Hu Jintao's New Deal for China
Yu Bin (Associate Professor, Wittenberg University, and Senior Research Associate, The Shanghai Institute of American Studies)
This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.
China's National People's Congress began its annual deliberations last week in a meeting that largely marks the debut of the fourth generation of leaders led by Hu Jintao.
Mr Hu - who was appointed Chinese Communist Party general secretary last year - is poised to steer China towards a different mode of politics.
Contrary to conventional wisdom in the West that Mr Hu remains a "who" in the shadow of Jiang Zemin, the new party secretary has clearly emerged with both new style and new policies.
In the first Politburo "collective study session" on December 26, Mr Hu focused on fa zhi - the rule of law - and the role of the constitution. Although Mr Jiang has not yet completely faded away, the emphasis on the rule of law and collective leadership indicates a sign by the younger generation of leaders of their willingness to depart from the rule of man, or ren zhi.
Mr Hu's new approach is by no means a public relations effort, but is borne of deep concerns about corruption, declining ethical standards, and political irresponsibility. Some of these problems are caused by a perceived "alliance" between the political, economic, and to a lesser degree, intellectual elite.
Real and effective rule of law and democracy, though a desirable goal for many in China, may not come soon. Mr Hu and his colleagues have thus turned to promoting a bigger "public space" with a freer media to check socio-political "evils".
Many Western observers were surprised when a theatre version of George Orwell's Animal Farm started showing in Beijing in November last year - one day before the closing of the 16th party congress. This "accident" was the beginning of a gradual but consistent effort of the new guard to liberalise the media and cultural climate.
The Chinese leadership this year has urged the media not only to reflect the party's line, but also the opinion of ordinary people. The official People's Daily newspaper insisted last month that China's media should practice the "three closenesses": close to reality, close to the masses, and close to real life.
A phaseout of the death penalty is also being debated among China's legal experts, human rights scholars, and media outlets.
Despite decades of steady economic growth, Mr Hu's China has suffered a growing imbalance. The new leadership is determined to address this issue. Since late last year, Mr Hu and others have made several highly publicised trips to the poorest parts of China. In his New Year's speech, Mr Hu stressed that the party should be modest, pragmatic, hard-working, and ready to serve the people. Topping Mr Hu's agenda is reducing the burden on farmers, promoting self-governance in rural areas, cutting bureaucracies at all levels, and granting legal and equal status for migrant workers in cities.
In mid-February, Mr Hu went so far as to unveil his own "three people principles" - power for, sympathy with, and benefit for the people. Jiang Zemin's theory of three representatives (meaning the party represents the most productive parts of Chinese society) remains part of Mr Hu's vocabulary, but Mr Hu's softer and gentler public policy provides stark contrast with Mr Jiang's merit-based and market-driven elitist approach.
The extent to which these moderate and liberal domestic policies will affect China's foreign and defence outlook remains to be seen. The publication of China's third defence white paper in December, however, does indicate a more moderate threat perception and strategic calculus regarding security and relations with other countries. The thorny Taiwan issue is soft-peddled, even if the Pentagon continues to push for more military integration with Taiwan. Last November, the central government even raised the prospect of developing co-operative relations with Nato. In terms of Iraq, China has chosen to echo the French, German, and Russian approach rather than take the lead.
The consensus among policymakers is that a low-profile, reactive, and co-operative foreign policy is conducive to China's goals of peace, stability, and development. Like the Yao Ming phenomenon, a big, rising China can - and should be - nice to others in the new world of pre-emption.
As the helm passes to the fourth generation, it seems inevitable that the rise of China will go hand in hand with the invisibility of its leaders. Aside from charisma, or the lack of it, a key feature of Mr Hu's generation is their indigenous background. To a large extent, leaders from Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping's generation started their career with experience in the West.
The outgoing generation of leaders is the last one "made in Russia" - or the former Soviet Union, to be precise. Their minds have been largely shaped by the decades during which China has been reforming itself away from the Soviet model, but they are not necessarily embracing America's liberal democracy. In a sense, China under Mr Hu's generation may well become more Chinese.
This fourth generation of leaders shares a political background and personal experiences that occurred against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. This may suggest that they would prefer a more open-ended, less ideological attitude towards both domestic and foreign policies. With stronger technological or intellectual abilities to fix problems, Mr Hu's generation may not produce great thinkers or statesman - but nor will they make huge mistakes as did Mao.
Their pragmatic and moderate opinions in international and domestic affairs do not mean that they will go to any length to compromise. Their willingness to maintain and achieve peace and stability, however, should not be questioned.