The leader of one of the world’s most important countries is someone about whom the world probably knows the least.
This man is Hu Jintao. But even after two-plus years in office, nobody really knows who Hu really is.
The president of the People’s Republic of China doesn’t give many interviews, doesn’t crack a whole lot of jokes (in public at least) and doesn’t kiss a whole lot of babies. So, for starters, we know one thing that Hu is not: Hu’s no traditional Western-style politician, with all the calculated insincerity thereto.
Presumably, he’ll not be caught dead wearing a cowboy hat, as the late Chinese president Deng Xiaoping once did on a U.S. visit, or break out in Western song, as per his immediate predecessor, the somewhat-more-down-to-earth Jiang Zemin.
So perhaps the president of the world’s most populated nation could be defined by who he’s not.
One thing he’s not is a stay-at-home kind of guy. He may even rate as the world’s frequent-flier champ in the head of state set. A while back, Hu executed a whirlwind tour of Central and South America that left even U.S.
Latin American experts breathlessly impressed. More recently, China’s president took in the sights and made the rounds at two of the world’s last remaining communist states.
In North Korea, which is to return to the vital Six-Party denuclearization talks that his government is hosting, Hu helpfully made a very large point of mentioning all the aid his country has been giving that troubled ally.
(And so Pyongyang is all but certain to show up.) And then in Vietnam, he dropped the prospect of a huge credit-aid package if Vietnam would work with China to stop their long-festering border bickering. Then he was off to Europe, making stops in the UK, Germany and Spain. Afterward, he returned to Asia for the big economic (APEC) meeting in South Korea.
After that, Hu will rush back to China to spiff up for President Bush’s state visit there. By then, China’s president should be able to share with the American leader the glow of a sense of progress with the end of the latest round of Six-Party talks.
But bitter exchanges over two issues are also in prospect. One is the recent stunning announcement that the United States will deploy a nuclear aircraft carrier in Japan for the first time in history and during the year of the Beijing Olympics. How hot will Hu get over this is a subject of intense speculation in the diplomatic world. It’s possible Hu may choose to make more of it publicly, bowing to intense anti-Japanese feeling in China, than privately, where he will want to make nice with the president of big-time trading partner America.
Speaking of trade, Hu will have to deal with mounting American angst over the low value of the Chinese dollar compared with other currencies. Back in Washington, Congress seems prepared to blow the heretofore mutually beneficial bilateral trade relationship to smithereens over it.
The quarrel concerns the American perception that the undervalued Chinese dollar is undercutting American businesses and adding bundles every day to the gigantic U.S.-China trade deficit. (Other nations are less agitated because in general they enjoy a trade surplus with China.)
The resolution of this issue will probably shape the general direction of Sino-U.S. relations for years to come. The tension focuses on so many points of friction, from whether China is to be a full player that takes its lumps like the rest of the big boys and girls on the financial world stage, or is to remain in the cocoonlike psychology of a still-developing country that must cosset itself protectively to guard against external shock.
On this general issue, it would be better if Hu the internationalist got the upper hand over Hu the protective Chinese nationalist. A less inflexible Chinese dollar, over the long run, is in China’s interests, probably even more than America’s.
Moreover, the Bush administration will not require or expect complete fluidity overnight, but will accept gradual , though continual , movement to alleviate what U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow has termed the “big risks” of “going too slow.”
And so the true political identity of Hu will soon emerge. Big decision points lie ahead. What’s fascinating, however this all comes out, is the extent to which Hu the traveling man reflects China the changing nation. Two or three decades ago, this kind and degree of constant diplomatic movement would have been unimaginable by the Chinese.
So whoever Hu is, Hu is certainly no Mao.
Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the
Los Angeles Times
and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.