December 21, 2007


Hu Jintao

[W]e would miss something important about Hu's leadership if we were to simply assume that his restraint was a sign of weakness. In reality, the way Hu has negotiated a difficult situation says much about him as a person and about his evolving and distinctive political philosophy. Even though China's revolutionaries spent decades trying to expunge "feudal" culture, Hu has ended up as something of a closet traditionalist whose sense of a political true north derives as much from the Chinese classics, to which he has turned in search of models of concord, as it does from Mao and Marx.

In February 2005, for example, Hu quoted Confucius to party officials, declaring that "harmony is something to be cherished." He and Premier Wen Jiabao regularly proclaim an aspiration to hexie shehui, or a harmonious society. And they often use another slogan, heping jueqi, or peaceful rise, a phrase designed to soothe foreigners worried about the double threat of China's fireball economy and rapidly modernizing military.

Such traditional-sounding rhetoric about harmony and peace — the antithesis of Maoist phrases about class contradictions and anti-imperialist struggle — has been spilling from party propaganda organs. Weary of struggle and strife, contemporary Chinese react almost autonomically to such rhetoric, which evokes the datong, the great harmony, a utopian ideal from the ancient Book of Rites. Hu hopes to attain a latter-day datong through what he calls a "scientific outlook on development," or a pragmatic refocusing on the challenges of poverty, social justice and the environment. Much of his political demeanor seems to suggest a yearning for leadership in the style of a Confucian junzi, or gentleman — one who governs by virtuous example and thus radiates benevolence throughout society.

How, in practice, Hu can use such classical nostrums to help him rule China is far from clear. Rebranding the office of the party General Secretary through rhetorical associations with the past is not guaranteed to help deal with Sudan, Burma, Taiwan and the U.S., never mind China's domestic challenges. Hu, says Yale historian Jonathan Spence, "uses a language that preaches caution and the avoidance of extremes, but seems to have little sense of how to implement changes that will boldly address China's formidable problems." Indeed, just beneath Hu's exhortations about harmony, peaceful rise and benevolent leadership, old Maoist structures remain.

In its own odd way, the association with the failed past is a good symbol for the failing present.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 21, 2007 8:41 AM

After enough historical perspective, the Communist era will be considered simply as another dynasty. And the Maoist terror of the Civil War and Cultural Revolution just a bizarre case where the Emperor belonged to a cult similar to the Yellow Turbans or Red Eyebrows.

The only question is when will it lose the Mandate of Heaven?

Posted by: Chris Durnell at December 21, 2007 12:13 PM