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Jun 15, 2003 | 20:26 GMT

9 mins read

China: 100 Days of Hu

Hu's Place in the Chinese Communist Dynasty Hu Jintao became China's president on March 15, marking the beginning of the fourth generation of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to take power. As he approaches his 100th day in office, STRATFOR is evaluating his performance. Hu, who took office during the Iraq war and North Korean nuclear crisis — and was immediately beleaguered by controversy surrounding Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — has confronted several challenges as well as opportunities in a relatively brief period. He has emerged from his first 100 days fairly well, without any major errors or notable public losses. The CCP hierarchy likely is confident that it groomed an able successor to Jiang Zemin, who governed China for 12 years and continues to wield power behind the scenes as Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Hu, like Jiang, is essentially a product of the party. Neither an iconic founding figure nor an ambitious upstart, he climbed the institutional ladder through years of dedicated service. Rumors have circulated that Deng Xiaoping personally chose Hu as Jiang's successor in order to avoid a power struggle that could divide the party and undermine its power, like the one Deng experienced during his own political climb. Hu is unlikely to blaze any trails or push for radical new policies in the near future. Policy in China usually is formed by debate and blessed by the party's highest echelons. Most of Hu's early administration will be shaped by policies formed well before he took office. Hu's primary task will be to continue where Jiang left off in the Communist Party's long march as China's rulers. Since Mao Zedong's monolithic and tumultuous reign, the CCP has pursued a steady progression of state and party reforms in order to rejuvenate and maintain its mandate to rule. Hu will continue what Deng began and Jiang nurtured. In the wake of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, Deng purged the party of its most radical leftists and restructured China's macro-economy — releasing the peasantry from the confines of collective farming and opening the country to foreign trade and investment. The opportunities for wealth accumulation eventually led to political corruption, which Jiang's administration focused on wiping out. Jiang also launched a complete overhaul of China's network of state-owned enterprises — inefficient remnants of the socialist economy that threaten the state's financial health. Both tasks, unfinished when Jiang left office, will be Hu's priorities for the foreseeable future. Taking Stock Analyzing Hu's performance so far is a difficult undertaking. Unlike American presidents or leaders of other democracies, he cannot be judged by the legislation he has enacted or standings in public opinion polls. The Chinese regime by nature strives for opacity, policy disputes take place largely behind closed doors and public opinion carries little weight in the decision-making process — especially decisions for the short term. Instead, Hu's performance must be judged by myriad political actions their consequences. So far, Hu has done very little of substance in public. But those public actions — including his management of the SARS crisis and visits with world leaders in St. Petersburg and the G8 in Evian — has been positive. To the outside world, it likely will be another year or more before it is possible to determine which Chinese policies bear Hu's imprint and which are holdovers from Jiang's administration. However, as president, Hu will take the blame for any policies that fail during his term in office. Hu's Entrance on the Global Stage Foreign policy is inherently easier to assess than China's internal politics. Domestic policies are formed in secret meetings, but it's the president who glad-hands with foreign leaders at international summits and is pictured on the front pages of the world's newspapers. On the whole, Hu's first 100 days could be summed up as a baptism by fire: · He took office mere days before the outbreak of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, amid acrimonious debate between pro- and anti-war states. China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, aligned itself with Russia and France in opposition to Washington's war plans — a stance that immediately brought Hu into substantive contact with foreign heads of state. For an untested president, it was a risky maneuver — but Hu bought himself substantial breathing room by remaining content to let Moscow and Paris wage the frontal assault on U.S.-sponsored UNSC resolution. · Meanwhile, another crisis was brewing between North Korea and the United States. Washington's labeling of North Korea as a member of the "axis of evil" and Pyongyang's self-proclaimed right to pursue nuclear weapons generated fears of renewed hostilities on the Korean peninsula. However, Chinese diplomatic sources told STRATFOR that Kim Jong-il spent several days on a secret mission to Beijing, seeking to arrange a trilateral meeting between Chinese, North Korean and U.S. leaders. Though the meeting did not end the standoff between Washington and Pyongyang, it did allow China to portray itself as a political powerbroker. As president, Hu has an opportunity to gain significant prestige at home and abroad if Beijing eventually is able to help resolve the crisis between Washington and Pyongyang. · Beset with the SARS crisis at home, Hu was likely more than ready to begin his first presidential tour. His 11-day trip to Russia, France, Kazakhstan and Mongolia was an unqualified success. Hu inked a giant oil deal in Moscow, hobnobbed with world leaders at anniversary celebrations for the founding of St. Petersburg and then jetted to the G-8 summit in Evian, France. He was the first Chinese leader ever to take part in the summit — a reward from France for supporting its anti-war stance on Iraq. By many accounts, Hu cut a dignified and businesslike figure; the only criticism was that he lacked Jiang's warmth and charm. It is possible that Hu may lose his wooden persona as he eases into power, but this is not guaranteed — he is known far more for his political loyalty and talent than for charisma. Domestic Concerns Like most national leaders, Hu's concerns are primarily domestic, and China's economic and political conditions demand urgent and concentrated attention. The SOEs are a monumental and dangerous drain on the economy, official corruption is still rampant and Beijing's authority is consistently challenged by a variety groups. However, whereas China once was among the United States top security concerns, the Sept. 11 attacks and Washington's shift in focus has afforded Beijing the ability to concentrate on domestic problems with far fewer distractions. From a domestic standpoint, Hu came to power under the most inauspicious of circumstances: · SARS was spreading rapidly in parts of China — despite repeated government claims to the contrary — and Beijing's international image was tarnished when the World Health Organization essentially implied there was a government cover-up. As panic began to grip parts of the country, Jiang and his protégé, Zeng Qinghong, prepared to intervene if Hu should fail. He did not. The SARS crisis became a chance for the new president to gain and consolidate his power: Hu's government responded with dramatic steps after only one month in office. Beijing launched an investigation into the true size of the epidemic and took extensive measures to curtail its spread — including sacking China's health minister and the mayor of Beijing. In the meantime, Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao launched a major propaganda blitz, celebrating the role of healthcare workers and rallying the masses to fight the disease. After a potentially disastrous first few months in office, the relatively unknown leader emerged empowered by public and official support. · In May, at the height of the SARS emergency, China was further embarrassed by a submarine accident in the Bo Hai Sea that claimed 70 lives. The incident was a challenge for Hu — not only because it was an additional black eye for the nation, but also because it gave Jiang, as chairman of the Central Military Commission, an opportunity to leap into the fray. Jiang's immediate response to the situation — his condolences to the victims' families and appearance at the state funerals — stole some of Hu's thunder by reminding China that the ex-president remains very active. However, the incident also yielded yet another political opportunity for Hu: In the fallout from the accident, Zhang Dingfa was named as the new top navy commander. Chinese diplomatic sources have told STRATFOR that Zhang was not Jiang's first choice for the position, but rather a compromise between Hu and Jiang — demonstrating that Hu wields his own influence over the military's decision-making process, which is not solely Jiang's domain. · Even more important than his management of short-term crises, however, will be Hu's ability to create and implement policies that promote economic growth and revitalize the CCP. Rumors are circulating that Hu is preparing to introduce a wide range of reforms at the July 1 anniversary of the CCP's founding. The reforms reportedly will include the introduction of "internal democracy" — a plan to implement internal elections for mid-level party posts, thus promoting competition and accountability within the CCP — and new guarantees for the protection of private property. Those guarantees reportedly would involve raising the legal protection for private property to the same level as that for state-owned enterprises — an important step in fostering China's dynamic private economy. Neither reform is a new concept for the party, but Hu's ability to implement them will be the yardstick by which his presidency is measured. Hu's Future Due to a remarkable series of opportunities — and ability to create opportunities from crises — Hu has emerged in just under 100 days as a tried and tested Chinese president. He has shown an ability to rise to the challenge in important and difficult situations, increasing his prestige and power along the way. Internationally, he has made a solid impression, and domestically, he has taken steps to consolidate his power. That will stand him in good stead as he prepares to introduce sweeping reforms — whether they were formulated before or during his own administration. If Hu maintains this strong track record, he may be able to wiggle free of Jiang's overriding stewardship and achieve supreme control earlier than anticipated. Sources indicate that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has already begun to grumble about the ambiguity of the dual leadership structure involving Jiang and Hu. A few more successes by Hu, and the PLA may be ready to politely ask Jiang to retire.

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