Thursday, November 17, 2005

Why They Call Hu "Mr. President"

Actually, they call him Comrade Hu Jintao. China is, after all, a communist country. They just don’t like to advertise the fact. Everyone else in the English-speaking world refers to Hu as the President of China, and in that capacity he will be receiving the President of the United States, George W. Bush, in Beijing this week.

In fact, it is only fairly recently that China’s Mr. Big has been known by the title “President.” Mao Zedong was famously known as “Chairman Mao,” chairman of what I’m not sure – probably the Chinese Communist Party, although it is customary now to refer to the CCP leader as its Secretary General.

The next most important figure in post-1949 China, Deng Xiaoping, never had an official government title higher than vice premier, which came no where near conveying his power and influence. Journalists had to invent terms like “Paramount Leader” or “Patriarch,” terms nowhere mentioned in China’s constitution, to describe him.

China has had a president since the communists came to power. But for most of those years the post was a powerless sinecure for aging party elders. It still is essentially powerless. Hu’s real authority derives from the two other positions he holds: Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party and chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, i.e. commander-in-chief.

Hu’s immediate predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was the first Chinese leader to garner to himself all three positions as head of state, head of party and head of the army. Jiang was a globetrotter. He loved the pomp and ceremony of being a head-of-state. He thrived on trooping the line, listening to 21-gun salutes.

Jiang even paid an official state visit to Iceland, of all places. Pity Iceland doesn’t have an army, so there were no soldiers for him to inspect.

I’m don’t know if Hu Jintao has these same personal proclivities, but he obviously puts value in such gestures as due the titular leader of a rising Chinese state. Americans and Chinese argued strenuously over the modalities of Hu’s planned visit to Washington last September (canceled because of Hurricane Katrina).

The Chinese wanted the full monty -- state dinner, red carpet, 21-gun salute. The Bush administration balked at the state dinner but was willing to grant the red carpet and salute. I’m not sure of the official arrangements for Bush’s visit to Beijing, but I imagine that they will be perfectly calibrated to reflect Hu’s planned reception in Washington.

Ever since China emerged from its self-imposed isolation in the 1980s, China’s leaders have found it politic to use the government title rather than those that emphasize where their power really lies. That’s especially true now that China’s president is popping up every where.

Mao Zedong never left China his entire life except for, I believe, one visit to Moscow. Hu Jintao has been in perpetual motion. In the past two months he’s been to Canada, Mexico, New York, London, Madrid, Pyongyang, Seoul, Pusan and probably some other places I’ve missed.

Deng Xiaoping is best known for his economic reforms and opening of China, but he actually put a lot of thought into political reform. Nothing as far-reaching as democracy, of course. But he wanted to inculcate at least a sense of term limits and something of a normal secession.

Deng didn't want old party octogenarians and even nonagenarians clinging to power to their death beds, blocking the way for younger blood. He knew what he was talking about. Deng didn’t surrender his last real power post, chairman of the party’s central military commission, until a couple years before his death at 94.

He was not as successful in arranging for an orderly succession as he was in opening China to the world. His first choice as party leader, Hu Yaobang, was removed from the post in 1987 as favoring faster political changes than the elders were willing to consider. His replacement Zhao Ziyang was ousted in 1989 for supporting the student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Third time lucky. He plucked Jiang Zemin out of Shanghai, where Jiang had managed to keep the Tiananmen infection from spreading, and made him party leader. This time his decision stuck. Jiang served as China’s leader for more than a decade, surrendering his last post, chairman of the military commission, in 2004.

Coincidentally, Hu Yaobang’s reputation is being rehabilitated. Communist Party bigwigs attended an official observance of what would have been his 90th birthday today (Nov. 18) in the Great Hall of the People. Hu’s death in April, 1989, precipitated the student movement in Tiananmen Square that ended in the bloody June 4 crackdown.

President Hu is said to have pushed hard for Hu’s (no relation) rehabilitation, overruling opponents in the Politburo Standing Committee. It is thought that his interest had less to do with Hu’s supposed political liberalism than their mutual experiences in the Communist Youth League.

It is perhaps too soon to be speculating about Hu’s successor (though plenty of people do). Before becoming president Hu served a spell as vice president. If the presidency was an empty suit in years past, one can imagine how inconsequential the office of vice president was. Yet this was the immediate stepping stone for Hu.

So is there a pattern forming? Does one now advance naturally from being vice president to the top job? Certainly the current incumbent, Zeng Qinghong, is no cipher. He was considered a rival to Hu, and there are some China Watchers who still think he is a rival, though the two seem to cooperate well.

But Zeng is a couple years older than Hu (62). If in the normal course of events, Hu stays in power for a decade or so, Zeng would probably be too old to succeed him. Of course, this does not preclude moving Zeng out after a few years and moving an anointed successor into that position. We have to wait to see how the wheel turns.

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