For a man so clearly destined to be China's supreme leader,
Vice President Hu Jintao has rarely dealt with U.S. issues. And the
few times he has done so, he always seems to have come away soured
by the experience.
His visit to the U.S. this week is unlikely to be any different. Despite Mr. Hu's image in the Chinese leadership as a "reformist" and his daughter's ongoing residence in the U.S., Mr. Hu is not necessarily well-disposed toward America.
Mr. Hu has been at the pinnacle of power in Beijing -- the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee -- for nearly a decade, and from his first day in office he has been seen as the likely successor to Jiang Zemin, who is concurrently the country's president, the party's general secretary and the military's commander-in-chief. For his first seven years, Mr. Hu managed to avoid getting mired in controversies surrounding Beijing's tortured relationship with Washington.
His baptism of fire came the evening after U.S. bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 8, 1999. Beijing's top leaders, faced with two days of emotional anti-American demonstrations by students and youths in several Chinese cities, turned to their youngest colleague, Hu Jintao (still a youngster at the age of 56), to calm the storm.
At 6 p.m. on May 9, Mr. Hu appeared live on national television, itself a rare, if not unprecedented move for any Chinese leader in a crisis, and he appeared ill at ease reading from a prepared text. The "U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization," he declared, "brazenly attacked our embassy" killing personnel and destroying the building. It was, he said, a "criminal" and "barbaric act." He noted that the "students and people" bespoke the Chinese people's "great indignation." But Mr. Hu was cautious. While the Chinese government "firmly supported all legal protests," he urged the people to "take into consideration the country's fundamental interests" and "guard against any overreactions."
It was a speech he wrote himself, and which reflected his own conflicting views of the U.S. Mr. Hu is deeply suspicious of America's preeminent superpower status yet these are tempered by his references against overreaction and for the need to protect national interests.
As early as 1994, according to a reputable Hong Kong journal, Mr. Hu told a secret party meeting that "strangling China's development" was "a strategic principle pursued by the U.S." And one Chinese scholar reports that after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Mr. Hu told a closed-door conference of party and government workers that "the hostile forces in the U.S. will never give up their attempts to subjugate China."
More recently, on April 1, 2001, another U.S.-China crisis erupted when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea. In the absence of President Jiang, who was on a tour of Latin America, Mr. Hu took charge of the affair. By the time the crisis was over, Mr. Hu no doubt felt bullied by Washington, which used a pending decision over whether to continue China's "Normal Trade Relations" status to exert overwhelming leverage. But he also felt whipsawed by his own military, which had at least prevaricated, and probably outright lied, in stating that the U.S. was to blame for the incident.
As he now approaches the transition, Mr. Hu is obliged to take an increasingly high profile on foreign policy matters. In January 2002, he set up an informal task force on U.S. issues charged with improving China's public-relations image, especially in the U.S. Congress, and developing long-term strategies for handling the Taiwan issue. Mr. Hu has gathered his own team to oversee China's relations with the U.S. headed by Zheng Bijian, vice president of the Central Party School, and Zhang Qizheng, director of the State Council Information Office. Although both are considered "political reformers," neither has a track record of advocating close ties with Washington.
Taiwan remains the main irritant in U.S.-China relations, and how Mr. Hu performs in Washington on this issue will be closely watched in Beijing as a measure of his success. That means he will have to take a rhetorically firm posture on American "hegemonism" in general and on Washington's firming ties with Taipei in particular. En route to the U.S. last week, the Chinese vice president told an audience in Malaysia that China "opposes the strong lording it over the weak and the big bullying the small and has long pledged not to seek hegemony, not to join any military bloc, and not to pursue its own spheres of influence."
Americans can expect similar rhetoric, although a sharp message on issues such as Taiwan will be softened if Mr. Hu can also address his vision for the development of U.S.-China economic and trade ties.
In Washington, the success of the visit will be seen in the impression he makes on his American interlocutors. Will U.S. President George W. Bush get an idea of where Mr. Hu plans to take China? Will Vice President Dick Cheney be impressed that Mr. Hu is committed to continuing political as well as economic reforms? And will U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decide Mr. Hu is someone he can deal with? If so, Americans will consider the visit a success. But if Mr. Hu allows his apparent mistrust of American power -- and the sourness of his past dealings with the U.S. -- to come through in his words, Americans will view his rise to power in Beijing with some alarm.
John J. Tkacik, Jr., is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
Originally appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal.