Image credit: James Griffiths
Hu Jintao will step down as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the end of the 18th Party Congress, currently taking place in Beijing, after 10 years as Party leader. While he will not disappear entirely, Hu’s decade at the helm is over, and best forgotten.
In what will likely be his last speech as General Secretary, Hu Jintao attempted to cement his own ‘Scientific Outlook on Development’ theories as equal in Party ideological parlance to ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ or ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’. What Hu does not, perhaps cannot, realise is that, unlike him, Mao and Deng were both dedicated reformers with clearly defined visions. Hu on the other hand has played the role of a steward to the developments and reforms of his predecessors, his biggest achievement is that after ten years he can say “I didn’t fuck it up”.
When Al Gore was Vice President of the United States, a popular joke was that he was so dull that his Secret Service code-name was ‘Al Gore’. Even before he reinvented himself as an environmental campaigner and Nobel Prize winner, Gore possessed a hundred times the personality and charisma of Hu Jintao. Hu’s character, or rather lack of it, is not unapparent because it is obfuscated by Chinese censors, Party insiders and those closest to him have confirmed that Hu really is that dull. In a piece about Hu’s birthplace, Isaac Stone Fish remarks that unlike “Unlike the hometowns of Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao Zedong, the People’s Republic of China’s three previous paramount leaders, Hu’s lacks any trace of personality cult”, he neglects to point out that this is because Hu lacks any trace of a personality.
Hu’s admirers have attempted to pass his lack of personality off as ‘self-control’. In their minds Hu is the ultimate engineer, applying his mind to ensuring economic prosperity and stability, rather than succumbing to the emotional issues of political or legal reform. Supporters point to the collapse of the Soviet Union as an example of political reform happening too early, while the economy was still vulnerable, and ultimately leading to collapse. This ignores the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was an attempt, first and foremost, to promote economic growth. Nor has Hu necessarily done anything to assist economic prosperity rather than simply having the good fortune to come to power as the country’s economic prospects, thanks to Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin’s reforms, were dramatically improving.
Indeed, the outgoing administration’s lack of ambition and vision in the last decade may have left its successors with some near insurmountable problems. The vast monopolies that state owned enterprises (SOEs) have amassed during Hu’s tenure threaten to stymie private sector growth, which most experts agree is vital for China’s continued prosperity. Reformers like outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who has called for the breaking up of state monopolies, have been ignored in favour of maintaining the status quo. Just as the Russian oligarchs amassed vast amounts of wealth and control of the economy during Boris Yeltsin’s flawed privatization reforms, so have China’s SOEs cashed-in on the country’s progress without contributing much of any value. An independent study has found that if government subsidies were taken away, SOEs would lose money. Furthermore, SOEs do not pay dividends to the government as they would traditional shareholders, nor do they generate the tax revenue that privately owned businesses would. Wealth generated is instead amassed by the tiny few who, like the Russian oligarchs, were fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time. These few have become entrenched enemies to change, recognizing that they are the ones with the most to lose.
Hu, despite promising an “harmonious society” with a “synergistic approach” to diverse social issues, has overseen a massive growth in inequality. In a recent poll, 75% of respondents said they saw income disparity as the greatest problem facing China in the next decade. China’s super-rich may be raking in billions, all the while over 150 million live below the poverty line. Per capita income in China is equivalent to that of Angola, while Russians, despite “instability” caused by political reform, make approximately $7,500 more than the Chinese average.
In his final speech, Hu again emphasised the dangers of political reform, and showed that, even as he prepares to give up responsibility, the 69-year-old leader has no new ideas. The speech focused on economic reform, announcing the lofty goal of doubling per capita income by 2020 and the importance of adhering to the “socialist path” and avoiding “Western style” reform. One Weibo user perfectly encapsulated Hu’s vision: “So, we will walk in place until we die.”
An unnamed Party insider told the New York Times in October that many viewed Hu as “worst leader China has had since 1949. Conflicts in society have intensified; monopolistic and antimarket tendencies in the economy seem to have intensified; and there’s been no real progress on reform.” Zhang Weiying, a professor at Peking University, told Bloomberg TV that Hu’s tenure “in terms of social problems is the worst decade; in terms of reform, it’s the lost decade.” It’s hard to argue with them.