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Hu Jintao

Why the world needs boring but effective leaders like Hu Jintao, rather than trumpeting swans and political peacocks

Tom Plate says on a global stage full of loud-mouthed politicians, there is definitely a role for Hu’s style of supposedly staid, colourless leadership

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 June, 2016, 4:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 3:08pm

Stumped by Trump? Horrified by Hillary? Apprehensive about America? As a therapeutic aid, dear distinguished reader, this column proposes to examine – and even appreciate – a totally different style of public leadership: the low-key. Yes, that kind.

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Remember the old days? Remember Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), the predecessor to China’s current leader Xi Jinping (習近平)? The uber-quiet Hu was widely assessed as so low-key as to not even require a key chain. But maybe second thoughts are in order about this whole business of political peacocks that strut their stuff even if they don’t have any.

Let’s start with a little insight from the late, great US writer E. B. White, in his tale The Trumpet of the Swan: “‘All [trumpet] swans are vain,’ explained the cob. ‘It is right for swans to feel proud, graceful – that’s what swans are for’.”

Now apply this to the less graceful world of politics – as in: “All politicians are vain, but it is right for them to feel proud – that’s what politicians are for.” Like swans, perhaps we might say, politicians when they are in full crowing, obnoxious mode are simply being true to themselves. Expecting a political figure to be humble, as for a swan not to be vain, is to fight the nature of things.

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And so this year, as almost everyone in the world knows, a bevy of American trumpeter swans have been winging their way towards the White House. Last week, one of the last still wedging forward – Hillary Clinton – did a sort of politician’s swan dive from the heights of serious public policy to honk back at Donald Trump’s many prior public insults. Originally billed as a foreign policy address, the speech was anything but. Many pro-Hillary commentators and her outright allies applauded, as in: This lady can honk with the worst of them!

There is one other calumny of consequence far worse than ‘crooked’. It is the sin of being ‘colourless’

Maybe, but as we see it: really, there’s nobody that quite trumpets like The Don. Perhaps all Clinton’s swan dive proved is that birds of a political feather do flock together: in public politics, it sometimes seems as if nothing is too vulgar. The Don has already denounced the former US secretary of state and first lady as “crooked”. What could be a worse charge than that?

Ah – there is at least one other calumny of consequence far worse than “crooked”. It is, in today’s value system, the sin of being “colourless”. Colourless – we recall – is exactly what our hard-hearted, colourful Western media dubbed Hu Jintao, who, between 2002 and 2012, served as paramount leader of China. This meant that, for 10 years, he was one of the two most powerful leaders on earth. But the man got scant respect, at least in the West. A US news magazine once dubbed him “the kind of guy you wouldn’t ordinarily think twice about – cautious, colourless and corporate”.

Hu to thank for stronger cross-strait ties

It’s time for a reappraisal of Hu’s true hue – and of “colourless” politicians in general – in a recalibration of leaders whose colourlessness might simply hide a healthy measure of calm reflection. Maybe the Hu style, reflecting collective leadership, was less colourless than properly cautious. “Colourful” flares can trigger explosive flare-ups; a low-key style can prevent relations from going off-key.

Colourlessness is not necessarily the enemy of effectiveness

Here is one telling example: the little-known story of Hu’s state visit to the US in January 2011. To almost everyone’s surprise and relief – on both sides – it went quite well. For his part, China’s president returned home impressed by the possibilities of reducing bilateral tensions and instructed the central government’s propaganda department to tone down the anti-American stuff. That moment of good feeling did not last forever, of course. But the story illustrates the point that colourlessness is not necessarily the enemy of effectiveness. It might even be a symptom of a statesmanship that values quiet results over prideful flamboyance.

By contrast, the current, successor administration in China is anything but colourless. But all the pushing and shoving – rhetorical as well as naval, especially by Beijing, but Washington, too – can make one nostalgic for the balm of calculated colourlessness. The escalating language over who owns what in the South China Sea is producing new tension, triggering an Asian arms race and colouring the very way America and China view each other.

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As the experienced and extremely knowledgeable Susan Shirk, now a University of California professor, and former State Department star in the Bill Clinton administration, once pointed out in a discussion on the US-China relationship: “Over the past several years, Americans have noticed with apprehension a steady drumbeat of [mainland] media messages about America’s supposed ‘containment’ of China that have undoubtedly been officially encouraged. The precedents of Germany and Japan show how this kind of commercialised semi-controlled media, by creating myths and mobilising anger against perceived foreign enemies, can drag a country into war.”

China is, of course, a nuclear power. The entire world would be better off, to be sure, if the US relinquished a substantial portion of its nuclear vanity and compacted it down to China’s more modest arsenal. But, for that day of epiphany to ever come, considerably more mutual trust, reasoned discourse and deft diplomacy will be needed. That’s one good reason to leave open the possibility of appreciation of political leaders who offer the calm of colourlessness rather than the trumpet of The Don. The non-grandstanding Hu style has so much more to say for it than perhaps heretofore acknowledged.

But you can always honk if you don’t agree.

Columnist Tom Plate is a US journalist, author of the Giants of Asia series, and Loyola Marymount University’s distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies