As the incumbent Chinese President’s tenure comes to an end, a joyful song of victory can be heard in celebration of what many citizens regard as a brighter tomorrow
January 2012. The year had just begun. The usually soft-spoken chief of the Chinese mainland, Hu Jintao, knows for sure that it will be his last in office.
So his voice is at an unusually high pitch. He calls his people to attention. He has an important message to tell them. He wants them all to listen.
And what he has to tell them is not about his legacy.
“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” Hu says.
“We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.”
China power blogger David Cohen says, “Chinese leaders have long lamented the fact that Western expressions of popular culture and art seem to overshadow those from China. The top-grossing films in China have been Avatar and Transformers 3, and the music of Lady Gaga is as popular here as that of any Chinese pop singer.”
So Hu cannot help but lament, “The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status. The international culture of the West is strong, while we are weak.”
China’s outgoing President clearly understands where the battle must be won—in the Chinese mind.
Hu’s method was geared toward minimizing, if not really neutralizing, Western cultural vestiges in the mainland. Hence, Chinese film regulators allow only 20 foreign movies a year to cash in on China’s hundreds of millions of moviegoers.
Space for Dissent
More interesting than what Hu is saying is what he is not saying. While he addressed China’s cultural war with the West, he is (legitimately) more preoccupied with at least two immediate concerns: his legacy and the future strategy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And he appears to be worried and upset about both.
Hu leaves behind a number of unresolved issues that he inherited 10 years ago from Jiang Zemin: the growing gap between rich and poor, corruption in the party, and China’s moral bankruptcy. Having gone unchecked, these issues seem to have worsened even more.
But thanks to the Internet, globalization, and free market trade put to place during Hu’s presidency, freedom of expression has somehow grown significantly. This, despite China’s so-called Great Firewall that, ironically, Hu also put up. Criticism against China’s communist elite, which used to be impossible to air, can now be spoken of in public without fear of major consequences.
Dissidents can now draw a much wider audience and Chinese netizens can also see what is going on elsewhere in China and beyond. In addition, they can now speak out and debate issues— even fiercely if they wish—over issues that Hu has failed to deal with during his 10-year term. Such debates provide the potential for the Chinese to lay the groundwork for democracy in the mainland.
In short, there now exists a space for public opinion in China and, to his credit, Hu did not attempt to obstruct it.
When he assumed office in March 2003, Hu adopted two ideological slogans that set the stage for his tenure. Now that he prepares to step down, his legacy can be measured against his two chosen slogans.
The first one harks back to Confucian tradition. Hu calls it the “harmonious society.” Set against the backdrop of class struggle during the Cultural Revolution, it encourages both rich and poor to find a way to live together without fighting each other, while the government promises to correct the injustices of Chinese society and combat widespread corruption.
The second slogan, Hu calls “scientific development.” Based on the fundamental principles of Marxist scientific materialism, it embraces a progressive concept of proper research and planning.
This fits in exactly with Hu’s formal training in engineering, which has also proved to be his most important contribution to communist statecraft in the mainland.
China almost lost its roots and morals during the Mao and Deng eras. Fully aware that his dream for China’s modernization could not be fulfilled without a moral framework, Hu appealed to the fusion of Confucian values and Marxist idealism in order to build a new set of morals and ideals.
The fusion, however, is not without its flaws, surfacing mainly in the unrestrained passion for accumulating wealth devoid of solid moral principle. Bo Xilai’s downfall clearly illustrates this.
Despite being the world’s second largest economy, China is yet to become the second strongest. The US is still the strongest, followed by the EU.
According to Deng Yuwen, editor at the Study Times (a newspaper published by the Central Party School), China’s economy under Hu is structurally distorted and of low quality. He points out that it is susceptible to the fluctuations of the external economic environment, which serves as a major obstacle to long-term prosperity.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2009, the government’s economic program has shifted away from reform and restructuring to a mere maintenance of growth, which at the moment is suffering from a downward spiral.
Some consider Hu as the weakest of all leaders the CCP has, so far, produced because his predecessors were able to project more authority. Hu is also the most self-restrained of them all.
Comparing Hu to his predecessor Deng, the New York Times calls Hu a negotiator, a broker of deals and consensus, being unable to truly consolidate power.The newspaper also says that Hu could never have delivered the kind of policy change it took to throw China open the way Deng did 30 years ago.
The Chinese people’s optimism these days is because Hu’s would-be successor Xi Jinping is regarded as an unflinching doer who former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson describes as “the kind of guy who knows how to get things over the line.”
Moreover, Xi is tenacious. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew once said about him, “I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings affect his judgment.”
Print ed: 11/12