Fri, Oct 27, 2006 - Page 8 News List

The man with the wooden mask

By Willy Wo-lap Lam 林和立

Ever since he became the general-secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and president of the Peoples' Republic of China four years ago, Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) has remained infuriatingly wooden-faced and opaque. Over the past year, however, the shroud of mystery has begun to drop.

Hu's unbridled glorification of "Mao Zedong (毛澤東) Thought," coupled with his suppression of dissent in the media, has begun not only to reveal a true authoritarian, but also to belie the wishful thinking of liberals, both inside and outside China, who hoped that Hu would be a reform-minded leader.

It was the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) who in 1992 made the surprising demand that Hu, former secretary of the Communist Youth League and protege of ousted party chief Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), be inducted into the CCP's Politburo Standing Committee. Deng, in effect, personally designated Hu as successor to president Jiang Zemin (江澤民).

As Deng had crushed the protesters in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989, Hu had proven himself to be "firm and resolute" in quelling anti-Beijing riots in Lhasa, Tibet, two months earlier. Both understood the dangers of political reform.

Hu, a life-long CCP functionary, was able to fool most observers during his first year in office. He and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) -- often called a latter-day Zhou Enlai (周恩來) for his administrative abilities and willingness to play second fiddle -- rolled out one impressive slogan after another: "Put people first," "Run the country according to law," "Render the media closer to the people" and "Make government transparent." The leadership seemed to be moving away from the ancien regime of Jiang.

Hu pledged to replace Deng's elitist ethos of "letting one part of the population get rich first" -- a policy that has produced a staggering wealth gap -- with a more egalitarian approach. As part of his government's efforts "to construct a harmonious society," a tax on agricultural produce was scrapped last year, while the State Council vowed to boost annual investment in rural infrastructure.

But Hu's administration invariably slams on the brakes when-ever their "put-people-first" initiatives begin to threaten the CCP's rule. Hu's Politburo has consistently refused to let peasants set up non-official farmers' associations or trade unions. At the same time, it has allowed farmers across China to fall victim to an epidemic of illegal land grabs by local governments and developers.

Not only has Hu's administration failed to protect the rights of the poor and the oppressed, but police and government-hired thugs now frequently harass lawyers and other activists who lobby on behalf of the country's dispossessed. Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠), a blind lawyer -- famous for exposing a forced abortion scandal in Shandong -- was given a four-year jail term on the dubious charge of "organizing a mob to disturb traffic."

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Hu's rule is his failure to reform the government's outmoded institutions. In a landmark speech on administrative restructuring in 1980, Deng underscored the urgency of bringing about a "separation of party and government."

Hu, by contrast, seems to find little fault with the status quo, under which the CCP remains in charge of not only government, but also state enterprises.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that Hu will continue to rely on a variety of politically retrograde propaganda tactics. He has revived the use of ideological campaigns, akin to those used during the Cultural Revolution, such as a requirement that party members study the Collected Works of Jiang Zemin.

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