A Clampdown in China

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

May 17, 2005

BEIJING

The most important person in the world right now may be Hu Jintao, and we're beginning to get a better sense of what kind of a leader he is: disappointing.

More than anyone else, President Hu will determine whether China can continue to surge and whether its rise will be stable and peaceful. Ever since he vaulted into the top ranks of the Communist Party in 1992, there have been vigorous debates about whether he is a closet reformer or a closet hard-liner, but now that he has been the Communist leader for two and a half years, we can form a tentative conclusion: the second camp seems to have been right.

Mr. Hu appears to be an intuitive authoritarian who believes in augmenting the tools of repression, not easing them. Most distressing, Mr. Hu has tugged China backward politically. He has presided over a steady crackdown on dissent, the news media, religion, Internet commentary and think tanks. China now imprisons far more journalists than any other country.

At The New York Times, we've seen this crackdown firsthand. Zhao Yan, a colleague who works for the Times bureau in Beijing, was seized last September and tossed into prison. Why? We don't know for sure, because Mr. Zhao has never been tried and neither his lawyer nor his family members have even been allowed to see him.

Likewise, the bravest and boldest Chinese newspaper used to be Nanfang Dushi Bao. But then the paper reported that the police had beaten a university student to death because he wasn't carrying his ID. Two staff members were sent to prison last year for long terms, and China's newspapers are now more docile.

Mr. Hu also has a knack for using old-style propaganda phrases that make him sound like a time capsule from a more Communist past. And Chinese intellectuals were horrified when Mr. Hu issued an internal statement saying that while North Korea had made economic mistakes, it had the right ideas politically.

Still, Mr. Hu's clampdown has had only a limited effect, because China is now too porous and complex for anybody to control very successfully. Ordinary people are hiring lawyers to enforce their rights, and the rule of law is steadily painting the party leaders into a corner.

"They can't control everything any more," said a Chinese with long connections to the country's leaders. "They're like a fire brigade, rushing around to put out the fires that burn hottest, and leaving the others alone."

In any case, while Mr. Hu is a big disappointment in his political vision, he is turning out to be more solid in other areas, like foreign policy. Mr. Hu has done a good job managing foreign relations with other countries, aside from Japan and Sudan, and he has engaged North Korea more meaningfully on the nuclear issue than his predecessors did. Mr. Hu has at least managed to work out a coherent policy toward North Korea, which the Bush administration has yet to do.

Mr. Hu's economic instincts run to central planning, but he is also pragmatic. And he has a personal stake in a capitalist future: his only daughter, Hu Haiqing, has experience in the high-tech business world and is married to a Stanford-educated Internet tycoon, Daniel Mao.

Perhaps Mr. Hu's most important step has been to begin to address rural poverty and environmental problems, rather than focusing solely on economic growth and new market reforms to achieve it. This shift to more balanced growth is smart and long overdue.

At the same time, the pace of economic reform has also stalled, and the giddy expectation that major new reforms are on the way has gone. If this pause is a chance for China to catch its breath, that would be fine - but it looks like more than that.

Mr. Hu's basic problem is that he is trying to achieve stability by keeping the lid sealed tight on the pressure cooker. But the lesson of Taiwan and South Korea is the need to expand freedoms to provide outlets for those pressures. Otherwise, as Ukraine and Indonesia showed, pressure cookers can explode.

So Mr. Hu's emphasis on short-term stability may ultimately be increasing the risks of major instability in China down the road. And in that sense, the victims of Mr. Hu's crackdown are not just the individuals sitting in jail, but the entire Chinese people.