Hu Jintao

Does he really run China?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Most Americans don’t know who Hu Jintao is, even after the Chinese government he leads disastrously bungled its response to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. Normally, not knowing the name of the most important political figure in the world’s largest country would constitute yet another occasion for rapping the average American’s ignorance of foreign affairs. But in this case, that’s unfair. Until recently, most Chinese weren’t sure who the most important political figure in their country was, either.

The Chinese political system is so opaque that when Hu was named general secretary of China’s Communist Party in November, no one could be certain that he was actually running the country (even though the job is supposed to be the most powerful one in China). After all, the outgoing General Secretary Jiang Zemin retained his position as the head of the Chinese military, and Jiang’s predecessor, Deng Xiaoping, had maintained a significant power base in the party long after he relinquished ceremonial control. But the political crisis that erupted in China this week—the sacking of two officials for covering up the extent of SARS, the government’s admission that it had mismanaged the emergency, and its subsequent apology for doing so—taught China-watchers two lessons about Hu Jintao: He controls more of the Chinese Communist Party than many had previously believed, and he controls less of China than you may have thought.

When the 60-year-old Hu took control last fall, the most noteworthy thing about him was how little was known about him despite his long tenure as the chosen successor to Jiang Zemin. Waiting in the wings to take over the Chinese Communist Party is one of the world’s literal dead-end jobs: In the history of Chinese communism, no previous chosen successor had managed to actually assume power. They were always purged before the transition was complete. Hu became the first to pull off the trick by being quiet, patient, and deferential. As the Chicago Tribune put it, “It has taken extraordinary skill to remain such a cipher.”

Hu is still something of a mystery man, but one of the most interesting things about his tenure so far is how he has continued to be deferential, for a Communist, at least. Both Hu and the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, seem to take public opinion into account before settling on a course of action. Like American politicians, they try to play up their affinity with rural provinces rather than with coastal elites. That’s in direct contrast to Jiang, whose policies emphasized wealthy urbanites over poor farmers. More striking, in the SARS crisis public opinion appeared to actually make a difference in the government’s behavior.

The economic reforms that China has undertaken over the past two decades have created a burgeoning middle class with the potential to undermine the regime. When the government lied about SARS to its people, these Chinese citizens turned to foreign news sources on the Internet, or traded text messages to each other over their cell phones, in order to discover more reliable information. Eventually, the disconnect between what the government was saying and what the people knew to be true forced the government to act. Whether Hu wanted to admit to wrongdoing or not (the Washington Post reported that he and Wen personally approved the SARS cover-up), he didn’t have much of a choice. “As the playing field between the state and the society becomes more and more level, the state is afraid of the society, and trying to stay on its good side. You didn’t see that 20 years ago,” says Bruce Gilley, co-author of China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files. “To the extent that he’s concerned about his government’s performance, if only for his own sake, that’s important.”

Some argue that Hu is bending to international opinion, rather than Chinese public opinion. Noting the inattention paid to China’s much worse (but mostly ignored internationally) AIDS crisis, a critical article in the Far Eastern Economic Review charged that Hu’s belated reaction to the SARS crisis was prompted only by concerns about China’s economy and its reputation. But even that argument concedes that the Communists no longer have complete control over the country. International opinion and international organizations can compel the Chinese government to change.

To the extent that that’s true, it vindicates the proponents of engagement with China, who argued that by inviting China into the international community, the world would be able to exert more pressure on the Communist regime to comport with international norms. “If China was still closed, if there weren’t that many international travelers in China, the SARS issue wouldn’t be such an issue today,” says Suisheng Zhao, executive director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver. Even the much-criticized decision to hand Beijing the 2008 Olympics may have encouraged Chinese officials to act. They couldn’t be looking forward to the embarrassing prospect of decathletes in surgical masks.

Many people believe that China’s improving economy protects the ruling party rather than undermining it. But most revolutions are caused by rising expectations, not falling ones. That’s why speculation that focuses on the direction China’s leaders want to take is shortsighted. Is Hu a reformer? Is he a hard-liner? If not Hu, who? If not now, Wen? In the short run, it matters who Hu Jintao is. But in the long run, the American public is right to ignore him. There are forces more powerful than men.