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01.17.11

China's Man of Mystery

From childhood details expunged from the record to a splendid hall full of forbidden dragons, Newsweek’s Melinda Liu reports on the Chinese president, an intensely private leader that some officials worry is too aloof for the international stage.

From outside the Hu Clan’s splendid ancestral hall, tucked away in Anhui province’s tiny village of Longchuan, there’s no sight of the once forbidden embellishments. But walk inside through the main gate, turn around and there they are: nine intricate dragons covering the huge gate’s wooden frame. Back when the place was built, more than five centuries ago, during the Ming dynasty, only the emperor was allowed to display such images. If the imperial court had known about the Hu clan’s hidden dragons, everyone responsible for the sacrilege would have been at risk of prison or beheading. But with the emblems of ambition facing discreetly inward, the clan survived and prospered.

Photos: Hu Jintao Visits the U.S.

The lesson has not been lost on Hu Jintao, a member of the clan’s 48th generation and the embodiment of Deng Xiaoping’s adage: “Hide your capabilities and bide your time.” After almost eight years as China’s president, he remains a near-total enigma—a startling contrast from the outsize personalities of his predecessors Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and even Jiang Zemin. “He reminds me of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland,” says one former U.S. official who has spent time in close proximity with Hu. Foreign analysts are often baffled by how someone so diffident could be the leader of one of the most powerful nations on earth.  

Hu’s state visit to Washington this week is unlikely to dispel the riddles that surround him. As Beijing views things, this trip isn’t about policy; it’s about picture-perfect appearances. U.S. officials may focus on specific “deliverables” like reviving high-level military talks, boosting imports of U.S. goods, and reining in North Korea’s nuclear-development program. Beijing has its own objectives, such as ending U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and reducing America’s military presence in Asia. Besides, there’s the perennial arm-wrestling over China’s currency, thought by Washington to be provocatively undervalued—a point reiterated by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on the eve of Hu’s visit—but a subject on which Beijing brooks no dictation.

China’s transcendent priority on this visit, however, is to establish face, based on the principle that diplomatic progress depends on mutual respect. Notwithstanding Beijing’s very concrete global strategy, the point is to ensure a flawless show, and Hu has proved he can handle the spotlight when he must, as he did in 2002, on his first official U.S. trip as China’s vice president, chatting with schoolchildren at the Lincoln Memorial and bantering with local politicians.

Yet given a choice, Hu clearly prefers to remain as invisible as possible. “He has absolute commitment to consensus,” says Kerry Brown, a China specialist at the British think tank Chatham House. “No speech has any personal tone, no interviews where he would step out of this, no indication of a private life.” Brown, who is writing a book on Hu, says the approach serves excellently in Chinese politics, but it’s another matter in international negotiations. “There is, of course, a huge problem with the way China speaks to the world,” says Brown. “He is so anonymous, empty, almost like the Man Without Qualities. And this makes it very tough for those speaking on behalf of China to feel that they’ve got the top man behind them.”

Westerners can have difficulty comprehending a public figure so intensely private. Even many Chinese are unaware of such basic details of their president’s life as the fact that he was raised by an aunt after his mother died when he was 7. Over the years almost every hint of personality has been expunged from published accounts of Hu’s history. Back in his school days, for example, he was known not only as a scholar but also as a singer, dancer, and table-tennis player, and the press often mentioned those talents in the late 1990s, when he was vice president. But tales of his participation in a university song-and-dance team in the 1960s disappeared from domestic media before he became president. Any mention of his “occasionally dancing solo at parties” in the 1980s during Communist Youth League functions vanished from his official biography as well. More recently, a Chinese journalist was sacked after reporting that Hu suffers from diabetes; apparently the president’s totally controllable case of the illness is considered a “state secret."

Information is even harder to find regarding Hu’s experiences during the 1966–'76 Cultural Revolution. When it began, he was a 23-year-old graduate student in engineering, a party member, and a political instructor at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, indoctrinating students in Marxist theory. He had been labeled “red and expert,” a potential rising star, but by 1968, Hu was at least temporarily sidelined. As mentioned in Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s book How China’s Leaders Think, unconfirmed reports say Hu was criticized and denounced by Maoist hardliners, who then let him off.  

Hu’s father was less fortunate. A tea merchant in the Jiangsu-province city of Taizhou, he was falsely accused of embezzlement by radicals who tortured and imprisoned him. He never recovered his health and died 10 years later at the age of 50. On news of his death, Hu rushed home from his party duties in remote western China, hoping to persuade local authorities to grant a posthumous rehabilitation. He invited them to a local restaurant where they could discuss the case together over a lavish feast, but the apparatchiks never showed up. After hours of waiting, Hu told the restaurant’s staff they could have the food. Townspeople say he swore never to return to Taizhou, and he has apparently kept his word.

But despite the cruelty of the Red Guards and the highhanded behavior of the Taizhou cadres, Hu never lost faith in the party. In 1968 he volunteered for assignment to a hydroelectric station in remote Gansu province, where his prodigious memory, said to be photographic, drew praise from provincial Governor Song Ping, who became his longtime mentor. “A walking map of Gansu,” Song called him. With Song’s support, he won admission in 1981 to the Central Party School, where China’s future leaders are groomed. One of his classmates was Deng Nan, the daughter of then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, another connection that helped Hu’s career.

Hu pursued his ambitions single-mindedly but unobtrusively. By 1984 he rose to become head of the group that remains his power base to this day, the party’s Communist Youth League, but he kept moving and became party secretary of Tibet in 1988—not long before ethnic Tibetan protests erupted in Lhasa. By some accounts he vacillated at first, but when the unrest intensified he cracked down. The restoration of order in his area won high marks from party elders, especially after the Tiananmen Square protests a few months later showed just how out of control things could get.

With the backing of Deng and of his mentor Song, Hu became heir apparent to then-president Jiang Zemin, although the flamboyant Jiang didn’t especially like Hu. Time and again, Hu emerged as a compromise figure who would “be promoted when his nominal patrons were at each other’s throats,” as Rand Corporation China analyst Murray Scot Tanner puts it. And yet Hu represented a break from the past. For one thing, he’s the first leader of communist China known to be descended from feudal aristocracy. And where Mao and Deng were revolutionary leaders themselves, and Jiang the son of a revolutionary hero, Hu was pro-Soviet in his formative years. “He took in a lot of Soviet propaganda without asking proper questions,” says Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a Hong Kong–based senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation. “Almost as much as Jiang Zemin was considered pro-American, many consider Hu to be pro-Russian.”

Even so, Hu was once thought to have liberal leanings. As head of the Central Party School from 1993 until he became party chief in 2002, Hu encouraged research on subjects such as direct elections, political reform, and European social-democratic parties. China watchers began speculating that as president he might consider refurbishing the Chinese Communist Party’s antiquated Leninist system along European lines. They’ve been disappointed; he didn’t even change the name to the Chinese Socialist Party, as some imagined he might.

How does Hu regard America? In the ’90s he was quoted as warning a secret party meeting that one of Washington’s strategic objectives was to “strangle China’s development.” And when anti-U.S. fury erupted in 1999, after NATO aircraft mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Balkan wars, Hu was assigned to calm the storm. He appeared on national television like a deer in the headlights, woodenly urging protesters to act “in good order and according to law.” They didn’t, setting fire to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu, to which they’d been bused.

Over the years almost every hint of personality has been expunged from published accounts of Hu’s history. Back in his school days, for example, he was known not only as a scholar but also as a singer.

Much has transpired in the decade since to suggest that Hu could be China’s last apparatchik president. “Chinese society has changed,” says Cheng Li, a Sinologist at the Brookings Institution. “Many people want leaders to be more accessible, to have more personality.” Hu’s heir apparent, Vice President Xi Jinping, is scheduled to take over next year and is far less shy about making headlines and meeting Westerners. His glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan, is China’s most famous folk singer, and last fall their daughter enrolled (under a pseudonym) as a freshman at Harvard. If Hu was the man to lead China through a period of hiding its capabilities and biding its time, many young Chinese say the country needs to start actively strutting its stuff. America may yet miss the hidden dragons.

With Isaac Stone Fish.