The Chinese Regime’s Heir Apparent

He is the heir apparent to leadership of the world’s largest country and largest standing army. He is expected to oversee a spectacular national socioeconomic transformation. Depending on your viewpoint, his country presents the United States with its greatest economic opportunities, most thorny foreign policy dilemmas or most serious long-term security challenges—or all three. But do we know who he is?

The vice president of China, Hu Jintao, will spend this week in the United States, meeting with President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, the Bush administration’s top foreign policy and defense advisers, and Capitol Hill leaders. It is rare for a second in charge to receive such high-level official attention. But at a relatively young 59, Mr. Hu could be pivotal to United States-China relations for the next decade or more.

Yet expectations about this visit should be modest. Mr. Hu is little known in the United States or elsewhere outside of China and remains an enigmatic figure even among Chinese. And there are reasons to be cautious about his future leadership.

Born in one of China’s poorest provinces, Mr. Hu studied hydraulic engineering before the disastrous Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. His career has been characterized by youthful ascent through duty in remote and backward places. At 42, he was the youngest provincial governor when he took charge of Guizhou in 1985. In 1988, he was appointed to govern Tibet, where, in 1989, he oversaw the violent suppression of Tibetan unrest and then maintained control in Lhasa during the Tiananmen crisis. His tough tactics in Tibet quickly won him kudos at home, but is the reason that protesters will dog his trips abroad.

Mr. Hu’s ultimate rise came out of that period of turbulence. The Communist Party was shaken by Tiananmen, and in recovering stability, saw the need to promote younger but loyal men. Mr. Hu, tapped as a star of the “fourth generation” by Deng Xiaoping, was elevated 10 years ago to the Communist Party Political Bureau Standing Committee, where he joined a handful of others—including President Jiang Zemin, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Li Peng, the head of National People’s Congress—at the pinnacle of power. Now he is not only vice president, but vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, a step away from leadership of the world’s largest military.

Like others of his generation, he has little memory of pre-1949 China and the struggle and victory of the Chinese Communists, upon which much of the party’s legitimacy stands. Instead, his formative years saw the most dreadful blunders of the Maoist era: the calamitous Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the mad schemes of the Gang of Four.

But in succeeding in politics during the reform years after 1978, Mr. Hu had to recognize the need for China to pursue a pragmatic course. Many observers, both in China and abroad, have high expectations that he will be a reformer, leading the Chinese regime toward greater openness and political change. Those who meet him agree he cuts an impressive figure: businesslike, confident and able to speak with authority. And yet his career has been successful because he has not made waves and has been a dutiful supporter of Jiang Zemin and the top governing group.

If selected to head the government, party and military, he will need to defer at least in the early years to the “elders,” especially Jiang Zemin, who is expected to step down as party chief in October and to leave the presidency next spring. Like Mr. Jiang, Mr. Hu will operate as “first among equals” in a collective, consensus-oriented leadership structure, which will include many close protégés of Mr. Jiang. Having no military experience, and having served only three years on the Central Military Commission, Mr. Hu will need to be especially careful in his relations with the People’s Liberation Army. And since he is a loyal and well-vetted product of the system, his moves toward political reform are likely to be tentative.

Still, Mr. Hu may be in a stronger position than Mr. Jiang was when he took over in 1989. Mr. Jiang was considered a compromise candidate hurriedly selected in the aftermath of Tiananmen. Mr. Hu has spent a decade observing and surviving the highest reaches of political power; Mr. Jiang returned to Beijing as something of an outsider from his post as mayor of Shanghai. And Mr. Hu’s endorsement by Deng gives him a distinct advantage with China’s elites, who see him as a welcome change from the self-absorbed Mr. Jiang.

But of course, nothing is certain given the tortured history of anointed successors in China: Liu Shaoqi was executed in prison, a victim of the Cultural Revolution; Lin Biao was killed in a mysterious plane crash after a coup attempt; Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were both humiliated and politically exiled for pushing political reform. Reaching for too much can be a dangerous thing.

Mr. Hu’s visit is an important opportunity and a bit of a test. American diplomats will be able to take measure of the presumptive leader while conveying messages about the promise and problems in United States-China relations. Mr. Hu’s performance will be keenly analyzed in Beijing. He will have to use the American stage to perform a three-part balancing act: make a good impression; adhere to core Chinese positions on touchy issues like Taiwan, human rights and missile nonproliferation; and avoid upstaging his bosses back home.