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China’s Vice President: Hu Jintao

May 2, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Given the honor of opening one of capitalism’s shrines in New York: A man waiting to become one of the world’s top communists. 59-year-old Hu Jintao is expected to assume the presidency of China next spring.

He came to the U.S. this week in an act of diplomatic reciprocity, following up on President Bush’s Beijing trip in February. The trip came at a prickly time in U.S. – China relations. That’s because of new rifts over Taiwan, the island that People’s Republican considers a breakaway province.

Last month, when Taiwan’s defense minister came to the U.S. and met the Pentagon’s number-two man, Paul Wolfowitz, Beijing charged Washington with “betrayal.” Chinese officials were further upset when President Bush last month called the island a “country.”

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: That’s important to recognize and to welcome both countries– both the Republic of Taiwan and of course to China– into the World Trade Organization.

RAY SUAREZ: The Chinese leader, who’s criticized what he calls American “interference” on the Taiwan issue, referred to Washington last week when he said China “opposes the strong lording it over the weak.”

Yesterday in Washington, President Bush told Hu he was “pleased with the state of U.S. China relations.” But in a speech a few hours later, Vice President Hu brought up the Taiwan friction’s, noting the large weapons package that Taipei bought from Washington last year.

HU JINTAO, Vice President, China: If any trouble occurs on the Taiwan question, it would be difficult for China-U.S. relations to move forward, and retrogression may even occur. Selling sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan or upgrading U.S. Taiwan relations is inconsistent with the foregoing commitments, serving neither peace and the stability of the Taiwan Straits, nor China-U.S. relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: As for Hu’s personality, it’s largely unknown beyond his standard party rhetoric. He was tapped to join China’s new generation of leaders a decade ago, by then-leader Deng Xiaoping. Hu becomes Communist Party chairman this fall.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on Hu Jintao, we get two perspectives. John Tkacik was the chief of the China division at State Department’s intelligence and research bureau in the early 1990s. He is now a research fellow at the Asian Studies Center of the Heritage Foundation.

And Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He was born in China and is now a U.S. citizen.

Well, Gentlemen, let’s start with the visit itself. Why was it important? Why did it seem to be important by both sides for Hu Jintao to come here?

MINXIN PEI: I think for Mr. Hu it is an important step to establish his diplomatic credentials although he’s been to Europe and to Africa, this is, I think, the most important test where he can show that he can handle the only superpower in the world.

JOHN TKACIK: Well, I think it was also an introductory visit. This is a “getting to know you” kind of thing. The State Department released a text of Vice President Cheney’s invitation to Hu Jintao.

It basically said we are two great powers. It is important for the leaders of those two powers to meet and will you please come to the United States. I think that was… that’s pretty much the significance of it. It was a handshaking session; it was getting to know you. I think it was very successful.

MINXIN PEI: Also I think U.S.-China relations need constant maintenance. This is a relationship in which top-level attention is required practically all the time because of the various issues involved, top-level direct exchange is absolutely necessary to maintain trust and to keep conflict to a minimal.

RAY SUAREZ: So what should Americans trying to take the measure of this Chinese vice president know about him as they get to know him better? What’s important about the past and the road he took to become the hare apparent?

JOHN TKACIK: Well, Hu Jintao is both smart and lucky. A lot of that relies on the fact that he graduated from Ching-Wa University, which is one of China’s top schools if not the top school.

His mentors and his fellow alumni have looked after him for the last 40 years. But he’s also been very smart in the sense that he’s been in the right places at the right times. He has been a reformist. He was made the youngest party secretary in any province in China. He was the party secretary of Guizhou Province, the poorest in China. He was a reformist and brought a tremendous amount of prosperity in the five years that he was there.

And then because of his reformist credentials he was sent to Tibet in 1989 with the idea that he would mend fences with alienated Tibetan minority. What happened in Tibet was just the opposite. Here again he was lucky and he was smart.

He arrived in Tibet amid a tremendous turmoil. There was two or three months of solid demonstrations against Chinese rule after the death of the Punchin Lama who was the second most revered figure after the Dalai Lama.

Hu Jintao let the demonstrations going on for a number of weeks until he finally said this can’t last any more. He was the one that also liaised with Beijing and the Chung Du military region of which Tibet is part and arranged to bring in about at least 10 divisions of Chinese infantry to lock down the city.

From March of 1989 through the end of the year, Tibet was pacified. This was important because in June of 1989 we had the tenement massacre. The experience at that point led China’s leader Deng Xiaoping, who was a reformist leaders– for 20 years he was the most revered man in China– that gave Deng Xiaoping the sense that Hu Jintao, this young fellow is ripe for the central leadership.

MINXIN PEI: What’s notable about Mr. Hu’s career is that he has had both reformers and conservatives as his political mentors which means that he must have done something right.

He is largely viewed as a consensus leader who understands how to work the Chinese political system from inside. And he’s a very cautious political leader who, in the last ten years, he has really had on-the-job training — managed to develop a very good reputation. I’ve heard from many Chinese who comment on his image. I have not heard anything negative about him as a person. What we do not know is that other than his stellar resume whether he is capable of making very tough decisions with regard to China.

RAY SUAREZ: In lots and lots of profiles of the man that have been written in anticipation of his visit, very few of the writers could quote much that he had said publicly. Some of the quotes were word for word the same thing that he had said on a similar occasion six months earlier. This may point to what? Caution? Or deference to his seniors in the political structure? How are we supposed to understand someone who is so hard to pin down and yet on the verge of becoming the top man in the country?

MINXIN PEI: This is the quintessential surviving skill for an up-and-coming Chinese leader. If you want to get things done in China, the last thing you want to do is to declare your intentions. And then get the attention of your political enemies. Then you cannot get anything done. I think at this stage, it has only right and prudent for him to conceal his cards. Once he consolidates his power, then he can go ahead and implement his agenda, whatever it may be.

RAY SUAREZ: But does that make it hard, John Tkacik, to know what kind of leader he’ll be on specific issues like economic relations between the United States and China, on Taiwan, on defense and the limitation of nuclear and other weapons?

JOHN TKACIK: Well, he has not had foreign policy as his portfolio. His portfolio has been party organization, propaganda, personnel issues, and most importantly, from I think Minxin’s point of view, party training.

He was the president of the party school. I don’t mean — I went to Georgetown University– that’s a different kind of a party school. He went to the central party school, the communist party school, which is the combination of west point and the national war college for the Chinese Communist party. In those ten years, he’s been in the top ranks of the Chinese politburo for ten years. In those ten years he has basically changed a lot of what the party school’s focus was.

I think there is a lot. He has given a lot of very, I think, very useful and informative speeches on financial issues, on corruption, on state enterprises. He was the one that brought financial studies, international trade, and social democratic thought, if you will, into the party school curriculum.

So I think we can look from that and you can say, yes, this man is a reformist, he’s a technocrat, but this doesn’t mean that he’s A… he’s pro- western or that he’s pro-American. I think perhaps the opposite might be true.

RAY SUAREZ: Let me understand a little bit more about the system inside China. He is said to be the next leader. He’s widely expected. These are the words. Everybody’s edging just a little bit. Is there not a constitutional structure that says that when Jiang Zemin goes he becomes the next leader? Why is it speculative rather than certain that he will be the next leader of the party and of the government?

MINXIN PEI: There are several reasons. First of all, among his peers, there is no other strong candidate who can rival him. We know of several possible contenders, but they all have some kind of controversy surrounding them.

So he’s probably the strongest consensus candidate. Second, he was picked by the last great leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, ten years ago so it would take a huge, I think, political struggle to un-pick, to reverse that decision. And we do not believe that the current leadership is willing to have that kind of turmoil on its hands.

RAY SUAREZ: So you think he’s the next guy.

MINXIN PEI: Also over the last ten years he’s worked very carefully and effectively within the party organizational system to develop a network of support. So I think among his peers, he’s probably the strongest leader.

So he’s by my judgment definitely the next leader although we don’t know whether he’s going to be as powerful as the current leader Jiang Zemin is.

RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, John Tkacik, do you agree with that?

JOHN TKACIK: I agree with it. The thing to remember is that no vice president in China has ever succeeded. The fact that he was made vice president in 1998 was taken by everybody as a sign that he was going to be the successor.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thanks a lot.