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Emperor Who? China's new ruler keeps his secrets

15 November 2002
The Times

Oliver August exposes a few facts about a man of mystery

The new Red Emperor is a secretive man, even by the standards of the totalitarian country that he will rule from today.

Once, 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.

Mr 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.

To 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?

The 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.

In 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 facts.

In 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.

Mr 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.

A 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 owns.

When 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.

"Jintao 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.

When 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."

Mr 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 and dams.

"In 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."

Mr 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.

The 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.

Later, 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.

I 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.

On 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.

Officially 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.

Mr 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.

In 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.

When 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.

Excitedly, 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.

A 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 of loyalty."

Thus 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.

For 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.

When 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.

Mrs Liu said: "His children (he also has a son) had to work for everything. They were not like the children of other cadres."

She went on: "He was born right outside this window." I tried not to show my surprise.

She 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.

The 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.

Fearing 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.

Still 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.

Staring 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.

Slowly, 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.

It 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.

Not, 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.

"I 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.

If 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.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 2002.

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