Was Hu Jintao a Failure?

The Chinese president's obsession with stability may prove costly for his country.

huxi.jpgHu Jintao (left) and his successor Xi Jinping (Jason Lee/Reuters)

The media attention given to President Hugo Chavez' death in Venezuela has overshadowed the near-simultaneous exit of another crucial world leader: China's president Hu Jintao. Alas, the circumstances between the two couldn't be more different. The bombastic, telegenic Chavez had long been ill, but his death still came as a shock to the country he had so energetically transformed. Meanwhile, Hu Jintao's exit is as composed, orderly, and dull as the man himself.

As with Chavez, Hu's departure gives us a fresh opportunity to assess his legacy. How successful was his ten-year stint as president of the world's most populous nation? 

On the surface, the fact that Hu's legacy is in question at all is ridiculous: Of course he was successful. Consider the following: China's GDP grew by more than 8 percent each year Hu was president, several times eclipsing double digits, and now ranks second worldwide behind only the United States. And as the developed world dithered in the wake of the financial crisis, China's massive and immediate fiscal stimulus managed to buttress the country from the worst of the shock.  Overall, during Hu's tenure China became a far wealthier country, and many millions of Chinese people escaped poverty and joined the middle class. 

Hu's accomplishments go beyond economics. On his watch Beijing staged a successful Summer Olympics, a major source of prestige and pride for the country, and accelerated China's space program with the launch of a manned spacecraft and  space station. In foreign policy, Hu expanded China's diplomatic reach to Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, maintained stable (if chilly) relations with the United States, and even managed to make progress on China's single most important issue: reunion with Taiwan.

All in all, this is a pretty impressive record. If Hu were an American president, he'd be put on a coin (or at least a postage stamp). 

So why, then, is there a persistent sense among China analysts that Hu's time in office was misspent? Consider, for one, these reviews. From The Heritage's Derek Scissors: "lost opportunity, even failure".  The South China Morning Post: "ossification and stagnation". Hong Kong-based professor David Zweig:  "a weak leader" who "missed opportunities". 

Tough crowd! But the question is legitimate: are criticisms of Hu's record unfair, owing to unreasonable expectations, or does his presidency truly represent a "lost decade" for China? Here are some reasons why the Hu years may not be remembered quite so fondly:

Environmental Problems

China had a pollution problem prior to Hu's arrival, but without a doubt these issues have become far more serious in recent years. Beijing's blackened skies get most of the attention, but groundwater pollution, soil erosion, desertification, and river contamination have also produced their share of headlines. In fairness to Hu, China made green issues a government priority for the first time and invested heavily in clean energy during his tenure. But the grim problems speak for themselves.

Income Inequality

As impressive as China's economic growth has been, income inequality has emerged as a major threat to the country's social fabric, creating a society of haves and have-nots that is getting worse before it gets better. Class divisions, a cause of two 20th century revolutions in the country, seem to be coming back with a vengeance. For every newly minted Chinese billionaire, there are hundreds of rural migrants -- many of whom with college degrees -- who cannot find their way into prosperity. 

Foreign Policy Woes

Ever since former leader Deng Xiaoping advocated that China keep a low profile in international affairs while focusing on development, Beijing has basically done just that. But in the last few years, China has deviated from this path by aggressively defending its interests in the East China Sea, effectively claiming an entire swathe of ocean for itself. This strategy -- popular among China's ultra-nationalists -- has done little in strategic terms but push countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines even further in the United States' camp. Even China's forays into places like Africa, celebrated as an example of Beijing's ideologically-free style of diplomacy, have led to growing and significant blowback. 

****

These are just three examples, and it wouldn't be difficult to come up with several more. But the overall sense is this: if Hu is a failure, it's because of things he didn't do, not things he did. When he entered office, China suffered from corruption, repression, inequality, and an unsustainable trajectory. These problems are not only still there, but they've gotten far worse.

In fairness to Hu, he isn't entirely to blame: like their American counterparts, Chinese presidents must manage quarreling factions and interest groups in the government and cannot simply do what they want. But Hu's lackluster performance in office is symptomatic not of his personal foibles but rather the system in which he operates. Hu ascended the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party not because he was charismatic and innovative, but for precisely the opposite reason: he put his head down, did what he was told, and was unquestionably loyal to the Party's grip on power.

Without question, Hu Jintao managed to achieve one of his primary goals as president: "not rocking the boat". But in doing so, he inadvertently steered China toward a choppier, more perilous future.

Matt Schiavenza is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is a former global-affairs writer for the International Business Times and Atlantic senior associate editor.

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