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Tactical Praise from President Hu

Author: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies
July 5, 2003
International Herald Tribune


The tenure of China's new president, Hu Jintao, has been marked by reports of strife between his supporters and those of his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. With his first major address on political reform on July 1, Hu seemed to take a first step to repair the rift. Unexpectedly, he used the speech not to establish his own agenda, but to pay tribute to Jiang's theoretical contributions. He lavished praise on the "Three Represents" Jiang's rather unconvincing attempt at theoretical innovation. In adopting this tack, Hu may have been trying to counter charges that he is not sufficiently supportive of Jiang's legacy. By putting the issue to rest, he finally might be clear to advance his own political agenda.

Hu cannot afford to waste time battling Jiang. He faces enormous challenges on all fronts: arresting growing domestic dissatisfaction with the Communist Party, reversing Hong Kong's dramatic decline in political and economic fortunes since its 1997 handover, and developing an approach to Taiwan that engages rather than further alienates its citizens. In previous statements, Hu has signaled his awareness that the legitimacy of the Communist Party is under siege. He has called for greater democracy within the party, rectifying some of the enormous inequalities in income that have emerged over the course of the reforms, increasing openness within the government and significantly ratcheting up the party's anti-corruption efforts.

To date, however, there has been virtually no indication that Hu is prepared for a broader embrace of democratic principles and human rights. Indeed, his tenure has been marked by a general crackdown on all forms of political expression, with only a brief period of media openness at the height of the SARS crisis. His government has launched a targeted media attack, censuring or closing several high-profile investigative newspapers and magazines. It dealt a blow to China's fledgling community of nongovernmental organizations by closing many organizations which failed to meet stringent membership and financial obligations, and it has continued to repress online dissent, home church activities and various forms of political and social activism.

How Hu handles political reform will also have significant implications for Hong Kong's future. While Hu was delivering his speech, the Hong Kong population took to the streets to protest a restrictive anti-subversion law. Widely expected to be enacted next week by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing parliament, the law will permit significant new limits on the rights and freedoms in the purportedly autonomous territory. One hope for Hong Kong citizens might be a strong signal from Beijing that the mainland is changing its own political course.

An even more difficult challenge for Hu is to bring Taiwan into "Greater China." Hu has already signaled his intention to pursue a fresh approach toward Taiwan. In mid June, he reportedly told a group of top foreign policy officials in his government that he has a new strategy for the island to compete with Taiwan's leaders for the hearts and minds of its people. But Hu's handling of Taiwan during the SARS crisis did little to advance the objective. Beijing refused to support Taiwan's membership in the World Health Organization and blocked a WHO delegation to Taiwan until pressure from the rest of the world forced them to relent. The result was an immediate spike in popularity for politicians in Taiwan who support independence. Still, real advances in political reform on the mainland would enhance the prospects of the pro-unification candidates in Taiwan's upcoming presidential campaign.

If Hu's July 1 paean to Jiang has accomplished its objectives, he should have greater freedom to start enunciating his own vision for the future. The stakes are high. The temptation is to continue the limited, relatively uninspired policies of the past that will only serve to further alienate the Taiwanese, accelerate Hong Kong's political decline and consign China to an uncertain future. By stepping forward as a bold reformer, however, Hu can set in motion political change that might eventually realize the dream of every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong a peaceful, prosperous and unified China.

The writer is director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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