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With Hu Jintao Out, No Obstacles Left in Xi Jinping’s Way

🕑 4 min

By Francesco Lasorella

1. Introduction

On 22 October, at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, something unexpected and intriguing happened: the former president of China, Hu Jintao, who was Xi Jinping’s immediate predecessor, was clearly forced and escorted out of the general assembly. The Congress is the most important political event for the nation, in which prominent figures of the party’s ruling class are elected, including the president. On Saturday, the last day of the six-day long congress, Hu Jintao was grabbed by two security personnel, and everyone in the colossal chamber was able to witness it. Nonetheless, no one showed neither a sign of opposition nor astonishment. Instead, all participants opted for an inexpressive poker-face, worthy of a professional gambler. Xi Jinping - seated in the center, with his predecessor next to him on the left - acted cooperatively with the guards, and, obviously, seemed perfectly aware of what was happening.

The official statement of the Chinese government said that Hu did not feel well. Searching on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat, that are directly overseen by the state, there are no search results regarding what happened two weeks ago. Traces of Hu after the event still have not emerged.

Excluding the official narrative, Western media in general are preoccupied with the implications behind what happened. Many of them highlight the immense power that Xi Jinping is gaining, by obtaining a third mandate and surrounding himself with “trustworthy” people. Secrecy, discretion, and unity have always been the key words to describe the apparent functioning of the Chinese government. This event might be a strong signal to a geopolitical scenario that is reshaping itself.

As Hu Jintao was clearly an obstacle in the way of Xi Jinping, it is important to understand who this person is. Therefore, a brief overview of the internal and foreign policies of Hu Jintao’s presidency will be provided, following a direct confrontation with Xi Jinping’s work in the last ten years.

2. Hu Jintao: Deng Xiaoping’s Successor

Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote on Chinese foreign policy reads: “Hide your ambitions and disguise your claws”, meaning that China should spend its energy on building its internal structure, by keeping a low profile on international affairs. To many, this affirmation could seem paradoxical, as Deng Xiaoping was the first president that opened China to foreign investors . Still, he managed to open China’s commerce sector without exposing itself too much to international affairs of diplomatic nature.

Hu Jintao was a declared estimator of Deng Xiaoping, a pupil that will always crave to become his master. Hu’s political ascendance was not determined by a distinct charismatic and innovative personality, it was exactly for the opposite reason since he has always been a diligent and also quite submissive figure. This was the reason for Deng's endorsement.

Under Hu’s presidency, the words of Deng Xiaoping seem to have been followed to the letter. China’s GDP has grown at a yearly rate between eight- and fourteen per cent, allowing itself to become the second largest economic power behind the U.S. Several critiques were, however, drawn on internal affairs regarding pollution, income inequality, and corruption.

Criticisms concentrate around Jintao’s inconclusive and anonymous foreign policy. China’s ambitions in the East China Sea took a strong direction only in the last two years of Hu’s presidency. This sudden change from a more delicate strategy - relying mostly on the so-called soft power - to an imposing policy that included military interventions, resulted in weakened relations in the region that pushed many of those countries closer to the U.S.

The confidence gained through his impressive economic rise, turned into frustration because of an international image that appointed China as a threat, and that, consequently, prevented it from reaching its coveted place as a superpower.

3. Xi Jinping's Political Path and the Newly Elected Members of the Politburo

Xi’s first mandate started by highlighting the corruption of the previous administration. Under his command, high-ranking officials were imprisoned and, in some cases, also condemned to death. This initial maneuver automatically gave Xi more power. In November 2013, social and economic reforms were enacted by the CCP; described as the most influential reforms since the Deng Xiaoping-era. The domestic policies focused on national security matters, in particular cybersecurity, and on reforms that aimed to create a better wealth distribution.

Xinjian’s Uighur rebellion was at the center of national security discussions when Xi took office. His response was a harsh repression that drew international media’s attention for years. Lastly, in the last years of Xi’s second mandate, the two main challenges were posed by the instability of the real estate market and the infamous zero-Covid policy, subject to many controversies.

4. Xi Jinping's Decisive Foreign Policy

The hostilities of Western countries towards China followed the same restraining path Hu Jintao experienced. The election of the American president Donald Trump led to new tariffs on Chinese exports, a strong support to the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen, and the partial boycott of the Chinese high-tech sector . Arms deals with Taiwan and Japan, the creation of the AUKUS alliance, and the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taipei, demonstrated the endurance of the restraining strategy that continued under Joe Biden’s administration.

However, this time, China’s firm position on the One-China principle was balanced by a more intense effort to secure the relations with other countries in the rest of the world. The BRICS alliance and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – two economic and security international organizations - have grown extensively, relative to their trading size and their diplomatic cooperation. China is not alone anymore, and it is now counting on those countries that suffer from the same pressures, of which Russia is an example.

5. Conclusion

Xi Jinping's leadership marked a different path, compared to the passive strategy of his predecessor. The two presidents' ideologies collided; the first one didn’t want to take over international responsibilities and was keen to adopt more introspective policies. The second, and current, is instead posing itself in a proactive role in the world geopolitical scene aiming to realize China’s great power aspirations. In the eyes of Qiao Liang, a retired Chinese major general, military theorist, and author; the aim of Xi’s strategy is not to become the new hegemon, but to be one of the protagonists of the new multipolar world, that is soon going to arise. Hu Jintao’s vision, which can be traced back to Deng Xiaoping’s rhetoric, could have been considered by Xi as an obstacle.

In the end, Xi has successfully installed loyal politicians in the key committee of the Politburo, achieving a power comparable only to Mao Zedong’s. The question now is, will he be able achieve his objective? And how?

Written by Francesco Lasorella

November 2022

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