Amid Exit, Hu Jintao Faces Mixed Legacy

With outgoing president Hu Jintao kicking off the 18th Party Congress by addressing a number of the challenges facing China and the Communist Party, and with Xi Jinping preparing to take over as China’s top leader, The Associated Press reports that the debate over Hu’s legacy has already begun:

In media commentaries, think-tank position papers and the less censored blogosphere, Hu’s reign is being portrayed as a missed opportunity to tackle longstanding problems grown more deep-seated, from a yawning rich-poor gulf and worsening environmental degradation to stiffly authoritarian politics. One commentary has referred to the period as a “lost decade.”

“We didn’t realize Hu would turn out to be so conservative,” said Wu Jiaxiang, a former party researcher-turned-businessman and avid blogger, summing up the disappointment of many in China’s chattering classes. He dates his own disappointment with Hu to the closing of liberal-minded websites in 2005.

Some of the criticisms are designed to influence Xi Jinping, who will begin taking over from the technocratic, ultra-reserved 69-year-old Hu at a party congress that opens Thursday.

Mainstream state media, which answer to the party and dominate what most Chinese see, read and hear, have been praising the Hu era, calling it a “Glorious Decade.”

It’s clear that Hu will hand Xi the reins to a China very different from the one he inherited from Jiang Zemin in 2002. He spent the better part of his first two years tightening his grip on power and freeing himself from Jiang’s shadow, taking control of the military in early 2005 and steadily gaining influence via a balance of savvy maneuvering and compromise.

But while Jiang’s departure yielded fresh calls for political liberalization, Hu rejected such pursuits from an early stage. He insisted on tightening the government’s control over public opinion and ensuring discipline in the state media, while reinvigorating socialist ideology and reasserting the party’s position in society. He also redoubled efforts to crack down on political dissent and other threats to stability. Within his first three years atop the Party, Hu had rebranded himself from a potentially liberal reformer into a conservative authoritarian who was, as one critic claimed, ideologically more conservative than his predecessor.

Shunning political reform, Hu staked the legitimacy of the party on economic growth instead. He set ambitious goals for the expansion of China’s economy, and briefly stressed the need for social harmony before re-pivoting to focus on the economy as the West began its slide into financial peril in 2007. Hu’s priorities were a “massive gamble,” the University of Sydney’s Kerry Brown claims in Foreign Policy:

Perhaps Hu had no choice but to make this gamble. Perhaps the only way to fend off the public’s rising expectations toward government and paper over growing imbalances between wealthy coastal regions and poorer western ones was to keep his foot on the gas. Whatever the case, the country Hu presides over remains as unequal, if not more, than it was the day he ascended to the top in 2002. China may boast more than 96 dollar billionaires now, but 150 million Chinese still live in poverty. The country may have become the second richest in the world on aggregate, but per capita income hovers near 90th, similar to per capita income in Cuba and Namibia. Shanghainese enjoy a per capita income of more than $12,000 a year. Residents of Guizhou, China’s poorest province, earn a mere $2,500 a year. Hu, of course, is likely quite aware of all this. The party is nothing if not mindful of how social instability pulled down the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the Republican government in 1949.

If Hu is successful in transferring power to Xi and his colleagues over the next six months, then the first plank of his legacy will be complete: He will have cemented the institutionalization of party processes and rules, improving China’s political stability. If everything works smoothly over the next few weeks and months, at the National People’s Congress in March, Hu will follow the constitution and retire as president, having served the maximum of two five-year terms. But the bar for success is high: If China’s new leaders are seen as weak and illegitimate, then their ability to push through continuing economic and political reforms will be limited.

After the succession itself, things get trickier. Chinese leaders no longer pretend the current system is optimal. Even Hu talks of the need for reform beyond just fixing the economy. This is, of course, reform with Chinese characteristics — the question is how the party can modernize and run itself more efficiently so that it can maintain a monopoly on power. But if Hu’s successors manage in the next decade to strengthen the rule of law and empower civil society while introducing greater accountability and transparency for the party — all while managing inequality and other structural challenges — then Hu’s gamble will have proven to be the right one.

China “badly needs political and social reform,” writes Ezra Vogel, who insists that “China has lost its way” as Hu Jintao has not embraced the strategy of bold experimentation that Deng Xiaoping once championed. Even Hu’s remarks at The Great Hall of the People this morning reaffirmed the importance of economic growth as the main prescription for China’s problems, observed Charles Hutzler of The Associated Press. It’s true that China’s economic miracle has been unprecedented. But rapid economic growth has also led to a number of the social and political ills that plague China today, from immense income inequality to environmental destruction, for example, and shrinking credibility with a population increasingly frustrated by corruption at the top. In addition, signs have emerged that the economic formula which fueled China’s rise is no longer viable as it enters its next phase of growth.

For Foreign Affairs, Damien Ma judges that Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao will leave behind “an economic legacy that is far from stellar and a society that is shakier than the one they inherited:”

It is little wonder that bottom-up social pressures are building in China and that such pressures risk destabilizing the entire political system. Indeed, the most remarkable transformation that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has undergone in the past decade is not its shift toward market capitalism but rather its evolution into an elitist political organization that enjoys preferential access to economic opportunities at the expense of the average member of the Chinese middle class. A recent flurry of reports from Western journalists exposed that top Chinese officials have accumulated immense wealth with little transparency. Even Wen’s avuncular and humble public image has been shaken by revelations that he may have amassed as much as $2.7 billion. Consequently, achieving greater equality and economic fairness — and therefore mitigating instability — has become as much a political concern for Beijing as an economic one.

Rarely has the Hu administration viewed further political liberalization as the answer to growing economic and social ills. If the incoming Xi administration fails to recognize that political changes are necessary to untangle the complexity of China’s mounting challenges, the CCP could well find its own political resilience seriously tested over the course of the next decade. Tolerating more transparency and accommodating the rule of law are among the key reforms that could mitigate the pressures on the political system. But if Beijing continues to resist, when the next major transition comes in 2021, rather than celebrating its 100th birthday, the CCP could be pondering how it let its power slip away.

Hu will likely retain a reasonable degree of influence within the party after he steps down, as have the leaders who came before him, if for any reason because he is expected to keep control of the military for the time being. If rumors circling at the party congress about the new revamped Politburo Standing Committee lineup are any indication, however, Yanzhong Huang suggests that Hu’s grip on power has already loosened. From the Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog:

Compared to the ordinary Chinese, intellectuals, professionals, and government officials care about the Party Congress – they are generally more informed about the Congress. At the banquet table these officials and intellectuals were open in discussing candidates for the new Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) and patron client ties in China’s officialdom. An updated list of PBSC members is circulating on the eve of the political meeting. To my surprise, many different people talked about the same list. From the list it is clear that President Hu has suffered a huge political setback and former President Jiang Zemin has emerged as a clear winner in the game of power redistribution. Reform minded leaders such as Li Yuanchao and Wang Yang are not included in this list. All of this ultimately might not bode well for the prospect of political reform in China.