Sat, Sep 25, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Tricky days ahead for Hu Jintao and China

By Richard Halloran

The now-complete ascent of Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to the three top posts in China's hierarchy will most likely cause subtle changes in Beijing's relations with the US and neighbors North Korea, South Korea, Japan and other countries in Southeast Asia -- but not on the sensitive issue of Taiwan.

Part of the coming changes will be in style. Hu is regarded as a reserved, even self-effacing technocrat in contrast to the abrasive and sometimes pompous Jiang. Hu is an engineer who has climbed the political ladder by sticking to the party line, avoiding controversy and keeping his own counsel.

Those who look to Hu for political reform will probably be disappointed. He was ruthless in suppressing Tibetans seeking autonomy and religious freedom while he headed the party apparatus there from 1988 to 1992. In recent speeches, Hu has scorned Western democracy as a "blind alley" that would lead China to a "dead end."

And last week, Hu affirmed his belief in the authority of the Communist Party when he lauded "a great solidarity among all political parties, communities, ethnic groups, social groups and all China-loving people under the leadership of the CCP."

As a China hand in the US asserts: "He is a CCP man to the core."

Moreover, Hu is confronted by enormous domestic problems, including 40 percent unemployment and underemployment, an inadequate healthcare system, rampant pollution, a corrupt banking sector, inefficient state-owned enterprises and an uncertain supply of energy and raw materials for China's growing economy.

Thus, Hu may not be as confrontational as Jiang toward the US, particularly when China enjoys a US$150 billion export market there, by far China's largest. Moreover, the US, along with Japan and Taiwan, are major sources of direct foreign investment in China, providing technology and jobs.

Even so, Hu evinces the fear of many Chinese leaders that the US is forging an "arc of containment" around China. A scholar at the Singapore Institute for International Affairs, Eric Teo (張子超), wrote recently: "Beijing is always concerned that Washington could build an anti-China coalition around its periphery."

Hu and the US, however, will continue to make common cause in seeking to dissuade North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons. Hu will likely be tougher on North Korea than Jiang because he is more pragmatic, less ideological and wants to preclude Pyongyang from selling nuclear arms and missiles to other rogue nations or terrorists.

With South Korea, Hu will continue the effort to wean Seoul away from its alliance with the US and to coax the South Koreans into submissive relations with Beijing like those of China's dynastic days. China has asserted that the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryo was actually part of China, a claim that has angered Koreans.

Hu's approach to Japan will apparently differ from that of Jiang, who stirred animosity during his visit to Tokyo in 1998 by accusing Japan of failing to acknowledge its responsibilities for WWII. In contrast, this week in Beijing Hu met with Yohei Kono, speaker of the Diet's lower house, and sought to encourage good relations with a Japan that is becoming more assertive.

On Taiwan, Hu shares the views of Jiang, which is to say that Taiwan belongs to China and China will use military force to conquer the island if people there do not submit. In Hu's presence this week, Jiang said he preferred "peaceful reunification" but that "we shall by no means make the commitment to forsake the use of force. This is a major political principle."

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