When Hu Jintao visits the US on Tuesday, the Chinese leader will leave behind in Beijing the most potent totem of his power: the title of general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party.
He’ll be greeted at the White House and a Chicago auto-parts factory as Mr President, a made-for-export alias used mostly for encounters with foreigners.
The morphing of roles flows from the protocol of his mission. But the shift obscures the true nature, and also curious limitations, of Hu’s authority — his stewardship of a sprawling party apparatus that stands above all formal institutions of government but is no longer a rigid monolith obedient to a single leader. It also helps explain why Washington often has so much trouble figuring out who is making decisions in Beijing.
At a time when China looms increasingly large in US economic and security concerns, the distribution of power in Beijing, as well as in Washington, will decide whether the pledges of cooperation that will be made next week by President Obama and the Chinese leader take solid form.
After a tense year that saw frequent verbal clashes, Hu is seeking to reaffirm China’s position as a rising power but also to calm fears over its intentions. The trip “is intended to put the toothpaste back in the tube and stabilise the relationship,” said Aaron Friedberg, a Princeton University professor and a former security affairs adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.
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