Hu Jintao was very underrated
Understanding China's 2020s by appreciating its 2000s
I just finished reading Elizabeth Economy’s book The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (part of my ongoing China reading series). The book purports to be about the changes in China under Xi Jinping — changes so disjunctive that they deserve the moniker of “revolution”. And indeed, some of the chapters do deal with Xi’s bold actions in the early years of his term — his attack on the Communist Youth League and other alternative centers of power, his use of an anti-corruption campaign to defeat various rivals, and so on.
In general, my verdict on this book is that it was written too early. Published in 2018, it missed the wrenching upheavals of the past four years — the revelations of mass internment of Uyghurs, the repression of Hong Kong, Xi’s crackdown on consumer internet companies and increasing controls on social life, the shakeout in the real estate sector, and of course Covid and the ongoing lockdowns. In fact, most of the issues The Third Revolution discusses — inefficient state-owned enterprises, environmental degradation, tensions in the South China Sea, and so forth — are carry-overs from the Hu Jintao era of the 2000s. This book, therefore, is in dire need of at least one sequel, as Xi continues to outdo himself with surprising and transformative changes.
But it’s interesting that even before the big events of 2019-22, it was easily possible for writers like Elizabeth Economy to clearly see that Xi Jinping was qualitatively different from his predecessors. The combination of authoritarianism and triumphalist nationalism for which China’s current leader has become known were already apparent at the start of his rule.
That’s one big reason why although reading books on modern China is fun and edifying, it’s a poor guide to what the country is like right now. Most of the books that are still on my list to read — China’s Gilded Age, for example, or Middle Class Shanghai — are going to be primarily about the version of China’s economy and society that emerged under Deng Xiaoping and culminated under Hu Jintao. They will thus be mainly useful as background reading, to understand the situation that Xi’s “revolution” evolved in response to and reacted against.
Xi’s missteps and his moves toward totalitarianism should, in my view, cause China’s critics in the U.S. to reevaluate the system that preceded him, and — especially — the man who led China before Xi. Hu Jintao is often described as a weak leader, without his own power base within the Communist Party — a sort of gray, placeholder figure, calmly staying the course, riding on his predecessors’ successes, and letting problems build up below the surface. A sort of Chinese version of George H.W. Bush, perhaps.
But as I see it, Hu is massively underrated (perhaps also like George H.W. Bush). He wasn’t flamboyant or disruptively transformative like Xi, but he quietly addressed all kinds of problems that had a lot of people seriously worried in the 2000s.
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