18th Party Congress

President Hu Jintao's legacy seen as one of stability but stagnation

It's been a golden decade under the president, says the state media, but the critics point to social, economic and environmental woes, and growing mistrust between the people and government

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 1:53pm

It's the beginning of the end for Hu Jintao's decade-long reign over the world's last major communist power, with Beijing preparing for a once-in-a-decade leadership succession in just a few weeks' time.

Hu, the head of the People's Republic's fourth generation leadership, is preparing to pass the baton to heir apparent Xi Jinping and a new group of leaders.

In a bid to drown out discordantassessments of the past decade, the party propaganda machine has been at full throttle, lavishing praise on China's accomplishments under Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.

It's been 10 long, hard but glorious years, state media declare. Naturally, that's how 70-year-old Hu wants to be remembered, along with his two pet slogans - the "scientific concept of development" and "building a harmonious society" - enshrined in the party constitution five years ago.

In July, in one of his last key speeches in the run-up to the party's 18th national congress, Hu claimed victory over a "string of severe challenges" along "an extremely bumpy road" since becoming the party's general secretary in November 2002.

Hu appears anxious to secure his own legacy before he steps down from the pinnacle of power, but is also aware that many people take such self-promotion, one of the trademarks of the self-perpetuating communist regime, with a pinch  of salt. He sounded a note of caution in the speech to a group of senior central and local government cadres, many of them poised for key roles after the party congress.

"We are confronting unprecedented opportunities and we have to deal with unprecedented challenges in view of the current domestic and international situation," Xinhua quoted Hu as saying. "We must not be afraid of any risks, or be confused by any distractions."

Hu also warned against the dangers of stagnation and ossification of thinking - terms that critics at home and abroad have used to describe Hu's era and today's China.



While even his critics have been impressed by the glittering economic success of the past decade, they disagree with party apologists over who should be given credit for the nation's increased prosperity.

State media have  listed China's economic strides amid the global downturn - becoming the world's second-largest economy in 2010 and seeing revenue top 10 trillion yuan (HK$12.22 trillion) last year, up 24 per cent year on year - as the biggest achievement of the Hu administration.

But several China specialists in the United States and Professor Zhu Lijia from the Chinese Academy of Governance  say Hu and Wen mostly benefited from the efforts of their predecessors, including former president and party chief Jiang Zemin and former premier Zhu Rongji, whose bold reforms ushered in a period of rapid growth that culminated in today's economic miracle. "The accumulated effect of reform and opening up in the past two decades has helped the country's economy onto the fast track and it doesn't necessarily mean the current administration has done a better job than the previous one in terms of economic policies," Zhu said.

Professor Roderick MacFarquhar,  from Harvard University, said one main contribution of Hu and Wen had been their attempt to "move away from helter-skelter investment in coastal provinces" and seek more balanced development, especially for central and western China.

He said that was something that was neglected by the "catchphrase of the Deng-ist era ¡K some people will get rich before others".

But analysts also said the "golden decade" hailed by state media was an overstatement, glossing over acute social, economic and environmental woes that have yet to be properly addressed and inherent defects of one-party rule, such as unbridled government power and secretive political manoeuvring.

"This is the golden era of Chinese GDP growth and an explosion of productivity, and the era in which China, on aggregate, became a wealthy country," said Professor Kerry Brown,  a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Sydney. "But it is also an era of deepening social and structural issues, of political stagnation, and of the failure to properly solve the problems of all-round growth."

Zhu warned that the authorities' celebration of the golden era overlooked enormous dangers and challenges that could paralyse material prosperity overnight and plunge the country into a full-blown crisis. "It is more of a stagnant decade, if not a decade of retrogression," he said. "The mistrust between the people and the government has reached boiling point, with public confidence in the authorities crumbling amid constant suppression of public opinion. Tough questions have been raised one after another in the past decade, but we have yet to see any of them sincerely addressed."



Despite rapid economic growth, an infrastructure boom in big  cities and a string of populist policies aimed at improving people's well-being, economist Mao Yushi said the authorities had failed to tackle difficult issues such as rebalancing growth and conservation in the controversial 4 trillion yuan economic stimulus package in 2008, or ending the state monopolies which posed a threat to China's nascent market economy.

"Apart from joining the WTO in 2001 [which happened before Hu and Wen took office], we haven't seen much progress in economic reform since the turn of the century," he said. "Instead, we have witnessed the phenomenon of guojin mintui [literally the state advancing as the private sector retreats]."

Professor Yuan Weishi, a historian at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, agreed that Hu had failed to live up to public expectations, with the fourth-generation leadership making little headway in political reform and claiming too much credit for other successes.

He said everyone in the country should be given credit for the modest progress in education, health care and social welfare the country has seen in the past 10 years, not just Hu and Wen.

"It is regrettable that Hu and Wen did not consciously take any steps to push ahead with political reform, which was still considered an alien, destabilising force not to be reckoned with," he said.

Hu's open - albeit belated - handling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003, at the start of his reign, stirred up expectations of political openness and hopes he was a closet liberal, but that turned out not to be the case. His inability to take bold, substantial moves and his lack of appetite for economic and political reform are widely believed to result from his unadventurous personality.

Widely seen as a diffident apparatchik with an ultraconservative  track record who excels at political cunning and tactical manoeuvring, Hu has been billed by many as exemplifying the communist regime's mediocrity.

Unlike his predecessors, MacFarquhar said, Hu did not appear to be a risk-taker  and that impaired his ability to act decisively on many important issues.

Zhu said Hu, among the first generation of technocrats educated and trained after the party took power, appeared more interested in maintaining the status quo than embracing changes that involved risks.

As proof, analysts point to his deliberate vagueness and addiction to propaganda clichˆms and fancy but ambiguous slogans.

Five years ago, in his opening address to the party's last national congress, he mentioned the word democracy more than 60 times. But instead of ushering in a new era of political openness and democratic reform, he has been widely seen as a hardline autocrat who has imposed censorship, limited political freedom and trod on civil rights.



Analysts were not surprised that Hu often resorted to party clichˆms and vapid ideological grandstanding, given his past experience as a political tutor at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University, where he indoctrinated students in Marxist theory.

Rumour has it that a speech he made at a closed-door party conclave in 2004 was more revealing of his thinking. He said the country should learn from North Korea and Cuba in terms of their ability to silence dissent and restrict freedom.

As the fourth-generation leader anointed by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, Hu clearly knows the high stakes involved in maintaining a high economic growth rate for China's "market economy with socialist characteristics" - the source of the party's legitimacy for most Chinese after the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.

And obviously he has his own reasons for not pushing ahead with long-stalled political reforms, which most analysts agree has  been the root cause of stagnation and discontent.

Paraphrasing a term Deng once used, Hu unveiled his ultimate motto, bu zheteng, slang for "don't rock the boat", in a 2008 speech marking the 30th anniversary of the launch of reform and opening up.

It was understood as an attempt to defuse criticism from both advocates of political reform and those opposed to market-driven reform, and was widely seen as showing his true colours as an orthodox Marxist with a Taoist approach to maintaining the status quo.

Zhu said that for Hu, the status quo meant first and foremost the party's monopoly on power and he tended to see grievances and growing disobedience resulting from an avalanche of social woes, such as a yawning wealth gap, rising food and housing prices, corruption and pollution, and calls for Western-style democracy, as threats to his leadership.

"We must be clearly aware that development is of overriding importance and that stability is our overriding task," Hu has often stressed. "If there is no stability, then nothing can be done, and whatever achievements we have made will be lost."

Dr Elisabeth Economy,  director of Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations,  said that whether by design or circumstance, Hu had left virtually no imprint on the outside world.

"It appears less that the current leadership accomplished great things than that the country transformed without a strong leader at the helm," she said. "Even the Chinese economy - arguably one of the great success stories of the past decade - is reportedly plagued by 'vested interests' and reform has been stalled for much of Hu's tenure.

"I think the greatest tragedy of Hu's tenure will be his - and the rest of the Chinese leadership's - failure to make significant progress on their effort to construct a 'harmonious society'."



Analysts said Hu and Wen failed to redress the imbalances of the previous 20 years of "go-go" economic growth. Environmental protection, public health, and social security continued to run a distant second to the imperatives of heavy investment and rapid economic growth.

Brown called the past decade an era of managed contention because although Hu had talked a great deal about a harmonious society, the visible signs of disharmony had increased.

"His greatest failure is his inability to show political courage in addressing some of the structural needs for more accountability in the party and more transparency, and to move towards greater predictability in the political environment through rule of law," Brown said.

Analysts also said that Hu had failed to present a clear image of a rising China or communicate a consistent message about China's vision of the world.

"The evolution in Chinese foreign policy from Deng Xiaoping's low-profile approach to a far more assertive stance, for example, seems less a function of Hu's leadership than a lack of direction or certainty about what kind of power China should be," Economy said.

Although the hosting of the Olympics in Beijing and other international events have been listed among Hu's achievements, Mao said costly efforts to polish China's international image had failed to achieve satisfactory results due to domestic political stagnation.

He said Beijing's suppression of free speech and its ruthless clampdown on dissent and rights activists over the past decade had effectively nullified its efforts to show  the country's economic power and to repair its image as a brutal, dictatorial regime.

"China has clearly been increasingly marginalised and isolated due to its refusal to recognise universal values and grant its people democratic rights," Mao said. "The Olympics may have helped a little, but it could not solve real problems."

Professor Cui Weiping, from the Beijing Film Academy,  lamented that Hu's reign could be best characterised as an era of maintaining stability, resulting in a drastic deterioration of human rights and growing antagonism between the people and government.

"The main feature of the era is that all those who are aggrieved are being guarded against and treated as targets of surveillance," Cui wrote on her microblog. "As a result, the enemies of the state are everywhere to be found and they could be anyone, especially those underprivileged workers and peasants."

MacFarquhar noted the widespread frustration and disillusionment among political activists and intellectuals.

"I believe a lot of intellectuals thought he would be presiding over a much more liberal atmosphere or intellectual life," he said. "But in fact most people will tell you there has been a retreat from what there was under Jiang Zemin."

Professor He Weifang, a law expert from Peking University, said the Hu leadership had turned a deaf ear to widespread public appeals for greater democracy and social justice.

"The past 10 years have seen virtually no progress in the rule of law," he said. "We have seen, on the contrary, setbacks and even backpedalling."

That failure was laid bare by the appointment of Wang Shengjun, a career bureaucrat with no legal education or court experience, as the head of the Supreme People's Court, and the blatant lawlessness and regular political interference seen in high-profile court cases across the country.

The law expert said the stalling of judicial reform was clearly the result of a  lack of progress on political reform. "We have yet to see any preparations for ideological or judicial reform."



Although Hu took the reins from Jiang in 2002 in what was widely seen as the first peaceful transition of power on the mainland, Hu appears to have done little since to make the murky transition process more transparent and accountable.

An example both He and MacFarquhar noted was the removal of former Chongqing  party chief Bo Xilai, a Politburo member who campaigned almost openly for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee until he fell from grace early this year, sparking the worst political crisis in decades.

Despite swirling rumours and conspiracy theories damaging the party's image and the prospects for a smooth leadership transition, Beijing continued its embarrassing silence until very recently due to prolonged behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring and wrangling.

A similar, intense power struggle within the top echelon of power was also laid bare six years ago when former Shanghai party boss Cheng Liangyu, a leading member of the so-called "Shanghai Gang", Jiang's power base, was sacked ahead of the last national party congress.
"It certainly looks as if they had real difficulties coming to decisions as to how to handle the case of Bo," MacFarquhar said.

In an era of burgeoning environmental awareness and internet-based social activism, there have also been more protests over pollution, land rights, civil rights and labour rights, threatening the social stability that is Hu's overriding priority.

"From Sars to Wukan, from Xiamen to Shifang, we have seen direct confrontations between the authorities and a public increasingly aware of their rights," Yuan said. "Frankly, we can't pin our hopes on the authorities, who have been reluctant to relax their controls all along. Only adequate public pressure can help them realise that there is no turning back on democratic reform."

Economy said the extraordinary growth in civil society activism, largely fuelled by the surging number of mainland internet users - expected to hit 600 million by the end of the year - seemed to have caught the authorities by surprise.

The government "seems woefully unprepared for how to deal with the new transparency and accountability demanded by the Chinese people and advanced via the internet", she said.

Intriguingly, after 10 years in power, people still ask "who is Hu?" Even as he is about to step down, Hu remains an enigmatic cipher, largely unknown even to his cronies and acolytes.

Hu's bland, wooden image has been offset by Wen's positioning of himself as an affable champion of ordinary people and, from time to time, an advocate of political reform, but a veil of secrecy still shrouds the government.

MacFarquhar said Hu was a difficult man for foreign leaders to relate to, because he is so tightly buttoned up.

"I think the reason why that is the case is because that's how he got to the top, by not opening himself up for criticism," MacFarquhar said. "He was very diligent and very much stuck to the party line. That, of course, endeared him to his superiors and eventually led to him being general secretary and president."

Yuan attributed glaring differences between Hu and Jiang to their different educational background and personalities.

"Jiang received his college education before the founding of the People's Republic, when the Communist Party used slogans of democracy and freedom to woo the public and garner support," he said. "In comparison, Hu was largely influenced by Soviet-style education when he was trained to be a hydraulic engineer and worked as a political instructor at Tsinghua."

He Weifang said Hu and other members of the fourth-generation leadership had mostly been brought up and educated in the worst of times in China and lacked the vision to make substantive changes.

"They know almost nothing about modern, constitutional government, or human rights and freedom," he said.




November 2002 - Hu Jintao becomes party general secretary at 16th national congress.

November 2002-June 2003 - Sars deaths in Guangdong covered up until disease spreads across nation and sparks global panic. Epidemic kills 348 on the mainland and 299 in Hong Kong. Health Minister Zhang Wenkang and Beijing mayor Meng Xuenong sacked in April.

March 2003 - Hu becomes president and Wen Jiabao becomes premier.

July 2003 - Half a million march in Hong Kong on July 1, protesting against anti-subversion legislation under Article 23. City government shelves proposal a week later.

October 2003 - Yang Liwei becomes China's first astronaut aboard Shenzhou V.

October-November 2004 - Tens of thousands of villagers in Sichuan's Hanyuan county protest against planned Pubugou Dam on Dadu River, clash with armed police in biggest protest since Hu took power.

March 2005 - The NPC ratifies an anti-secession law endorsing the use of "non-peaceful means" of reunification if Taiwan moves towards independence.

April 2005 - Lien Chan, honorary chairman of Taiwan's Kuomintang, meets Hu in Beijing, first meeting in more than half a century between leaders of erstwhile civil war adversaries.

November 2005 - Massive benzene leak from Jilin city chemical plant contaminates Songhua River, leaving millions without drinking water for days. Environment Minister Xie Zhenhua sacked.

January 2006 - Central government eliminates centuries-old rural taxes.

May 2006 - Building of main structure of Three Gorges Dam on Yangtze River completed, 11 years after it began.

September 2006 - Shanghai party boss and Politburo member Chen Liangyu sacked over corruption.

March 2007 - Landmark property law protecting private-ownership rights passed by National People's Congress.

April 2007 - Wen makes "ice-melting" visit to Japan, first by a Chinese premier in seven years.

June 2007 - Thousands rally in Xiamen , Fujian , successfully blocking a petrochemical project because of health and environmental concerns.

March 2008 - Nineteen people killed in rioting in Lhasa that spreads to other areas with large Tibetan populations.

May 2008 - Magnitude 8 earthquake devastates Sichuan and neighbouring provinces, killing more than 87,000 people.

August 2008 - Beijing Olympics.

September 2008 - Infant formula adulterated with melamine kills six children and makes nearly 300,000 ill with kidney ailments.

November 2008 - Beijing launches 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.54 trillion) stimulus package to help China ride out global financial crisis.

July 2009 - Thousands of Uygurs clash with Han Chinese in Urumqi, Xinjiang. At least 197 people killed.

December 2009 - Rights activist Liu Xiaobo jailed for 11 years for inciting subversion of state power. In 2010, Liu wins Nobel Peace Prize.

December 2009 - Wen attends UN climate talks in Copenhagen, where China, the world's largest carbon polluter, is accused of torpedoing treaty on emissions.

June 2010 - Beijing and Taipei sign Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement - the most significant agreement between the two since 1949.

August 2010 - China replaces Japan as world's second largest economy.

February 2011 - Railways minister Liu Zhijun sacked for corruption.

July 2011 - Forty die and at least 192 are injured when two high-speed trains collide in Wenzhou , Zhejiang .

September 2011 - Thousands riot in Wukan village, Guangdong, over seizure of farmland by local officials. Provincial authorities intervene and promise elections for a new village committee - hailed as a milestone for grass-roots democracy.

March 2012 - Bo Xilai sacked as Chongqing party chief after attempted defection in February of municipality's former police chief. Biggest political crisis in more that two decades sees Bo suspended from the Politburo and Central Committee in April after wife, Gu Kailai , named main suspect in November murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Gu given suspended death sentence in August.

April - Blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng escapes house arrest in Shandong and flees to the US embassy in Beijing, helped by fellow activists. Chen and his family are allowed to leave for US in mid-May.

April - Chinese and Philippine vessels engage in stand-off at Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island) in South China Sea. Territorial disputes with Vietnam and Japan escalate soon after.

June - Thousands march in Hong Kong demanding inquiry into mysterious death of June 4 activist Li Wangyang .