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Economic development matters, human rights don’t – a guide to being promoted to the top of China’s Party

With China’s latest round of promotions, we have a chance to get an updated perspective on what is valued by the CPC, instead of relying on the claims from state media that the Party is looking to improve reforms and protect human rights.

Within the top 7 it is clear that as long as you are a Han male, in your late 50’s or early 60’s, (and have suspiciously dark black hair), there is no single path to power. Xi Jinping was well connected through his family and developed ties in the military before moving unobtrusively through the Party ranks, Li Keqiang found ties to Hu Jintao in the Communist Youth League (CYL), Zhang Dejiang established himself by outlining how to work with North Korea, Yu Zhengsheng hitched his career to Deng Xiaoping’s family, Liu Yunshan spent 30 years honing his prowess at propaganda, Wang Qishan built a reputation as a clever economic reformer and honest leader, and Zhang Gaoli quietly worked his way up the Party ladder by focusing on economic development in high-tech industries.

Most of them have been heralded for their success in economic development, but within a country that has seen some of the most rapid economic development in the world, it would seem that these are not the only 7 men with this on their resumes. It seems that for many of them being relatives of former high ranking officials or connections to recent leaders have been essential to their rise.

Of the seven, 5 of them were sent down to the countryside as “educated youth,” which was the start of their careers. Yu Zhengsheng seems to have avoided this because he was working on ballistic missile controls (and later radios), and Zhang Gaoli was involved with the CYL and petroleum. For many of them this was a time of “eating bitterness,” yet not a single one of them has spoken out about the period, in fact some have gone as far as saying that it was this point in their life that taught them to love the Party.

Which brings us to one of the most essential characteristics of rising to the top – an unquestioning loyalty to the Party. Their troubling records when it comes to human rights seem to suggest that there is no political fall out for abuses committed under their watch.

Xi Jinping cracked down on labor rights activists and house church members (Li Jianfeng received a sentence heftier than Liu Xiabo’s). Li Keqiang ignored the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in Henan province while he was the head, and had AIDS researchers and whistle blowers arrested. Zhang Dejiang, perhaps the individual with the worst record, covered up SARS as it was becoming an epidemic, had journalists arrested and publications closed, and approved a massive land grab that led to brutal force being used against peasants (over 20 were killed), his early fame came for limiting the number of North Korean immigrants into China. Liu Yunshan has been an ardent advocate of stricter controls over the media and the Internet. Yu Zhengsheng was a vocal opponent of democratic reforms, insisting that independent candidates be blocked from running at the local level. Zhang Gaoli was the head of Shandong province during the initial trial of Chen Guangcheng (Eric from Sinostand said that his promotion would be a sign that China is headed in a more conservative direction). It seems there is no injustice that would impede a Party member’s rise, as long as stability is maintained.

Wang Qishan seems to be the one bright spot among the standing committee as in the past he has promoted more transparent leadership that takes responsibility for its mistakes (although he has never asked the Party to take responsibility). His position within the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection seems to hold some promise for reform in an otherwise depressing line up.

Meanwhile pro-reform minded candidates Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang, both failed to reach the highest level of government. While it is very difficult to know on what basis the other 7 were selected above the others, they all seem to lack any measure of dissent. Li Yuanchao was known for cracking down on polluters, handling mass incidents in a softer way, and worked to limit corruption in Jiangsu province. Li also came out strongly after Bo Xilai’s downfall, proclaiming that the era for ignoring human rights in the name of striking black (cracking down on illegal activity and organized crime) was over. Wang Yang has also been seen as taking a softer approach to handling unrest, and has been cultivating a reputation as a reformer (by Chinese standards). This seems to have been one factor precluding them from the promotion. Yet, Yu Zhengsheng’s co-operation in shielding Deng Xiaoping’s son from investigation for corruption did not hinder his career as much as his brother’s defection.

So despite repeated claims from People’s Daily that reform continues and that people’s rights are being protected, there is a strong signal from the top that economic growth is more important than political reforms, that blood lines and building guanxi are more important than one’s interest in serving the people, and that protecting human rights matters far less than protecting the Party’s interests. Until the Party excludes individuals with such spotty pasts from promotion, China’s local leaders will continue to emulate the human rights abuses and cover ups that are undermining its authority.

The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent round-up of the new leaders that is worth reading and Yu Jie’s editorial – Empty Suit is a biting look at Xi Jinping.

The reign of Hu and Wen through the eyes of Jonathan Watts

Today, Jonathan Watts of the Guardian filed his last article from Beijing entitled, “China: Witnessing the birth of a superpower.” While I will sorely miss his reporting, his lengthy 4,000 word post neatly encapsulates the decade long rule of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao who came to power just months before Jonathan’s arrival. It is absolutely worth reading in its entirety, but I created this handy chronological cheat sheet to the pieces linked to in it (his article cleverly clumps them by topics).

2003

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

After reading his article, one gets the feeling that China’s political system is speeding toward a cliff, but nobody is really sure how far away that cliff is. This however implies that the car (or Party) is humming along without problems, and that the certain doom that lies ahead will either be a complete wreck or a near miss.

However looking at the last decade I think China’s system is a bit more like the car I had in high school. From a brief first impression, it looked pretty nice; if you drove it once or twice, you might notice a few small nicks and dings but would still find it pretty great; but once you spent a decent amount of time in it you started to wonder how the whole thing even held together. Every trip could be the last one the car took, or a new timing belt might keep things together for another 5,000 miles. It was really impossible to know.

For the past few weeks I’ve been contemplating the question “Will Xi Jinping be the last ten year leader appointed in the current fashion?” I’ve been thinking the answer is yes, but that the change may be very small. After reading Watts’ article though, I was reminded that how China looks today with all its problems, challenges and achievements, isn’t so terribly different from how it has looked in the past decade, and that perhaps all the Party needs to stay in power is a new timing belt.

Mao’s Great Famine couldn’t happen again (but June 4th could)

I recently finished reading Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe by Frank Dikötter, which outlines the full scope of horror that was the Great Leap Forward which in four years claimed 45 million lives. However, that number fails to capture the suffering and individual abuse that was pervasive throughout the country.  While it is by far the most complete account of that period, it makes for rather dark summer reading.

I felt a need to push myself through the unpleasant details as a kind of penance for my years of absolving Mao of any wrong doing. In the past I would have argued that Mao had been fed inaccurate information and was clueless about the actual situation, it was a terribly naive position, and one made completely indefensible by the fact that Mao simply did not care that millions were starving in the countryside. As the Chairman saw it, China was still in a revolution, and death was a small price to pay for the rapid development that would supposedly benefit the rest of the country. They were unwilling martyrs for a worker’s paradise that never materialized.

You may have noticed a slight change in my stance since then (and you’ll notice I’ve changed since starting this blog too). After finishing this book, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is also a mistake to blame the Great Famine entirely on Mao. While it could have only happened with a person like Chairman Mao at the helm, it also could have only happened with the complicity of Party officials at every level. There is no single individual to blame for the catastrophe, it was an epic failure of the entire system created by the Party.

The troubling realization I took away from this book was that many of the underlying causes of the famine have never been resolved, and continue to be perennial issues:

  1. Central gov’t officials were aware of abuse and deception in the lower ranks, but were unwilling to investigate the situation and ignored reports that were presented.
  2. Problems were swept under the rug to maintain the illusion of progress.
  3. A pervasive attitude of fear was propagated to ensure that projects were not questioned openly, and those who dissented were labeled as traitors and then silenced. 
  4. General directives were given without any guidance and were interpreted with shocking results by local officials, but no system was ever created to monitor the outcomes.
  5. The Central gov’t placed urban residents far above rural residents, and were willing to deny benefits to rural residents for the sake of stability.
  6. Environmental devastation allowed for a burst of economic “growth,” which later led to massive health problems and natural disasters that were far more costly than the gains.
  7. Massive, poorly-constructed vanity projects were built at great expense to the public, while other more pressing issues were ignored.
  8. Aid and goods to foreign countries were emphasized over meeting the needs of the Chinese people. Rural and urban residents suffered for the sake of “face” abroad.

This list is but a fraction of the parallels one could draw between the past and present, but fortunately, this kind of disaster could not repeat itself in present day China. One major reason for this is that the role of Hu Jintao is radically different from that of Chairman Mao,  and it would be difficult for an individual politician to silence rivals within the Party in the same way Mao did (although Bo Xilai seems to have managed this at provincial level). Secondly, China’s news (aided by microbloggers) is far more open than it was at this time, which makes it more difficult to cover up problems and exaggerate gains at the local level (note: this isn’t a very high bar. problems are still regularly covered up, but failures of this scale would likely be noticed). Thirdly, I doubt that Chinese people would be as willing to suffer for “the greater good” as they were during the Great Leap Forward.

One note that Dikötter makes, but doesn’t really explore, is that the provincial leader in Jiangsu province resisted the absurd goals and was not denounced for this moderate stance. Perhaps he survived because while he did not participate in Mao’s delusions, he also did not criticize them. According to the author, this resulted in a drastically lower death toll in the province. It makes me wonder how many lives could have been saved if just a few other key officials had decided to stay above the mindless rush for accolades.

Mao’s Great Famine, is a powerful reminder of what can happen when power is left unchecked and how quickly society can descend into utter chaos. While some have questioned Dikötter’s claim that 45 million people died, the country he describes based on Party documents is one that would make even the most hardened Mao supporter question the great helmsman. While many detractors have zeroed in on this figure, claiming that it is actually grossly inflated, it does not change the amount of suffering endured during this period by millions of peasants (it’s interesting that deniers of the Rape of Nanking and those who deny the Great Famine have adopted similar arguments).

On a side note: In this week of remembering June 4th, one realizes that while China is safe from the devastating campaigns of Mao’s reign, Tian’anmen Square could very well happen again. One needs to look no further than the Party’s overblown response to whispers of the Jasmine Revolution and its willingness to support brutal regimes that slaughter their own civilians for reasons to worry. While the Party is far less likely to launch impossibly ambitious campaigns to boost production or encourage destructive waves of blind nationalism that undermine stability, it is also no more likely to allow vocal calls for change.

What I learned slogging through China’s official version of history

Over the past three days we’ve had a chance to look at the full version of the story the Party tells about China’s past 170 years. I divided it into three sections that weren’t broken up in the National Museum, but that allowed reflection on logical chunks – The Opium war up to the founding of the Republic; The founding of the Party through the Mao years; and finally, 30 years of opening up. I wanted to wait to comment on the text until you all had had a chance to read it and form some of your own impressions (which I hope you’ll share below).

The first thing that I noticed from the exhibit was that China’s default status in the world is “glorious,” and that this glory comes from the Party. This is hardly a surprising claim, but its importance in the foundational myth is worth noting. Even the title of the exhibit reinforces this idea – The Road to Rejuvenation. From there we learned that foreigners’ only interest in China was exploitation, and that the Republican gov’t failed to live up to Sun Yatsen’s vision for China.

While these two points are not completely accurate, they are presented in a way that is convincing and clear. The repeated use of the word “bourgeois,” suggests that this is a story that the Party knows how to tell (it appears 9x in the first section, and only 1 time after that when discussing the founding of the Party). All the sections prior to the actual establishment of the People’s Republic of China seem to be much clearer than the later sections.

The second section of the exhibit has a different focus and serves to emphasize the role the Party has had in improving the lives of the Chinese people. It also reinforced the idea of ethnic unity (mentioned three times here, and only one other time in the preface). While the first section may have bent the truth to some degree, this section seems to have heavily employed the use of the delete button and provides a version of history that would likely confuse many who survived Mao’s decades of rule. Without any further knowledge of China, one would come away with the impression that nothing bad happened in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s; even though well over 50 million Chinese people died unnecessarily during that time. As despicably revisionist as it is, there is still a narrative that makes sense if you ignore all of the outside information.

The only mention of the Cultural Revolution

However, it’s not Mao’s era that seemed the most difficult for Party historians to discuss, it’s the last 30 years. As I walked through the museum with my father, we were both left scratching our heads as we read through lists of slogans and campaigns that described each leader’s reign since Mao. I wasn’t surprised that there was no mention of Tian’anmen square or the other crackdowns, but  I was surprised that there was not no mention in the narrative of a single concrete action that any of these leaders had accomplished.

Within each decade there were trinkets of accomplishments, but it felt more like a scrapbook than a museum, in that it provided very little in the way of explanation. Oh look, it’s Deng Xiaoping’s cowboy hat. Wow, remember when we got let in to the WTO, or sent that guy into space? What was clear to me was that the Party still doesn’t know how these leaders will be viewed in the future, and seems to be working on the last third of the narrative.

Deng Xiaoping’s cowboy hat

The conclusion though makes sure you haven’t missed the point – “Socialism is the only way to save China,” and a subtle nudge to “closely unite around the CPC central leadership with Hu Jintao as its General Secretary.”

View of Tian’anmen Square from the museum

As we left the halls of the museum and returned to Tian’anmen Square, I couldn’t help thinking that not far from here Chen Guangcheng, Ai Weiwei, Wang Lijun, and Bo Xilai were all waiting for history to judge them as well. Each one would have been seen quite differently just a little over a year ago by the authorities and by common Chinese people. Chen would have likely been forgotten in Linyi, unknown to most and a thorn in the side of leaders; Ai would have occupied a dubious position between dissident and respected artist, but I don’t have many Chinese friends interested in modern art; Wang was a cop worthy of novels and film; and Bo was a rising political star that caused the country to pause and sing the songs of an era worthy of a single photo in a museum.

China’s Party approved version of history part 3 – “Socialism is the only way to save China”

…Continued

Ushering in a new era of development in the cause of socialism 5.1

The Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee was a significant transition in the history of the party and the state since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. the CPC central collective leadership with Comrade Deng Xiaoping as its core throroughly reviewed the lessons from its experience in socialist construction, emancipated their minds, sought truth from facts, made the historic decision to shift the focus of the Party and country’s work to economic development and to implement reform and opening up, laid out the Party’s basic line for the primary stage of socialism and the three-step strategy for modernizing the country, created Deng Xiaoping Theory and blazed the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Opening a new chapter in reform, opening up and modernization 5.2

Faced with enormous changes in the international environment and rapid progress of domestic reform and development, the CPC central collective leadership with Comrade Jiang Zemin as its core held high the banner of Deng Xiaoping Theory, upheld the reform and opening up policy, kept up with the times, created a new socialist market economy, formulated the Party’s basic program for the primary stage of socialism, embarked on a new stage of full opening up, promoted the great new undertaking to build the Party, created the important thought of Three Represents, and carried the successful implementation of socialism with Chinese characteristics into the 21st century.

Opening a new chapter in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects 5.3

Standing at a new historical starting point, the CPC central collective leadership with Comrade Hu Jintao as its General Secretary follows unswervingly the guidance of Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents. It strives to keep up with new developments in and outside China, grasp the strategic opportunities in this important period, stay realistic and pragmatic, and make pioneering efforts. It has articulated the Scientific Outlook on Development and other strategic thinking. It is working hard to promote scientific development and social harmony, improving the socialist market economy, and resolutely carrying forward the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics while building a moderately prosperous society in all respects.

Conclusion

Over the past one hundred years and more, the Chinese people have written a magnificent epic of solidarity, struggle, self-improvement and resilience. Since the founding of the Communist Party of China ninety years ago, under the strong leadership of the CPC, our great nation has successively achieved many historic changes from a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society to a brand new society of national independence and rule of the people; from new-democratic revolution to socialist revolution and construction; from highly centralized planned economy to vibrant socialist market economy and from semi-closure to comprehensive openness. History has proven that without the CPC, the People’s Republic of China would never have come into being, nor would socialism with Chinese characteristics; socialism is the only way to save China, and reform and opening-up is the only way to develop China, develop socialism and develop Marxism.

Standing on this new historic point and facing the future, one cannot but feel the weight of mission on our shoulders. We shall closely unite around the CPC central leadership with Hu Jintao as its General Secretary, hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, follow the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of “Three Represents,” carry out the Scientific Outlook on Development thoroughly, join efforts to forge ahead and persistently strive for the great goals of implementing the 12th Five-Year Program and building a moderately prosperous society.

Three messages the Party hope you heard at the Two Meetings and the surprise they hope you’ll forget

Last week we looked at why the Two Meetings matter, today we’re looking at what this year’s recurring themes were.

Equality

Since opening up in the 80’s, gov’t resources have been increasingly targeted at creating advanced cities, abandoning the more equitable development that had been encouraged under Mao. Rural China now finds itself with few medical personnel and crumbling schools while their land is sold out from under them by greedy officials.

Meanwhile Chinese cities have benefited immensely from the policies, which has created a wealthy class that in some cases spends more on a single meal than many farmers make in a year. This new wealth has helped spark a real-estate boom that has led to the quadrupling of real-estate prices in some cities, moving housing out of reach for tens of millions of people.

Inequality is one of China’s greatest challenges, and the message from the Party this year focused largely on what they were doing to address it. This includes maintaining policies that are putting pressure on housing prices (despite the fact that this hurts the investments of the rich), and even some discussion of salary limits for managers of state owned enterprises. It also included talk of growing China’s social security systems, with focuses on the rural population as well as migrant workers.

The hope is that a more equitable country means fewer protests that undermine the Party’s rule.

Stability

The ever present talking point was “stability,” meaning maintaining Party rule and avoiding any large changes that may shake the country’s economic progress.

This message was reinforced through the setting of the GDP growth rate slightly lower than in past years. While the target is always exceeded, the reduction signals a shift from raw economic growth by any means to sustainable growth. With growing concerns about China’s economic stability, this is a welcome shift that also comes with further actions being taken to limit gray market lending and greater efforts to minimize the risk of local gov’t debt.

The delegates also improved increased spending on “stability maintenance” and Hu Jintao reinforced that the military serves the Party and is obligated to defend it. With allegations of shootings in Tibet and Xinjiang, the message is worrying for activists. What the Party hopes you heard though, is that they will take the necessary steps to continue economic growth, there is no need to worry about investing your money here.

Democracy

Yesterday at Wen Jiabao’s press conference, a reporter asked when the Chinese people would finally be able to choose their national leaders. Wen responded by saying that the system must continue to reform, and that when China’s national conditions are adequate there will be democracy. This speech was one of many that came out during the sessions that promoted the idea that China either was already a democracy or was moving in that direction.

The idea they want people to take away is that reforms are on their way, and the Party is gradually implementing democracy.

Two of my Chinese friends were discussing this same topic the other day and one said that reform was coming, and that they should be patient. The other one responded by pointing out that reform only comes from impatience. I would have to completely agree with the latter.

Village democracy began in the 1980’s but has not greatly expanded in the thirty years that the Chinese people have been patient. Furthermore, the expansion of democratic principles we have seen in the past year came from the people and not the Party. For villagers in Wukan to be granted democracy they had to overthrow their local gov’t. For independent candidates to run campaigns on Weibo, they had to brave abuse at the hands of local police. At every turn in the course of the last year we have seen further restrictions of democracy when the people do not demand otherwise.

The Surprise

Just as I was finishing my draft of this post, the Party somewhat quietly announced that Bo Xilai had been replaced. The announcement gives few clues as to what this means for the bigger picture. While it is tempting to see this as a step away from the Red Culture craze that Bo promulgated, it is more of a reminder of how quickly the pendulum can swing in Chinese politics. Not even 12 months ago, millions of Chinese students and workers were singing red songs (a hallmark of Bo’s Chongqing), and today my co-workers seemed to be enjoying the political scandal that brought him down. It’s important to keep in mind that Bo’s replacement, Zhang Dejiang, is not an encouraging sign for progressives.

The Economist has a good summary of his rise and fall.