the party--and even introduce some grassroots democracy. Not too much, mind you--just enough to give the system a little flexibility.

Jiang and his followers may be forgetting one more base of support for me. While Jiang was building his power in several big cities, I was working in some of the poorest rural provinces--Guizhou and Gansu. I know what an enormous challenge it will be to keep the peasants loyal to the party, especially with grain tariffs ready to drop. Keeping the lid on rural China is the key to keeping the party in power. The Politburo had better think of that when they figure out whether to support Comrade Jiang--and how much real power to give me.

Hmm. Maybe things will turn out tougher for Jiang after all. By the time the Party Congress rolls around, I may have some more support myself. Of course, I'll be doing it quietly. That's how future leaders in China are supposed to behave.

By Dexter Roberts

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