August exposes a few facts about a man of mystery
new Red Emperor is a secretive man, even by the
standards of the totalitarian country that he will
rule from today.
at a technology forum, Hu Jintao was asked what
kind of computer he used. "You will not get
an answer," he said flatly. "The details
of my life are of no importance." This is a
man who has never been known to give a media interview.
Hu's aversion to public exposure would almost be
touching, if it were not so sinister. Not for him
those confessional television chats and the intimate
photo-opportunities with family.
be fair, Mr Hu grew up in a paranoid country. But
China has since opened up, and the background of
his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, is well known. Now
that Mr Hu is taking over as General Secretary,
many wonder how much more open China will become
under his leadership. What can you expect from a
man who will not reveal his birthplace?
official Chinese Communist Party record, a green
volume the size of a toaster, suggests that his
ancestral home is Anhui province in eastern China.
Insiders say Mr Hu has never been there.
search of the man behind the insurance salesman's
smile, I travelled to neighbouring Jiangsu province,
where his family once owned a small shop selling
tea. That seemed to be one of the few widely known
the city of Taizhou I came across a pub called Manlian
Zaiye Qiumi Jiuba (Manchester United Night-Time
Supporters Bar). In the ground floor lounge a fountain
gushes down the 20ft front window. Karaoke rooms
with young hostesses and David Beckham posters fill
the second floor, and a restaurant serving what
passes for British food is on the third. On the
top floor a large screen shows Man U games.
Hu has done little international travelling and
visited Britain only once, in October 2001, but
his home town seems to have embraced China's opening
up to the West.
few minutes away I met Liu Bingxia, Mr Hu's aunt,
who brought up the future General Secretary after
his mother died when he was aged about six. Her
long white hair was neatly combed back, her tanned
face covered with countless hairline creases. The
half-blind 88-year-old wore all the clothes she
I entered her one-room flat she was playing solitaire.
Excited by a visitor, she insisted on first washing
her dentures. The flat contains the remains of Mr
Hu's bourgeois upbringing: imperial-style furniture,
pictures of ancestors and an altar with six candles.
was a quiet child," she said. "He read
books and built these little kites from a few pieces
of wood and some cloth. They rose higher into the
sky than those of the other children." That
was in the 1940s, a time of war and revolution.
Mao took power Mr Hu's father was running a second
tea shop in Shanghai and Mrs Liu looked after the
gifted son until he won a place to study engineering
at the elite Qinghua University in Beijing in 1961.
"He always came back during vacations,"
she said of the dramatic years of the Cultural Revolution.
"He came to see me and talked of the great
changes in the capital."
Hu had joined the Communist Party upon arrival in
Beijing, apparently electrified by the intensely
political atmosphere of the post-revolutionary era.
One former Qinghua student who knew Hu told me:
"He liked the idea of being an engineer, of
building something, of creating a structure, but
he seemed bored by confining himself to bridges
the excited atmosphere of that time, when Mao told
everyone to build the new China, Hu realised he
could build much greater things than other engineers.
He wanted a part in building a new society, but
he was never a radical."
Hu was rising quickly in the party hierarchy as
a student leader when Mao turned on his own ranks
in 1966 and called on teenage Red Guards to rebel
against the nomenklatura. As they rampaged through
the universities, Mr Hu sided with the establishment
at Qinghua. His fellow students were not surprised.
professors, however, lost and Mr Hu underwent two
months of "reform through labour" punishment.
There was no torture, but long hours of farm work.
The experience was said to have hardened his opposition
to radical politics, the Qinghua student said.
Mr Hu is said to have felt vindicated when the Cultural
Revolution failed. While it lasted, however, the
young engineer sought refuge first with Mrs Liu
in Taizhou, and then in faraway Gansu province.
He spent the next 14 years building dams - and his
party credentials - on the edge of the Gobi Desert.
The hardship stint was followed by two postings
in China's Wild West: as youngest party secretary
in the mountainous province of Guizhou and on the
grassland plateau of Tibet.
had brought a few newspaper cuttings detailing Mr
Hu's career. Mrs Liu keenly inspected the accompanying
photographs with her one good eye. Her own family
pictures had been taken away years ago by his minders.
arriving in Lhasa in January 1989, Mr Hu had a meeting
with the Panchen Lama, Tibet's second-highest religious
figure. The lama delivered a scathing attack on
Chinese rule, much to Mr Hu's surprise. Five days
later the Panchen Lama was dead.
he died of natural causes but widespread rumours
that he was murdered led to violent protests and
the young party secretary cracked down hard. He
imposed martial law, a first in Communist China.
Hu spent more than two decades in the western provinces,
where life offers few comforts. Whether this made
him a reformer or a hardliner is unclear. His Tibetan
record points in one direction, his apparent sheltering
of liberals in Guizhou in another.
any case the real key to Mr Hu's politics is not
his ideology but the network of contacts he built
in the hinterland. His hideout was in many ways
an ideal place for an ambitious young cadre. Senior
leaders, too, fled west during the Cultural Revolution.
They took note of the young man from Taizhou who
had refused to join the Red Guards.
the leaders eventually filtered back to the capital,
Mr Hu's network expanded accordingly. When the party
sought to recruit younger cadres into the leadership
he was first in line. His long flight from the Cultural
Revolution paid off. He was called back to Beijing
for a "helicopter" promotion to the politburo.
Mrs Liu recounted a visit at the time. "He
was happy to leave Tibet because the place always
gave him a headache," she said. (Mr Hu is known
to have suffered terribly from altitude sickness.)
As the youngest member of the ageing leadership,
the promotion in 1992 essentially made him heir
apparent, much to the surprise of other contenders.
In the chaotic aftermath of the Tiananmen uprising
Mr Hu had once again benefited from the influence
of his patrons. He was deemed a safe pair of hands
at a time of turmoil.
recent book China's New Rulers, by two respected
American academics, recounts how a party elder from
Gansu, who had known Mr Hu since the 1970s, "was
able to emphasise Hu Jintao's record of never refusing
an assignment from the party and of his willingness
to serve in some of China's poorest and most difficult
regions. The others agreed, hoping to send a message
to the party ranks about the supreme importance
Mr Hu was anointed not on merit, but to make a point.
He knew this to be an inherently unstable position
and set out to fortify it.
The less that was known about him the better, he
decided. Secrecy and asceticism dominated his game
plan. He would never give his rivals reason to criticise
him: not his words, nor his deeds. Not even his
choice of computer.
ten years he strived to be the cleanest official
in China. Not for him modern China's ever-present
corruption: the illegal limousine imports, the courtyard
villas in the countryside, the hometown memorials.
his daughter went to New York to study at Columbia
University under an assumed name she apparently
had to work at a bar to earn money. Her father refused
to fund her education to set an example, the daughter
told Mrs Liu during a visit.
Liu said: "His children (he also has a son)
had to work for everything. They were not like the
children of other cadres."
went on: "He was born right outside this window."
I tried not to show my surprise.
continued: "But that didn't stop them building
on our land." She pointed to a single-storey
dwelling sandwiched between her apartment building
and a new 22-storey office tower belonging to the
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
bank had apparently wanted to bulldoze all of the
small houses on the adjacent plot of land but Mrs
Liu had protested that Mr Hu had grown up in one
of them. The bank paused. The birthplaces of Chinese
politicians are often turned into shrines, forming
the focal point for a cult of personality.
a political scandal, the bank consulted Mr Hu. He
apparently replied: "If you want to knock it
down, knock it down. The house is not mine; it's
hers (Mrs Liu's)." Ever concerned with accusations
of favouritism and encouraging idolatry, he refused
to come to the aid of the woman who had raised him.
suspicious, the bank settled on a compromise. It
pulled down all of the houses except for Mrs Liu's
and built the tower right next to it. The resulting
David and Goliath picture was too much for her to
endure and she soon moved into the block next door.
out of the window of her new flat, she described
how the tower rose ever higher over her house, blocking
all sunlight. She then invited me to have a closer
look at the house.
we walked to the bank entrance. One guard refused
us entry, sending us to another, who checked with
his supervisor and eventually ordered us to leave.
was an extraordinary scene for China. In the land
of Confucius, where family relations and filial
piety are still strong, the families of state leaders
are treated like royalty. Officials throughout the
land would rightly assume that leaders' relations
had the might of Beijing behind them.
however, in Mr Hu's case. Mrs Liu receives no special
treatment in Taizhou. The locals all know that they
need not fear the wrath of her famous adoptive son.
Since being made heir-apparent, he has not once
come back to visit his aunt.
would like to see him," Mrs Liu sighed, "but
he has forgotten me." She is left to play card
games alone, while he is crowned General Secretary.
the post is really a reward for his loyalty, then
- judging by Mrs Liu's experience - the Communist
Party could be in for a surprise.
Times Newspapers Ltd, 2002.