Is Hu Jintao just buying time?

In his speech commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party yesterday, President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) spoke for a tensely scripted 72 minutes about the glories of the CCP [English here], its “historic” accomplishments and its “advanced” theoretical frameworks. Avoiding altogether the more sensitive episodes of the Party’s history, Hu’s speech traced China’s coming of age as a modern nation, from the humiliation of the Opium Wars to the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, and on through to the the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the onset of economic reforms.

Not surprisingly, there was plenty of talk of the advanced culture of socialism, but no mention of the Cultural Revolution. There was praise for the “building of the socialist market economy,” but no mention of the economic and political tragedies of the Maoist era, such as the Great Leap Forward, the Anti-rightist Movement and the Great Famine.

The Party’s legacy was described as an unqualified success, a faultless saga of national progress. “All of the accomplishments we have made over the past 90 years are the result of the tenacity and continued struggle of the Chinese Communist Party along with the people. The first generation of central Party leaders of which Mao Zedong was the core led the whole Party, the whole people and the various nationalities of the entire nation in achieving the great victory of the new-democratic revolution, building the basic system of socialism, and setting down the basic political conditions and institutional foundations for all development and progress in China today.”

While emphasizing that Hu Jintao’s speech yesterday can be seen as one of “his most important political declarations ahead of the 18th Party Congress [in 2012],” China Media Project Director Qian Gang (钱钢) said the speech was “completely stable and safe, even lethargic,” and gave every indication that Hu Jintao and China’s current crop of leaders have no intention of taking bolder action, particularly on political reform, to deal with problems currently facing China. Overall, Qian Gang said, the speech suggests that Hu Jintao is “in a situation where he doesn’t dare move forward but doesn’t dare move backward either.”

There is every suggestion in yesterday’s speech that Hu Jintao will maintain the status quo through the remainder of his term in office, and will have a hard time making any concerted move.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Hu’s speech is its overriding emphasis on stability, with stability-related terms buzzwords and phrases appearing with greater frequency than seen in the past three Party anniversary reports delivered by Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao. Here are the four major anniversary reports we have had in the last two decades:

1991: Jiang Zemin’s report to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the CCP
2001: Jiang Zemin’s report to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the CCP
2006: Hu Jintao’s report to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the CCP
2011: Hu Jintao’s report to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the CCP

While the term “stability” appeared 5 times in the 70th anniversary report, 4 in the 80th, and 6 in the 85th, it appeared at least 10 times in yesterday’s speech. The language of stability, moreover, is more hardline than in Hu’s report to the 17th Party Congress, in which he said, “Social stability is the common wish of the people, and an important condition of reform and development.” In yesterday’s speech, Hu Jintao emphasized for the first time that: “Development is the fundamental principle, stability is the fundamental task; Without stability, nothing can be accomplished, and the gains we have already made will also be lost. This principle is something not only comrades throughout the Party must bear firmly in mind, but that the whole people must be induced to bear firmly in mind.” Hu Jintao even included his catchphrase “to not rock the boat,” or bu zheteng (不折腾), in the closing remarks of yesterday’s speech.

Also at issue here is the tug-of-war we have seen happening within the CCP over the past few years, which speaks to deep unease about where the country needs to go. China’s hardline left has clearly enjoyed greater prominence, and almost certainly has wielded greater influence, in recent months.

Keyword frequencies in Hu Jintao’s speech yesterday do seem to indicate something of a leftward shift.

In the political lexicon of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong Thought (毛泽东思想), Deng Xiaoping Theory (邓小平理论), the Three Represents (三个代表) and the Scientific View of Development (科学发展观) are terms representing the political ideas and gravitas of four generations of leaders — Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The relative strength or weakness of these terms is closely tied to shifts in political power. And we can see significant changes in the use of these terms in the four major anniversary reports we have seen in the last two decades, based on Qian Gang’s analysis.

Jiang Zemin’s 1991 report followed on the heels of the Tiananmen Massacre, and economic reforms were stalled at the time, almost a year before Deng Xiaoping’s “southern tour” (南巡). Jiang’s speech that year mentioned “Mao Zedong Thought” 12 times, a clear nod to conservative leaders on the left. But the term declined in each of the successive reports in 2001 and 2006. The reigning terms during the 80th anniversary in 2001 were the “Three Represents,” Jiang Zemin’s signature theory, and “Deng Xiaoping Theory”. But in 2006, both of these terms took a backseat to Hu Jintao’s new buzzword, the “Scientific View of Development.”

In yesterday’s speech, however, we see a startling reshuffle of terms and their relative power. Hu Jintao’s “Scientific View of Development” has plunged, and Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin terminologies similarly show decline. By contrast, “Mao Zedong Thought” is resurgent. So the order of precedence has been flipped: Mao, Jiang-Deng, Hu.

Hu Jintao also mentioned “Scientific Development” (without the full term) several times in the speech, but even when all related instances are factored together they emerge only nine times in the speech, compared to 17 times for the full term in Hu’s 2006 speech to commemorate the Party’s 85th anniversary.

“Deng Xiaoping Theory” and the “Three Represents” have in the past been terms of political strength. But Hu Jintao spoke yesterday of just two “great theoretical achievements” of the Party. The first, he said, was “Mao Zedong Thought”, and the second was the “theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics” (中国特色社会主义理论体系) — which included “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” the “Three Represents” and the “Scientific View of Development.” This packing together of “theoretical achievements” after Mao in fact suggests a weakening of status of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. And, says Qian Gang: “Hu Jintao seems to have given up the ambition of [establishing] the ‘Scientific View of Development’ as his personal political trademark. This is a rather peculiar circumstance.”

Could this signal the fact that China’s top leaders have seen their power eroded ahead of next year’s 18th Party Congress, and that a tug-of-war is underway among the Party’s elite? Is there a new dominant political “theory” waiting in the wings? To what extent can we see the ascendance of “Mao Zedong Thought” in Hu’s speech as a sign of a further leftward shift in Chinese politics?

One of the most notable things about yesterday’s celebration was not just, as Hong Kong media quickly noted, the conspicuous absence of Jiang Zemin, who is rumored to be seriously ill, but the surprising presence of the 94-year-old Song Ping (宋平), a formidable figure who has been called the “king of the left” (左王). Song, long rumored himself to be seriously ill, was out yesterday with an air of return — and seated, it must be noted, at the center of the rostrum along with the former premier Zhu Rongji (朱镕基). Does this mean we can expect a shake-up in Chinese politics ahead of the 18th Party Congress?

These are all things we will have to watch closely.


[ABOVE: Song Ping (bottom left), sometimes called the "king" of China's left, stands next to former premier Zhu Rongji in a position of prominence during yesterday's celebrations.]

While yesterday’s speech does not differ greatly from Hu Jintao’s political report to the 17th Party Congress in 2007, there are a number of points that clearly mark a step back.

Qian Gang says: “He is unable to answer those questions which have received ever more urgent attention in China in recent years: rights defense, the fight against corruption and political reform. He has great praise for the Party’s achievements in the area of democratic politics, but as for the future there is no vision or promise.”

Qian Gang also notes that the formula of the “four rights,” which Hu spoke of in 2007 — namely, the right to know (知情权), right to participate (参与权), right to express (表达权) and right to monitor (监督权) — are completely absent in yesterday’s speech. Nor was there any mention of “supervision by public opinion,” or yulun jiandu (舆论监督), a term routinely appearing in political reports and past anniversary speeches and denoting the importance of the press and public opinion in monitoring power.

The only portion of Hu Jintao’s speech that was not self-congratulatory came in the 24th minute. Following his litany of praise for the historic victories of the Chinese Communist Party and the people of China, Hu said the Party now faces internal challenges that are “more strenuous and pressing than at any point in the past.” He stressed that the Party faces “four dangers” — lost vitality (精神懈怠), insufficient capacity (能力不足), alienation from the people (脱离群众) and rampant corruption (消极腐败).

But while Hu gave a nod to the problem of official corruption, which is now a source of broad public anger, no substantive action was mentioned. He did not, for example, raise the issue of declaration of assets by officials (官员财产申报).

In sum, Hu Jintao’s speech yesterday was cautious in the extreme, a further sign that the mood of glorious celebration in China is backgrounded by a deep unease.

Those professional Chinese media scrambling to take something positive away from the speech, or to use it to advance more liberal agendas, could only seize on that portion dealing with the “four dangers.” This was exactly what news editors at QQ.com did yesterday, playing down the atmosphere of celebration and self-congratulation. The bright red headline at the top reads: “Four dangers now urgently face us.”

7 Comments to “Is Hu Jintao just buying time?”

  1. John says:

    Western pundits have been talking about the political bankruptcy and imminent collapse of the Chinese Communist Party every year since 1989. It’s still there, while quite a few of the pundits have died. The latest mantra is that China’s state-led response to the 2008 world economic crisis has distorted the previously virtuous operation of the market and will lead to economic disaster. Well we will see. The argument conveniently ignores the fact that it was the operation of the market that led to the global crisis in the first place. It also forgets that China has successfully cleaned up non-performing loans and other side-effects of state interventions in the past. Of course China is not immune to crisis. That is putting it mildly. The point is that a regime that survived self-inflicted catastrophes like the GLF and Cultural Revolution as well as internally and externally generated economic crises, has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to adapt and endure. China is currently enjoying remarkable economic success – demonstrated not only by state-led mega-projects but also by a consumer boom driven by rapidly rising living standards that are blindingly obvious to people who live here. So Hu Jintao, while drawing attention to the problem of corruption, said steady as she goes, no political reform. So what? Did anyone but wishful thinkers think he would say anything else?

    By the way, it is really laughable to hear Americans – who are currently involved in at least 4 foreign wars – criticizing the “us vs them” attitudes of others. America’s commentators like to describe its drones and cruise missiles as “public goods” it supplies to the world. That is true political self-delusion.

  2. ltlee says:

    @Dr Jones Jr.
    It is more than dogmatic thoughts. It is a mass delusion according to the authors. And it does not apply to present day China. China does not try to spread its brand of political ideology and the Chinese people do not see spreading such political ideology as legitimate foreign mission. In contrast, western countries invade Iraq and murder its people to spread western democracy. And of course, the so called “universal value” is really not universal.

  3. @ltlee

    Re: the quotation you refer to.
    Interesting thought, but I think what’s being described in the quote could just as easily be seen as dogmatic thought in general: something quite present both in China and elsewhere (i.e. the ubiquitous, vague “West” of comparison). I would have a hard time deciding whether it is better represented in ‘Davos Man’ or in Chinese officialdom, or proponents of an Islamic Ummah for that matter.

  4. Tobias says:

    Similar to Itlee’s comments above, the CCP is completely void of the ability to perceive things differently other than the old ‘us’ versus ‘them’ outlook. It’s why they’re unable to even conceptualize how to talk openly about the cultural revolution, let alone go some length towards addressing the myriad ongoing social problems caused by it. It’s why children are still growing up hating the Japanese, even though they don’t know why. It’s why people like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Wei Wei are still a threat to national security. It’s why banning the use of the name of a flower is seen as a prudent response to different opinions about Chinese politics. Because the CCP has a stranglehold on the future but has no idea what it wants that future to be. It can only continue operating as it always has, with more violence and intimidation than its ‘enemies’ and ‘reformers’ etc. Beat ‘em, lock ‘em, silence ‘em has rarely worked for long periods of time elsewhere in the world, and won’t in China either. The CCP can’t perceive/discuss/form solutions/look to outside help for the increasingly problematic social problems that plague China, because it’s history, like Hu’s speech, avoids even acknowledging the real problems, past or present – hence no future. Just more fast trains and skyscrapers.

    But Hu thinks ‘lost vitality’ is a threat??! This must surely be the funniest thing I’ve read in awhile.

  5. ltlee says:

    @David
    I don’t know you enough to attack you. I also don’t think I know the West enough.
    I can’t see the future. Hence I have no idea concerning the Party’s ability to police itself and for how long. If they can’t, the Party deserved to be kicked out by the people.
    A pair of Westerners, however, wrote the following as an indicator on whether an empire or a political system is about to fall.
    “At the peak, the imperial people come to believe that their system is superior, that their values are universal, and their way of life will inevitably dominate the entire world.” (THE EMPIRE OF DEBT)
    At present, the above describes the west much more than China. No?

  6. David says:

    Itlee:

    Oh boy . . . There you go again, spouting your bitter poison and making an issue (any issue, apparently) about “the West” versus China.

    If a leader in any Western democracy tries to sit on their laurels and argue that history has ended rather than taking action on specific agendas, they will be voted out of office. That’s so elementary, Itlee.

    “It has thus become even more important and urgent than ever before for the Party to police itself and impose strict discipline on its members.”

    I wouldn’t trust any one of my political parties in the U.S. to police itself. How is it you find that idea admirable and encouraging rather than absurd?

    I’m really asking, and I hope you’ll see fit to give that some thought rather than attack me or Westerners or “Western Democracy.”

    Best,
    David

  7. ltlee says:

    Since, 2009, inevitable collapse is discussed regularly.
    http://theory.people.com.cn/GB/10081113.html
    I bet many of the top leaders have come to the realization that they cannot escape the iron rule of “历史周期率,” i.e. inevitable collapse. They, however, can determine whether the CCP reign is good or bad, long or short. Part of Hu’s speech echoes this concern:
    “The entire Party must be keenly aware that at a time of profound changes in global, national and intra-Party conditions, we are now faced with many new developments, problems, and challenges in our effort to enhance the Party’s leadership and governance and its ability to resist corruption and degeneration and to withstand risks, and strengthen its governance capacity and advanced nature. We are facing long-term, complicated and severe tests in governing the country, in implementing reform and opening up and in developing the market economy, as well as tests in the external environment. And the whole Party is confronted with growing danger of lacking in drive, incompetence, divorce from the people, lacking in initiative, and corruption. It has thus become even more important and urgent than ever before for the Party to police itself and impose strict discipline on its members.
    We must recognize the new realities, continue to guide Party building with scientific theories, study and solve major theoretical and practical issues in Party building in a spirit of reform and innovation, focus on building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and accelerating socialist modernization, fully appreciate and apply the law governing the development of Marxist ruling parties, promote comprehensive progress in the great new undertaking of Party building, and make Party building more scientific.”
    In contrast, western leaders appear to take the position that history is ended because they have their Western Democracy.

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