As China completes its first peaceful transfer of power to its fourth generation Communist leadership, with Hu Jintao at its head, attention has begun to focus on Hu’s future vision. Hu has said very little, and only exhorted party cadres to understand and implement the ‘Three Represents’ of President Jiang. Hence, these debates on Hu’s future vision continue to rely on (a) what Hu has been doing and (b) his image as China’s young leader who is seen as one who believes in doing rather than debating. Hu’s colleagues generally describe him as being highly persuasive, very firm on principles yet flexible on tactics and, above all, very good at coping with the most complicated situations without losing his nerve.
Indeed, it is his apparently agreeable low-profile in China’s policy debates that has prompted Hu, as being the strong leader in practice. And here, among others, it is Hu’s success as Tibet’s Party Chief during Tibet’s restive period, 1988-1992, and his continued attachment to Tibet related issues that has come into focus. He was not only the youngest person to take an independent charge of this sensitive region but also the first non-military person to be trusted by the Central leaders. The fact that Hu was so successful in Gansu and Guizhou – China’s most poor and backward regions occupied by China’s minorities – is perhaps what had made him credible for taking over as Tibet Party Chief at the young age of exactly 46 years.
It was a coincidence that Hu’s tenure in Tibet (1988-1992) happened to be eventful for Tibet and China. In Tibet, unrest began from the day after the official announcement of his appointment due to the mysterious death of the rebellious Panchen Lama. His controlling this rising tide of unrest with a heavy hand established his credentials as one who could coordinate and command men in uniform. He was also the first one in 1989 to support the Central Party’s action in clearing the Tiananmen Square in June that year. Hu was also known in Tibet for his expanding the family planning program to Tibet’s remote counties and for economic reforms that would result in unprecedented price rises a few years later.
Hu achieved all this during his short 18-month tenure, during which President Jiang visited Tibet which demonstrated that Hu enjoyed the backing of Central Party leaders. However, his living in Tibet resulted in his developing ‘altitude sickness’, which brought him back to Beijing in October 1990, where he remained to ‘recuperate’ for the rest of his tenure as Tibet’s Party Secretary until 1992. At the end, Hu emerged as an official interlocutor on China’s Nationality policy initiatives and the Tibet question in particular. Most remarkably, Hu was successful in gaining proximity to Deng Xiaoping despite being far from Beijing politics, posted in remote and backward regions.
Indeed, it was while ‘recuperating’ as Tibet Party Chief in Beijing during October 1990-1992 that Hu strengthened his relations with Deng Xiaoping. Later, Hu became executive director of the Party’s all-powerful Organisation Department and the man behind the paper work for organizing China’s 14th Party Congress in 1992. This is where difficult bargains were struck amongst various factions to enthrone Jiang as General Secretary of China’s Communist Party (CCP). Hu managed to become the youngest ever member of the Standing Committee of the Politbureau of the Central Committee of the CCP. He began to be projected as Jiang’s heir apparent. He then used the 50th anniversary of Tibet’s ‘liberation’ to establish himself as this region’s spokesman and of China’s other minority and backward regions.
Hu’s tenure as Tibet’s Party Chief did not earn him any favourable image amongst Tibet’s external sympathizers, as he is known to have adopted a tough position, although his charm offensive during recent high-profile visits have tried to convey the opposite belief. But Hu enjoys greater acceptance amongst Tibetan leaders, including His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, who see hope in him. For the record, Hu has been involved in Beijing’s parleys with representatives of the Dalai Lama and enjoyed a certain confidence amongst Tibetan leaders during the late 1990s. He is also believed to have an important say in the revival of that dialogue by China this summer.
It is still not clearly known what is his enduring vision for Tibet’s future, although he is bound to have far greater knowledge (and possibly far greater interest) on Tibetan issues than any of his predecessors.