Hu Jintao is arguably the most powerful man on earth. He commands the world’s largest standing army, is the non-elected president of 1.3 billion people, and he leads a country whose economy is expected to quickly overtake Japan’s within the next few years.
In March, 2003, Hu became the president of China, taking over the helm of China’s Communist government as the nation comes to a historic crossroads.
To optimistic outside observers, now is the perfect time for China to emerge peacefully from more than a half century of oppression under the deadliest regime the world has ever seen—the Chinese Communist Party.
With the advent of the Internet (China now boasts the most Internet users in the world, second only to the United States), increasing wealth among a growing middle-class, the defiance of rural peasants, who seem empowered as of late to stage thousands of protests annually, and the growing dissent from inside the Party—it could be the opportune time for China to go the way of the former Soviet Union. 62-year-old Hu Jintao could carve himself a place in the history books alongside Gorbachev as a catalyst for freedom and democracy.
Shortly after his ascent to power, many observers remained optimistic that maybe Hu would loosen the reigns and gradually allow the Chinese people to finally enjoy democracy and actually embrace the rights enshrined in China’s constitution—freedom of speech, of religion, and freedom to assemble. This hope sprang from the fact that early on in his ascent to power, Hu was known to be at odds with his iron-fisted predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
Another possible reason for the optimism that Hu would prove himself a progressive leader opposed to repressive, hard-line tactics is that his father—to whom he was deeply attached—was persecuted to death during the cultural revolution (1966-1976).
Today — more than a year after he assumed the last of the three key roles in China’s leadership — optimism has turned to dismay. Some have called Hu more hard-line than his predecessors — a difficult task, considering his predecessors include the man who ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre (Deng Xiaoping) and Jiang who ordered the ‘eradication’ campaign against Falun Gong, which resulted in the violent suppression of millions.
A Product of the System
One Party academic familiar with Beijing’s inner circles spoke to The Washington Post on conditions of anonymity earlier this year, saying that Hu Jintao “is the ultimate product of the system,”
“He never studied overseas or had much contact with the outside world. He was educated by the system, spent his entire career in the system, and his values are the same as the system's.”
As such, Hu’s approach to addressing the change that appears to be sweeping China has never strayed far from traditional Communist Party remedies.
Protests across the country are reported to have doubled last year, with some attracting crowds in the tens of thousands. The response under Hu’s leadership to some of the largest protests has been extreme: some protesters have been shot and killed, areas have been completely shut down with local residents prohibited from leaving home because authorities fear they might leak news of the incident to news media.
China has also seen a sharp rise in the number of citizens who are turning to the nation’s many government appeals offices to voice their grievances. In response, legislation was recently drafted to deal more efficiently with the petitioners — not to address their concerns, but to more easily punish them.
Hu has tightened the reigns of control over information as well, jailing even more journalists than his predecessor (including roughly 90 reporters and contributors to the Chinese-language edition of The Epoch Times.) Hu has also tightened Internet controls, forbidding the use of words like “human rights” and “Democracy” over Internet communications.
Most sensitive are the words “Falun Gong.” If typed into Google inside China, the entire search engine will shut down temporarily. Needless to say, the 6-year-old government persecution of the spiritual discipline has not relented under Hu.
Campaign to “Unify Thoughts”
In April of this year, a Harvard study found that the most-censored keywords in China had become the Nine Commentaries—the editorial series published by The Epoch Times in November, 2004. The Nine Commentaries reveal in great detail the history of the Chinese Communist Party, its rise to power, destruction of traditional beliefs, and use of violence to sustain power.
Shortly after their publication in Chinese, thousands of Communist Party members began publicly renouncing their membership to the Party and its affiliate organizations. Millions of copies of the Nine Commentaries leaked through the censors into mainland China, prompting a mass exodus of Party members (to date just over 4-million resignations have been logged on the Epoch Times “Quit the Party” website).
Hu’s government responded by handing down automatic prison sentences to anyone caught in possession of the Nine Commentaries. States of near martial law were declared in some areas as police searched homes and cars for copies.
The government has also taken steps to strengthen Communist “ideological education” throughout China. Dubbed “Maintaining the Advancement of the Party,” the campaign has been enacted in all 31 provinces, aiming to “unify the thoughts” of people with Communist ideology and forcing Party members re-take vows of allegiance to the Party. A source who had read one of Hu’s recent speeches concerning the campaign says it spoke in no uncertain terms: “Don't provide a channel for incorrect ideological points of view,” the source quoted Hu as saying in the Washington Post. “When one appears, strike at it, and gain the initiative by subduing the enemy.”
Indeed, troubling indicators abound that Hu is not who we had hoped he would be. As a man who has seen relatively little of the outside world, perhaps his first visit to North America as China’s leader will alter his course.