Right now, that seems unlikely. Hu stayed well away from any commemoration of Zhao's death. Propaganda organs barred broadcast media from reporting Zhao's death and instructed China's official newspapers to bury a one-sentence notice of his passage on their inside pages. The government did agree to allow a memorial service at a Beijing burial ground where many senior leaders are interred, but Hu conveyed no message of condolence to Zhao's family. Hu instead spent the week launching a campaign to "consolidate the ruling status" of the Communist Party. His most significant comments in the days following Zhao's death were instructions to aim the campaign at the demographic group that had marched into Tiananmen Square in 1989. Hu warned in a speech excerpted under a banner headline on the front page of the People's Daily on Jan. 19 that China must "improve the political thinking of university students to elevate the Party's ruling power."
Emphasizing the indoctrination of students—for that is what an improvement in political thinking means—is not the kind of reform many people expected from Hu. Although his rise to power betrayed little of his political leanings, Hu had left hints that he was more open to political change than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. He rose through the ranks of the Party's more liberal organs, such as the Communist Youth League, helped terminate a crackdown on intellectuals in the early 1980s, and urged high-ranking cadres to study foreign political systems in the 1990s. Since assuming China's top posts—Hu replaced Jiang as Party chief in late 2002, then as President in 2003 and as commander in chief last September—Hu and his Premier, Wen Jiabao, have fashioned themselves as populists by touring hospital wards of SARS patients and spending holidays with peasants. Hu speaks often of helping China's poor, and has increased investment in impoverished western regions. He has talked of strengthening the "rule of law" and protecting rights enshrined in China's constitution.
But recently Hu's leadership style has been at odds with the more liberal facets of his career—raising doubts that he intends to build on Zhao's legacy. At the heart of the distinction between what Zhao tried to do and what Hu appears committed to is the role of the Communist Party. Zhao spent his nearly 20 months as Party chief working to limit the Party's interference in institutions of government such as the courts, the state-owned media and local legislatures. Such competing power centers, he hoped, would bolster fledgling economic reforms by making government more transparent, while giving the Chinese people the means to hold their leaders to account.
Hu's approach is quite different. It is widely admitted both inside and outside the Party that China's astonishing economic growth in the past 15 years has been accompanied by growing social strains, such as a widening gap between rich and poor and an increase in corruption. But as was made plain in the communiqué after a plenary meeting of the Party's Central Committee last fall—the meeting at which Hu pushed Jiang into full retirement—Hu sees the answer to such problems in a strengthened Party whose cadres control the workings of government. "Hu offers a Leninist solution," says a Western diplomat in Beijing. "He doesn't want the Party out of government; he wants the Party to take over the government." The trend in China for the past 25 years, says Peking University law professor He Weifang, has been to gradually diminish the Party's reach. "Now it seems we're moving in the opposite direction."
That would indeed appear to be the case. In an important speech in September to 194 members of the Central Committee that was never made public, Hu set out his stall. According to someone who read a copy, Hu said China would never have its own Gorbachev, referring to the Soviet Union leader whose commitment to openness and reform in the 1980s hastened the end of Communist Party rule there. In the speech, according to the source, Hu railed against people who "fly the banner of democracy and political reform" and said the Party must be "pre-emptive" and "strike when they rear their heads."
Hu's approach has been felt most keenly in the realm of public discourse. In recent years, China's media have wooed readers with exposés of corruption in officialdom, while websites have buzzed with debates on sensitive topics like police brutality and the need for free expression. But since Hu's speech, those critical of the regime have been forced into retreat. Last fall, police shut down "A Complete Mess," China's most lively forum for political debate on the Internet, without ever explaining why. Then discussions of the forum's demise were banned from other websites. Propaganda officials have ordered reporters at the Legal Daily and other newspapers not to write any "negative" articles about the police or the judicial system. And in late December, three of China's most outspoken writers were taken from their Beijing homes by police, interrogated and warned to shut up before they were released. One of them, essayist Yu Jie, is regularly followed by plainclothes agents. "All the intellectuals I know are very nervous right now," he says.
In Beijing these days, the key question is whether the chill in the air represents Hu's genuine convictions or just a tactical effort to burnish his hard-line credentials among political factions that do not completely support him. Before relinquishing the helm, Jiang installed important allies in the Party's bureaucracy who continue to be loyal to him and his powerful Politburo acolyte, Vice President Zeng Qinghong. The Party's General Office, for instance, which controls the daily flow of memos and intelligence, remains in the grip of Jiang appointee Wang Gang. Until Hu maneuvers more of his own people into key political positions, the President must watch his step. "Most leaders have to shore up their credibility with the Party's Old Guard before moving forward," says Anthony Saich, director of the Asia program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Even Zhao went along with the political rhetoric of his day by criticizing 'bourgeois liberalism' before launching new political reforms."
But for those wishing to see real political reform, the early signs are hardly encouraging. Hu, for example, has strengthened a secretive institution that Zhao had tried to abolish. From the national level all the way down to the smallest rural township, the Party maintains "politics and law committees" to coordinate law enforcement and instruct judges on court decisions. Only a month after taking charge of the Party in 2002, Hu inserted the head of China's national police force, Zhou Yongkang, as vice chairman of the Central Commission of Political Science and Law—the country's highest-level politics and law committee. Zhou outranks other committee members, such as the Minister of Justice and the president of the Supreme People's Court. Moreover, police chiefs have increasingly taken over these committees all across China. Despite Hu's rhetoric about adhering to the rule of law, "prospects for judicial independence under Hu do not look good," says a prominent Beijing-based defense lawyer.
The same could be said for other checks and balances. For decades, government officials have presented "work reports" to the provincial legislature, or People's Congress, of each province. And for decades, the legislatures rubber-stamped their approval. Following a series of high-profile corruption scandals in 2001, however, some People's Congresses—such as the one in the northeastern city of Shenyang—refused to approve deceptively rosy reports. These votes of no-confidence were pretty mild; they did not, for example, lead to the removal of chastened officials. Even so, that year Beijing began insisting that provincial Party secretaries also become the top leaders of their local parliaments. Since 2002, Hu has increased the number of provincial People's Congresses under such direct Party control from nine to 24. "The Party wanted to block the emergence of independent legislatures," says a Beijing scholar who advises People's Congresses.
Hu seems to want not only to strengthen the Party's control over the state but to improve its thinking. Two weeks ago, he launched a nationwide campaign called "Develop and Maintain the Advanced Nature of Party Members." All 68 million rank-and-file Party members will spend the next 18 months "finding problems in their thought, work and behavior" and writing self-criticisms, according to the People's Daily. TV news, meanwhile, offers nightly profiles of model cadres like Zhou Guozhi, a peasant in rural Hubei province who lived in a wooden shack, hauled rocks on his back to build a bridge to his village, and was so modest that he scratched his name off a tablet listing the bridge's builders. Hu may be hoping that by strengthening the Party he will etch his own name in China's history.