Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao’s weeklong visit to the United States, which culminated in a meeting with President George W. Bush on Wednesday, seems to have achieved its purpose: introducing China’s next leader to U.S. officials. The 59-year-old Mr. Hu is expected to become secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party this autumn and president next spring, succeeding Mr. Jiang Zemin as head of the party, the government and the military.
Thus far Mr. Hu has shunned the spotlight, leaving the world largely in the dark about his personality, thinking and ability. It was only natural, therefore, that the Bush administration should have wanted to take measure of this “mystery man” before he takes the helm. So Washington extended him an invitation, and Beijing gladly accepted the offer.
Not everything went smoothly. Hardline Chinese officials, angry at Washington’s invitation to Taiwan’s defense chief, demanded that Mr. Hu’s planned trip be canceled. But, according to Chinese government sources, President Jiang saved the situation, stressing the long-term need to develop relations.
President Bush went out of his way to meet with Mr. Hu — an extraordinary gesture in terms of protocol, given Mr. Hu’s No. 5 ranking in the Communist Party. This, along with Mr. Jiang’s positive spin on U.S.-China ties, suggests that the two countries are seeing each other as is — the U.S. as the world’s sole superpower and China as an emerging superpower.
Mr. Hu’s get-acquainted trip has produced no surprises. He and his hosts merely reiterated their views on recurring themes, notably Taiwan, human rights and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is likely that bilateral relations will not make any substantial progress before outgoing President Jiang visits Washington this autumn.
Nevertheless, Beijing made elaborate preparations for Mr. Hu’s “coming-out” journey. A special team of experts was assembled to brief him on Sino-American relations. And to make sure the trip goes according to script, Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, who is a former ambassador to Washington and is tipped as the next foreign minister, accompanied Mr. Hu.
Perhaps all of this was be expected. After all, U.S.-China ties represent the most important bilateral relations for the two countries. For Chinese leaders, the big challenge is to deal squarely with leaders of a country far more powerful than theirs so that the two sides can find common ground.
Largely for this reason, Mr. Hu’s every step in the U.S. was closely watched back home, not only by his political patrons and rivals but also by business entrepreneurs and ordinary people. It seems he has achieved a fairly good score. His performance was steady throughout; there was no drama but no missteps, either.
Personal chemistry is an important, if not essential, element of summit diplomacy. Reportedly President Bill Clinton got along well with President Jiang, but President Bush is said to be not as comfortable with his Chinese counterpart. Mr. Hu seems to have made a favorable impression during his first encounter with Mr. Bush, but whether the two men will be able to hit it off after next spring is uncertain at best.
The Bush administration hopes that China under the young Mr. Hu will push democratic reform of political and economic systems and settle the Taiwan issue peacefully. On the other hand, the Jiang government expects Mr. Hu to maintain the one-party dictatorship while stabilizing relations with the U.S. It also wants him to sustain high rates of economic growth and build up a national strength comparable to America’s.
Taiwan, Beijing seems to hope, can be absorbed along the way. “Don’t speak your mind, don’t make enemies” is said to be Mr. Hu’s motto. That is how, according to Chinese sources, he has survived the power struggle. Now that he is about to reach the top, one wonders what kind of mental picture he has formed of the superpower he will be dealing with.
China has undergone a series of historic changes since the end of World War II — socialist revolution under Mao Zedong, “reform and openness” under Deng Xiaoping and integration with the global economy under Mr. Jiang. In each of these transitions Beijing could not afford to ignore America’s presence. The “American factor” will carry still greater weight in the next transition.
It can be reasonably expected, however, that no major change will take place early in the Hu presidency. Even if everything goes well, it will probably take four or five years before he can consolidate his power base and strike out on his own. Where will U.S.-China relations stand then? It is a monumental question that will sway the course of world events.
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