The introduction earlier this month of new Chinese Communist Party head Hu Jintao had many observers scrambling to find out what they could about the man considered a shoo-in as China's new leader, and for clues as to the kind of leadership he might provide for Asia's fastest growing economy.

Robert Ross
While he doesn't lay claim to extensive knowledge of Hu, BC China expert Prof. Robert Ross (Political Science) has at least met him face-to-face and formed enough of an impression of the former engineer to predict a modestly successful reign.

"I had the privilege of meeting Hu last year, and I found him to be knowledgeable and confident," said Ross, who has shared his expertise on Chinese politics and policy with the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and in appearances on the National Public Radio, among other media.

"He was able to respond to questions with informed and lengthy answers, and he displayed a familiarity with the workings of government that suggests he may not require much 'learning on the job.' The general consensus is that he has the experience and ability to manage China's domestic and societal problems and its international issues as well."

But appearances can be deceptive in Chinese politics, warns Ross. One of Hu's chief assets has been his ability to survive party infighting and intrigue, and it remains to be seen how much power he will wield, and how much he will defer to his predecessor, President Jiang Zemin, who counts several supporters in the party's executive committee.

"Institutions matter much less in China than in the United States," he said. "The fact that Jiang has stepped down as the pre-eminent leader, and that Hu is party secretary does not mean he is completely in charge.

"Politics in China is personal, and Jiang retains the strongest base of personal power in China. Hence, he will set the general course of economic and foreign policy, and be responsible for initiating any major changes, be they retreats from the current line, greater progress in reform or reshaping the contentious Taiwan policy.

"Hu's weakness is not his lack of experience but his questionable political base. China faces many domestic problems, including unemployment, corruption, and high crime, and these could create strong political pressures that could compel him to reverse course and derail reform. Hence, the fact that Jiang remains in charge may be bad for democracy, but it is good for policy stability. He can provide the political backing necessary for Hu to maintain policy continuity until he develops his own political base."

-Sean Smith


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