It was almost 10 years ago that Time magazine asked, “Who’s Hu?” The question tugged at a thread of hope — that China’s new president, Hu Jintao, might lead the country into a new era of reform and openness.
The same question asked of the “enigmatic Hu Jintao” can now be asked of his equally enigmatic successor, Xi Jinping, though not quite with the same jangle: Who is Xi?
In the case of Hu Jintao, the bloom was off the rose by 2004. I remember sitting at a table of Chinese journalists in Beijing in December that year. The mood was gloomy. There was talk of a new “Winter” of intensified media controls. Finally, investigative reporter Zhao Shilong (赵世龙) tossed out a hopeful remark that hit the table like a wet rag: “I just wish Hu Jintao would show us his true face,” he said. On the opposite side of the table, Freezing Point deputy editor Lu Yuegang (卢跃刚) scowled, “This is his true face!”
(That very month, Wuhan’s New Weekly, of which Zhao Shilong was chief editor, was shut down by authorities. Just over a year later, Lu Yuegang was shuffled over to the research department at China Youth Daily after the high-profile crackdown on Freezing Point.)
[ABOVE: Knowing what China’s leaders think, and how they might act, is a difficult guessing game. And reliable information is hard to come by.]
In 2005 Nicholas Kristof dusted off the “Who’s Hu?” witticism. But by this time all hopes were sunk. Hu was now “the worst leader China has had since Hua Guofeng,” taking the country backward on a whole range of issues.
Obviously, it’s too early to say history is repeating itself. But the questions certainly are being repeated. Who is Xi? Will he be the reformer China needs? Are these the wrong questions?
I had a strong sense of déjà vu this week as I sat down with another veteran journalist facing intimidation by the authorities. The key now, he said, was to watch Xi Jinping after his return from his official tours to Russia and Africa. Then, having officially succeeded Hu Jintao as president at the recent National People’s Congress, and having cemented his leadership status with an overseas tour, Xi might be in a position to make his move.
What move is that? The move to make substantive reforms of the kind many people have been waiting for. Beginning, perhaps, with reforms to the system of re-education through labor and the household register system.
As we wait hopefully, let’s turn to an interesting assessment of the past 10 years by one of China’s most influential thinkers, Sun Liping (孙立平), who happens to have been current president Xi Jinping’s PhD advisor at Tsinghua University.
Sun Liping, who has been an outspoken critic of social inequality in China and the dangers posed by powerful political interests, wrote recently of the past 10 years of the Hu-Wen administration as a “failure of power.”
Interestingly, Sun also talks about the Beijing Olympics as an event that profoundly changed the course of Chinese politics, and for the worse. “Looking back now,” Sun writes, “it might be that the Olympics were something we did that we ought not to have done.”
“The Third Stage in the Failure of Power” (权力溃败的第三阶段)
March 11, 2013
Sun Liping (孙立平)
After we entered the 21st century, and after we experienced a brief period of what was termed a new administration, the trend of failing power grew more and more severe — even becoming the most noticeable characteristic of this era.
The Sun Zhigang Incident brought an end to the custody and repatriation system. SARS drove a current of information openness. There was the Chen Liangyu (陈良宇) case and the fight against corruption.  was a time of what seemed like logical administration and harmony — and people generally had high hopes for the new leadership.
But then, without explanation, the new administration lowered its banners and muffled its drums. It studied the ways of North Korea. Control and stability preservation (维稳) become the salient priority, and this approach was relentless.
How did this change happen? To this day I can’t explain it no matter how hard I try. I’ve asked many friends without getting a real answer. The only thing I can think of is the impact of the Olympic Games, although behind it of course must also be counted the old thought patterns of the new leadership and its lack of confidence.
I’ve long thought that the impact of the Beijing Olympics on China was very deep, much more than a matter of dollars and cents. The highly cautious attitude [of the leadership] in facing such a grand event of this kind profoundly impacted China’s historical path even afterward. The Olympics marked the beginning, it can be said, of the ascendance of the stability preservation regime in China. Looking back now, it might be that the Olympics were something we did that we ought not to have done.
In the 21st century, China’s two most obvious characteristics have been the inflation of power (权力膨胀) and the failure of power (权力溃败), and the way the two of these have woven together. The process of the strengthening of the government’s capacity to extract resources, which had already begun before, concentrated more and more money in the hands of the government [during this decade]. And he who has wealth speaks loudest.
Meanwhile, with the successful hosting of the [Beijing] Olympic Games, the psychology of caution [that had emerged in the years ahead of the Games] transmuted into a fantasy of a national system concentrating forces to do great things. It was against this backdrop that the failure of power became more and more severe. As big money meant bigger influence an attitude of wantonness prevailed, and the national system fostered and encouraged the arbitrary and capricious use of power.
Objectively speaking, over the past 10 years people have strained every single nerve and exhausted themselves physically and mentally. This is because they have employed the most awful means imaginable to deal with an awful situation. Vested interests have now become entrenched, the result being tremendous social unfairness. In dealing with this social unfairness, [the government] is utterly helpless. It can only turn to stability preservation in hopes of ensuring unwelcome things don’t happen.
Preservation of this sort has preserved China right down into the gutter. Not only because it has it contributed to social unfairness and worsened social tensions, but also because it has destroyed the mechanisms for the normal operation of society.
Recently I raised the issue of the “license to do evil” (作恶授权). In stability preservation, the overriding concern is that “nothing happens,” and no one pays any attention to how you achieve that goal. Whatever abuse of power you commit can be justified in the name of stability preservation. Also in the name of stability preservation, any suppression of supervisory powers [such as public opinion] can be justified.