WikiLeaks XXXIV: Hu a “Cautious, Vacillating Leader” (Who Does That Sound Like?)

Hu Jintao Obama(Pictured: Chinese Premier Hu with President Obama.)

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the thirty-fourth in the series.

Over at Foreign Policy, Daniel Drezner has published what seems to me to an exactly accurate take on Forbes Magazine’s decision to name Chinese premier Hu Jintao as the world’s most powerful person. If nothing else, the past week of media attention on Hu has demonstrated just how little influence the Chinese leaders wields within his own government.

By far the most shocking indication of Hu’s political impotence surfaced last week in his meeting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The New York Times reports (and Drezner links) that

Mr. Hu’s strange encounter with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates here last week—in which he was apparently unaware that his own air force had just test-flown China’s first stealth fighter—was only the latest case suggesting that he has been boxed in or circumvented by rival power center. . . .

President Obama’s top advisors have concluded that Mr. Hu is often at the mercy of a diffuse ruling party in which generals, ministers and big corporate interests have more clout, and less deference, than they did in the days of Mao or Deng Xiaping, which commanded basically unquestioned authority.

As if on cue, the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten published a cable yesterday which demonstrates that American diplomats in China have long been aware of Hu’s leadership failures. The cable conveys a candid conversation between an unnamed American political scientist and a Chinese entrepreneur in 1988 as Hu was transitioning from his post as party secretary of Guizhou province to the top spot in Tibet. “The entrepreneur said that he thought Hu had two significant failings which made it doubtful he could succeed in Tibet.” His observations are almost exactly those being highlighted this week in the press.

First, Hu had no close relationship with the military. Second, he was a cautious, vacillating leader. As an illustration of Hu’s timidity, the entrepreneur said that during one of his trips he had worked out a project which would have resutled in the expansion of Guizhou’s exports. He sent a copy of his suggestion to Hu who said that it seemed like a good idea and he should suggest that the appropriate government departments implement it. When the entrepreneur [sics courtesy original cables] tried to do so, there was the usual bureaucratic opposition from various offices, and in the end nothing was done. He commented that Hu was prepared to move only if everyone agreed with something; he was not prepared to tackle opposition. Given the situation in Tibet, Hu will be facing many differences and will get little done if he is not prepared to exert himself.

It was precisely this penchant for indecision which Hu’s critics point out contributed to the violent protests in Tibet after the cable was produced. The journalist Willy Lam recounts claims that as the 1989 protests gathered momentum in Lhasa, Chinese police repeatedly asked for but did not receive orders from a waffling Hu on how to properly respond. Eventually a police commander purportedly took matters into his own hands, directing a violent suppression of Tibetan activists that left over forty dead. Some have argued that the events in Lhasa served as a prelude to the violent state response to protests in Tiananmen Square months later.

Evidence of Hu’s weakness at home does not sit well with any optimism of China’s actions abroad. At a moment when Beijing has taken a startlingly tougher stance in its dealings with friends and foes alike, it is hardly comforting to recognize that China’s government does not present a united front. “There is a remarkable amount of chaos in the system, more than you ever saw dealing with the Chinese twenty years ago,” former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft told the Times. “The military doesn’t participate in the system the way it once did. They are more autonomous—and so are a lot of others.”