Ever since he assumed the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 2002, Hu Jintao has initiated a course correction, even while maintaining the broad path of reforms and an open door. In four years time, he and Premier Wen Jiabao have led everyone in today’s China to talk about what they call the scientific concept of development to build a harmonious society. It essentially means working towards comprehensive and balanced development that reduces gaps among groups and regions and is ecologically sustainable.
Despite high growth rates and rising per capita income during the period of reforms that started in 1978, China’s social and environmental problems had become so serious that its fourth generation leadership has declared the building of a harmonious society as the strategic goal for 2020. That was the main task announced at the sixth plenum of the CPC Central Committee last month.
Hu Jintao is the first leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to come to power in an orderly succession process. His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was nominated to the post of party general secretary by Deng Xiaoping in 1989, after the Tiananmen demonstrations were suppressed by the Chinese army. He had replaced Zhao Ziyang, blamed for his liberal attitude towards students and the youth. Two years earlier, Hu Yaobang had been removed for the same reason.
Following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, there was a coup attempt by the ‘Gang of Four’, which was frustrated by Mao’s designated successor, Hua Guofeng. Deng Xiaoping rallied the bulk of the Party and the army and came to power at the CPC plenum in December 1978. He then inaugurated the new historic period of reforms. It is said that even before he died in 1997, Deng had suggested that Hu Jintao succeed Jiang Zemin.
A hydraulic engineer trained in Beijing’s Qinghua University, Hu came to public notice when he served as the leader of the Youth League in the early reform years. Today, his colleagues from that period, like Liaoning Party Secretary Li Keqiang, are slowly emerging as his support base. Hu’s stint as party secretary of Tibet saw the new policy of opening Tibet to tourists and investors and encouraging religious freedom, together with tough measures against rebellious forces. Thereafter, his assignment to poverty-stricken Gansu province saw special programmes for the underdeveloped western region. At the time of his elevation as party general secretary, he was the president of the Central Party School for many years, besides being a member of the Politbureau Standing Committee and the PRC Vice-President. In that capacity, he had much to do with the now famous theoretical formulations — ‘Deng Xiaoping theory of building socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and Jiang Zemin’s ‘important thought of three represents’.
Thus, Hu carries with him a rich experience of dealing with ethnic issues and problems of backward regions besides the skills of a theoretician. He did not, however, have much international experience. But during the last four years, he seems to have made that up by pursuing an active agenda of foreign policy together with Wen Jiabao.
The first two years of Hu Jintao’s leadership were devoted to completing the process of leadership transition. In 2003, Hu assumed the office of the PRC President and Chairperson of the Party Military Commission. The first glimpse of the new leadership’s perspective was visible in 2004, when the fourth plenum of the CPC passed a resolution on enhancing the governing capacity of the Party, directly addressing the issues of corruption, abuse of power and increasing social inequality and regional disparity. It warned that unless the Party worked with the idea of “putting people first”, it might lose power.
The new perspective was concretised in China’s Eleventh Five-Year Plan adopted in October 2005. One major point of continuity with the Jiang Zemin era was a reiteration of the target set in 1995 to double the 2000 GDP by 2010. That was along Deng Xiaoping’s line of quadrupling the GDP of 1980 by 2000, which was accomplished.
There were two additional commitments with the plan. One was to efficiently utilise resources and reduce energy consumption per unit of GDP by 20 per cent by 2010. This responds to the growing energy crisis and environment degradation. The second set of goals consisted of achieving the universal nine-year education, developing a sound social security system and significantly improving the quality of life of the urban and rural population and developing the backward regions.
The plenum announced a commitment to build a “new socialist countryside” to tackle three serious “rural problems”. These are: low productivity in agriculture — foodgrain production has fallen below 500 million tonnes; low income of peasants — urban residents’ average income is more than three times that of the rural people; and poor facilities of education, health and general infrastructure in rural areas. Earlier this year, Wen Jiabao announced a series of policies to implement the new rural programme, including the abolition of the 2,000-year-old agricultural tax. Massive central financial support for education and health in rural areas, especially poor regions, has also been announced.
The removal of Shanghai Party Secretary and Politbureau member Chen Liangyu last September on corruption charges — he is said to have misused the city pension funds for illegal real estate development — has signalled Hu Jintao’s effort to send a serious message on fighting corruption. The only other high level leader to be dismissed and prosecuted was Beijing leader Chen Xitong in 1995. But this step has also been interpreted as Hu’s effort to consolidate his leadership of the Party by removing a progeny of Jiang Zemin. Jiang’s other known ally, Zeng Qinghong from Shanghai, is now PRC Vice-President and a close comrade of Hu. Hu’s political strategy was also evident in the reshuffling of military commanders and appointment of media heads.
Political reforms, however, continue to come slow in the name of maintaining stability to carry on economic development. Freedom of the press remains extensive, but with periodic clampdowns. The multi-candidate competitive elections that came into force in 1998 at the village committee level — India’s panchayat — has still not been extended to even the township (block) level.
Yet, rule of law has been stressed in practice more than ever before. Entrepreneurs and intellectuals enjoy much freedom in today’s China. China’s Parliament was officially informed that there were 87,000 incidents of mass protest in 2005 in China. There are several cases of development projects having been dropped as a result of people’s protest. Cases of acquisition of rural land for industries have been subjected to severe restrictions. Undoubtedly, these are not enough as ‘people first’ policies.
With one year to go before the 17th Party Congress meets to give Hu Jintao another five-year term — his last — he has unfolded a distinct perspective of directing China’s fast growth in the direction of ‘equity and social justice’ and reducing factors that create disharmony in society. This is the leader India receives today, one who has promised to “turn a new leaf” in India-China relations.
Manoranjan Mohanty is Co-Chairperson, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi