The suspense ended on the last day of China's 16th Communist Party Congress in Beijing when the nine chosen ones emerged in the Great Hall of the People. Hu Jintao, freshly appointed general secretary of the party, was leading his eight comrades. China had a new leadership. Hu's presence was not much of a surprise as the world knew he had been groomed for years by his mentor and China's last emperor Jiang Zemin. However, there was speculation about who Hu, the 'grey man of the party,' really was.
Most international media repeated that very little was known about China's new boss. However, one part of his life is quite well documented: the period before he ascended to the standing committee of the CCP's Politburo in 1992.
At that time, the 'core leader of the Forth Generation' was for four years party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region in Lhasa. It is interesting to have a closer look at the way Hu used his post in Tibet as a stepping stone to reach the top rung of the Middle Kingdom.
Hu always knew that to 'seek fame' does not help to climb the party's ladder. That is probably why he never liked to be in the limelight or give interviews to the foreign press. One can closely follow his steps by his declaration either on Lhasa television or through the official organs of the party.
Of his earlier years, we know little except that one of his best friends was Zhang Hong, who later became Deng Xiaoping's son-in-law. As a mechanical engineer, Hu was posted at different sites throughout China, but in 1980, he was noticed by Song Ping, the party boss in Gansu province and was rapidly promoted. He finally joined the Young Cadre Course at the party school in Beijing in 1981. It was there that he is supposed to have met Hu Yaobang, general secretary of the CCP, who became his first mentor.
The elder Hu was certainly one of the most remarkable leaders of modern China and a great reformer. Remember it is his funeral, after his sudden death during a meeting of the Politburo, which triggered the Tiananmen student revolution.
One of the most remarkable facts about the Elder Hu was that when he visited Tibet in 1980, he was so moved by the suffering of the Tibetan people under Communist rule, that he decided to address 5,000 officials assembled in Lhasa. He publicly admitted that the party 'has let the Tibetan people down' and he added: 'the life of the Tibetan people has not been notably improved' after the Chinese invasion in 1950.
When the Elder Hu tried to introduce reforms in China in the early eighties, he was violently opposed and criticized by conservative forces within the party. During this period, it seems Hu Jintao, who was first secretary of the Communist Youth League, defended him.
However, by the mid-eighties, the direction of the wind had begun to change in Beijing. This is when the Younger Hu showed he was already a Grand Master.
With the balance of power slowly shifting, the Elder Hu began losing to the most conservative elements led by Li Peng and Qiao Shi, and the Younger Hu realigned himself dexterously.
The changes in the party were reflected on the Tibetan question. After the Elder Hu's visit to Tibet in 1980, Beijing had for a few years an open Tibet policy. The Dalai Lama was allowed to send four fact finding delegations and two negotiating teams to Tibet and China. Discussions were held on the Dalai Lama's future role in Tibet. But in 1985, due to the changes in Beijing, the opening came to a sudden halt and a visit to Tibet and China by the Tibetan leader was cancelled.
Sensing the wind, Hu Jintao began leaning towards his new mentor Qiao Shi who was in charge of internal security in the Chinese cabinet.
In Tibet, events took a turn for the worse in September 1987 when some monks demonstrated in Lhasa against Chinese rule. During these days, hundreds of visitors and media persons were present in the Tibetan capital and the images of the repression which followed were reported the world over. In the following months, incidents continued to occur and several Tibetans lost their lives.
Beginning 1988, the Chinese leadership became more and more nervous as they felt they were losing face in the world's eyes. The monks, the very same people they were supposed to have 'liberated' from the clutches of the clergy, were now revolting against the 'motherland.' But worse for Beijing: if the situation was allowed to drift, China could follow the Soviet Union on the way to disintegration.
Something had to be done.
The first scapegoat was Wu Jinghua, the Elder Hu's protégé who lost his job as party secretary in Lhasa. Officially he had a heart attack during a meeting in June 1988 'due to a frigidly cold climate and the lack of oxygen, plus being overloaded with work for a long time.' His mistake was that he had scrupulously implemented the Elder Hu's policies towards Tibet.
In Beijing, Hu Yaobang was replaced by Zhao Ziyang who would be purged after the Tiananmen Square events.
The strong men in the Politburo were Li Peng and the Younger Hu's new mentor Qiao Shi who visited Tibet in July 1988. It is probably at that time that it was decided to appoint Hu Jiantao to replace Wu Jinghua as Tibet chief. It was to be the crucial turn in Hu's career. He probably knew he had to show results in very short time to repay the confidence placed in him by Qiao Shi. Hu knew he could not afford to fail. Had not Qiao Shi threatened of 'merciless repression' if the demonstrations were not immediately stopped?
The Younger Hu took over the rebellious region on January 12, 1989.
A Hong Kong paper Kuang Chiao Ching wrote at that time: 'If he can stabilize the situation in Tibet that would, of course, be the first step towards a rapid rise in Hu Jintao's political fortunes If he rules Tibet successfully, perhaps the question on everyone's mind in the near future could be: Will Hu Jintao become a superstar on China's political stage?'
On January 19, Hu had a meeting with the People's Liberation Army. During his speech, he spoke about the 'the CCP Central Committee's new instructions on work in Tibet.' Referring to the PLA's role: indeed it was a bad omen for Tibetans, especially after Hu told the army: 'We must strengthen control of monasteries and temples.'
A week later a Beijing newspaper Zhongguo Xinwen She published an interview with Hu in which he described his two main tasks in Tibet: 'To safeguard the unification of the motherland, adopt a clear-cut stand to oppose separatism, and stabilize the situation in Tibet,' and then: 'to continue to carry out economic construction, make redoubled efforts to develop the commodity economy.' This would later be known as Hu's strategy of 'grasping with both hands.'
From that day, events moved very fast.
On January 23, Hu visited the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse. He was accompanied by the Panchen Lama, the second highest ranking Tibetan Lama after the Dalai Lama. The official occasion was the consecration of a stupa containing the mortal remains of one of the previous Panchen Lamas. To everyone's surprise, during the function, the Panchen Lama denounced the Communist Party's role in Tibet: 'although there had been developments in Tibet since its liberation, this development had cost more dearly than its achievements. This mistake must never be repeated.'
Four days later, he passed away in mysterious circumstances. Though Tibetans believed he was murdered, it has never been proven. It is said the Panchen Lama had a serious quarrel with Qiao Shi just before he left for Tibet. Whether this was true or not, the stage was cleared for 'merciless repression.'
When a demonstration erupted on March 5, the People's Armed Police quickly took control of the situation. Chinese journalist Tang Daxian, who had connections in the party and witnessed some of the events, later wrote in London's The Observer that many events were stage managed by the PAP. Beijing had ordered repression. His information was that on March 6 alone, 387 Tibetans were massacred around the Central Cathedral in Lhasa.
The next day, Hu declared that 'the PAP following the instructions of the Central Committee (read Qiao Shi) had maintained the unity of the Motherland the majority of Tibetans who had joined the disturbance must be made to feel guilty and promise they would never do so again.'
Martial law was clamped on March 8. The tragic events in Lhasa seem to have been a rehearsal for an even more important episode: the student rebellion on Tiananmen Square three months later.
Hu Jintao told Xinhua news agency a few days after the events: 'We should maintain vigilance against possible activity by the handful of separatists and strike them with relentless blows. We should mete out more severe punishment to those who would start troublemaking after the declaration of martial law.' His ruthless implementation of his bosses' orders and the subsequent replay of Lhasa events at Tiananmen Square proved he was a leader who could be relied upon. When, after the massacre at the Square, Jiang Zemin replaced Zhao Ziyang, he remembered this.
Hu was to stay on for four more years in Tibet, though the job was done in three months. Hu never liked Tibet. He once told a journalist he 'disliked Tibet's altitude, climate and lack of culture.' During the following months and years, he began shuttling between Lhasa and Beijing where the real power was. There was a common joke about Hu amongst Tibetan cadres: 'Where is Hu?' The answer was: 'Hu is in Beijing Hospital.' He had to officially report sick each time he was going to Beijing!
In the following months, Hu further stabilized the situation by targeting Tibetan cadres 'harbouring separatist thoughts.' He believed the main 'evil' was religion, and particularly the monasteries which were 'using feudal and superstitious beliefs to swindle and harm people,' thereby delaying the 'socialist spiritual civilization' heralded by Jiang Zemin.
On April 30, 1990, martial law was finally lifted. Hu used his remaining years as party secretary to completely reverse the Elder Hu's policies. Instead of providing support to the Tibetans to safeguard their culture, the Younger Hu tried to assimilate it into Han culture. While the Elder Hu wanted the Tibetans to be autonomous and take their future into their own hands, he created schemes to bring in more Han officials and colonizers to the Roof of the World, further destroying Tibetan uniqueness.
During a visit to Tibet in 1990, Jiang Zemin echoed Hu's views: 'It is necessary to strengthen education in patriotism and socialism in the light of conditions in China and Tibet, so as to make the students know from childhood that Tibet is an inalienable sacred part of the big family of the motherland, and that there will be no socialist new Tibet if there is no CCP.'
It appears that during Jiang Zemin's visit to Tibet, a close relationship was established between the general secretary and his future protégé.
There is no doubt that the events of the three first months in Tibet earned Hu the admiration of many in Beijing. While the Chinese empire was on the verge of disintegrating and could have followed the example of the Soviet Union, his firm handling of the situation and obedience to party orders were rewarded in 1992 by a seat on the standing committee. It was the next step towards the summit.
It is probably true that in 1989 Hu saved China which could have plunged into the 'chaos' so feared by the Chinese emperors. Had Tibet been lost, no doubt other provinces such as Xinjiang would have followed in quick succession.
Now that the Younger Hu has reached the top, will he continue to 'grasp China with two hands' and tighten security to economically develop China? In many ways, China faces more serious problems now than 1989: unemployment, wild capitalism, corruption, regional aspirations, pollution, food problems are some of the issues the Younger Hu will have to tackle. For this, will he use force as his party elders had instructed him to do in Tibet, or will he choose the path of the Elder Hu, open up the system and ultimately give more power to the people, with all the risks it implies?
Only the future will tell, but he will certainly need more than two hands to grasp the future of the People's Republic.