Going off-script

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 April, 2012, 12:00am

If all goes according to plan, Hu Jintao will step down from his position as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th party congress to be held later this year. It is supremely ironic that one of the most tightly controlled contemporary leaders of a major country should have his final months in charge, at least of the party, mired in scandal and rumour over the travails of a Politburo colleague, Bo Xilai .

For all those who have studied, worked with and observed Hu, this sort of frenzied excitement would be the last thing he would want.

Once upon a time, Hu raised hopes that he might be a liberal and a reformer. Before he was elevated to the key party, state and army positions between 2002 and 2004, there were some who hoped aloud that he might bring in far-reaching political reforms to match the bold economic ones that China had implemented since 1978. In 2004 and 2005, he and his premier, Wen Jiabao , talked increasingly of the need to address inequalities and imbalances in Chinese society and to do something for the many millions who had lost out on the reform process. But, at the same time as they publicly stated this, there was a scaling back of grass-roots innovations, such as extending village elections to township level.

By the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this tension between a globalised, modernising Chinese economy and its internal repressiveness started to grow. After 2000, China entered a new phase of control and unease at dissidence, and political opposition to the Communist Party internally.

Talk of Hu being a closet liberal is now largely forgotten.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Hu rose to power through a long apprenticeship in the poorer western provinces. He worked in Gansu , Guizhou and Tibet for almost two decades. This has given him a particular view of development. As he has stated about the eruption of problems in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009, the key thing for him is to develop economic capacity. The rest will follow.

His response to unrest in Tibet in 1989 was to authorise the sending in of many thousands of troops. For this, he won the trust of the central leadership, and elevation in 1992 into the all-important Politburo Standing Committee.

That isn't the only reason for Hu's success with Deng Xiaoping and other senior leaders in the 1980s. He was seen from early on as someone who was able to promote consensus within the party, appealing to a broad range of constituencies. He wasn't a princeling, but came from an authentically modest background, his mother dying before he was seven, and his father working as a tea merchant.

He had links to Tsinghua University through his time as a student there at the start of the Cultural Revolution, and to the Communist Youth League, a training ground for the party elite, as its head in the 1980s. He also served as head of the Central Party School in the 1990s. He typified, therefore, the new generation of well-groomed, highly trained administrators, someone with a legendary command of detail, an excellent memory and great skills as a negotiator.

His greatest weakness, at least in China in the period he has been in power, has also been a kind of advantage - very poor communication skills. Hu's speeches are devoid of any personal tone, or biographical details. He has never undertaken any interviews with foreign journalists one to one, apart from with the Russian Interfax agency, and provided answers to written questions for newspapers during his visit to the US in January last year. The idea of him speaking on national television beyond the most tightly scripted events is unthinkable. We have no real idea what books he likes to read, what films he watches, or hobbies he might have.

All this indicates a deeply controlled, and controlling, personality, and that is reflected in his time in power. As Chinese society has grown richer and more contentious (his old university, Tsinghua, stated there were 180,000 'mass incidents' in the country in 2010 alone), its political atmosphere has been highly controlled and, in some ways, sterile.

Only since 2009 has a colleague like Wen talked openly of needing to move beyond economic reforms to sociopolitical ones. It is hard to know how the latest problems around Bo might affect this. Hu's other colleagues on the Politburo Standing Committee, from Wu Bangguo to Li Changchun and Zhou Yongkang , have been conservative, and have spoken openly about the need to guard against any loosening in the ways the party controls information and power.

At a time when the country has over half a billion internet users and 900 million mobile-phone users, and as more and more Chinese travel abroad and become more global in their thinking, the control around Zhongnanhai has never been more striking.

For the leader of a major country, Hu's international profile remains far too low. He is largely unknown beyond political and intellectual elites outside the country - and apparently once even joked to a visiting foreign dignitary within China that he was so little known even within the country he would be unlikely to win an election.

Hu might lead a fifth of humanity, but most trivia quizzes in Europe or North America that asked participants to name the leader of China would probably draw a blank from their participants.

If China manages a smooth fifth-generation leadership transition, and its future leaders start to address its impending sociopolitical challenges and set out to create strong rule of law, enfranchise civil society and allow the Communist Party to become more transparent and better governed, then Hu's legacy will be a powerful one.

But the augurs at the moment, because of the return of tribal politics and intrigue around Bo, don't look good. One thing is for sure. Xi Jinping looks set to be a noisier, more visible leader for China. Compared to Hu, he could hardly have a lower profile.

Kerry Brown will take up appointment as director of the China Studies Centre, University of Sydney, later this year. His book, Hu Jintao: China's Silent Leader, has just been published