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China tightens political freedoms { April 24 2005 }

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Hu Tightens Party's Grip On Power
Chinese Leader Seen As Limiting Freedoms

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 24, 2005; A01

BEIJING -- More than two years after taking office amid uncertainty about his political views, Chinese President Hu Jintao is emerging as an unyielding leader determined to preserve the Communist Party's monopoly on power and willing to impose new limits on speech and other civil liberties to do it, according to party officials, journalists and analysts.

Some say Hu has cast himself as a hard-liner to consolidate his position after a delicate leadership transition and could still lead the party in a more open direction. There is a growing consensus inside and outside the government, however, that the 62-year-old former engineer believes the party should strengthen its rule by improving its traditional mechanisms of governance, not by introducing democratic reforms.

Hu has placed particular emphasis on tightening the party's control over public opinion, presiding over a crackdown to restore discipline to state media and intimidate dissident intellectuals. He has also gone further than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, by adopting new measures to regulate discussions on university Internet sites and the activities of nongovernmental organizations.

The crackdown has been a great disappointment to scholars and party officials who welcomed Hu's rise to power in the hope he might be more open to political reform than Jiang. After giving him the benefit of the doubt during a long political honeymoon, many have concluded Hu is an ideologically rigid and exceedingly cautious apparatchik who recognizes the party's authoritarian system is in trouble but wants to repair it.

"He is the ultimate product of the system," said one party academic with access to the leadership who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He never studied overseas or had much contact with the outside world. He was educated by the system, spent his entire career in the system, and his values are the same as the system's."

In international affairs, Hu's government has taken steps that appeal to nationalist sentiment, passing an anti-secession law authorizing the use of force against Taiwan and by allowing, if not orchestrating, a series of anti-Japanese street demonstrations. But he has also been careful not to stray far from the party's traditional foreign policies.

Hu sealed his reputation after taking control of the military at a meeting of the party's ruling elite in September, a final step in his long climb to power. On the last day of the conclave, in his first major address to the 300-plus member Central Committee as the nation's undisputed new leader, Hu warned that "hostile forces" were trying to undermine the party by "using the banner of political reform to promote Western bourgeois parliamentary democracy, human rights and freedom of the press," according to a person given excerpts of the speech.

Hu said China's enemies had not abandoned their "strategic plot to Westernize and split China." He blamed the fall of the Soviet Union on policies of "openness and pluralism" and on the efforts of "international monopoly capital with the United States as its leader." And in blunt language that party veterans said recalled Mao Zedong's destructive Cultural Revolution, he urged the leadership to be alert to the danger of subversive thinking.

"Don't provide a channel for incorrect ideological points of view," the person who had read some of the speech quoted Hu as saying. "When one appears, strike at it, and gain the initiative by subduing the enemy."

Hu said relaxation of such efforts to manage ideology could endanger the party and argued that the Soviet Union collapsed because Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the United States and others to spread subversive ideas there, according to those with knowledge of the speech.

"History has already proven that when hostile forces want to create disorder in a society and subvert a political power, they often first make a breakthrough with ideology and start by confusing people's thinking," said a Nov. 23 editorial in the People's Daily, the party's flagship newspaper, that the sources said quoted directly from Hu's speech.

The party's reformist wing has been especially alarmed by Hu's penchant for using hard-line rhetoric from the Cultural Revolution, the devastating political movement that rocked China in the decade before Mao's death in 1976. Hu joined the party as a college student shortly before the movement began and spent much of it as a low-level official in one of the country's poorest provinces.

In a recent comment often cited as a clue to his thinking, Hu wrote in an instruction to propaganda officials that though the economic policies of communist allies Cuba and North Korea were flawed, their political policies were correct, according to a person who saw the instruction and others briefed on it. The remark, first reported by the Hong Kong magazine Open, stunned many in the party who consider the two countries repressive and isolated from the rest of the world.

Party officials said Hu's statements have led propaganda, education, culture and security officials in Beijing and the provinces to take a harder line against criticism of the government and discussion of sensitive subjects, such as political reform and the 1989 crackdown on the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

Over the past few months, nearly a dozen dissident writers have been arrested across the country, including journalist Shi Tao in Hunan province, scholar Zheng Yichun in Liaoning, essayist Zhang Lin in Anhui and painter Yan Zhengxue in Zhejiang. A researcher for the New York Times, Zhao Yan, was detained just before Hu's speech to the Central Committee, and a well-known essayist, Huang Jinqiu, was sentenced to 12 years in prison days after it. The authorities have also disbarred Shanghai lawyer Guo Guoting, who tried to represent several of the dissidents.

In another sign of the party's effort to restrict public debate, officials at Beijing University last month fired a professor, Jiao Guobiao, who posted a scathing critique of the propaganda department on the Internet. The dismissal -- the first time a faculty member has been purged at the school in years -- comes during an ongoing party campaign to strengthen what Hu calls "ideological education" in universities. Authorities recently announced rules requiring students to take more classes on communist theory and blocked outsiders from joining discussions on student-run Internet sites.

Hu's government has also taken steps to close regulatory loopholes that have allowed independent, nongovernmental organizations to develop in China. Several groups that escaped scrutiny for years by registering as private businesses or with the help of sympathetic officials have come under pressure.

"Looking back at the policies of Jiang Zemin now, it wasn't so bad," said Mao Yushi, an economist who has had a book banned by the government and who runs a private research institute that has not been able to renew its permit. "We survived for 10 years under Jiang, but with Hu Jintao the authorities are trying to shut us down."

Liu Xiaobo, a leading dissident whom the authorities detained overnight in December along with two other writers, said Hu has ushered in the most repressive political environment in China since the late 1990s, when police arrested dozens in a crackdown on a fledgling opposition party and launched a violent campaign to crush the popular Falun Gong spiritual movement.

"Hu's thinking and ideology are clear now," Liu said. "He believes political reform would shake the one-party system, so he has found another way to deal with the public's dissatisfaction with the party. He's moving toward the extreme left, restricting speech and repressing intellectuals."

Hopes that Hu might pursue political reform peaked in 2003 when he and Premier Wen Jiabao took the lead in reversing the party's cover-up of the deadly SARS outbreak, pledging greater accountability and transparency in government. Later, many blamed Jiang's lingering influence for Hu's failure to act on proposals to strengthen the judiciary, expand media freedoms and hold limited elections for party posts.

But Hu delivered a speech to an internal party audience even before the end of the SARS epidemic in which he warned officials not to let the party's enemies use the crisis as an excuse to promote Western-style freedom of the press and constitutional reform, according to people who received copies of the speech.

Since then, while the party has tolerated limited experiments with elections in various localities, Hu has focused efforts instead on what he calls "strengthening the party's ability to govern." In practice, party members said, that has meant a sustained campaign against corruption in which thousands have been punished, including more than a dozen senior officials.

Instead of expanding the power of the courts or the press to serve as a check on officials, though, Hu has relied on more traditional methods aimed at curbing the abuse of power, strengthening the party's internal discipline and auditing agencies and issuing new rules governing the behavior of party members.

Hu has also presided over a slowdown in the pace of the economy's transition from socialism to capitalism, with no major breakthroughs in efforts to restructure the banking system or reform stock markets in the past year and a deceleration of the nation's efforts to privatize state-owned industries, economists and party researchers said.

Instead, Hu has focused economic policy on shifting resources to the country's poorer interior and promoting what he calls a "scientific development concept," which officials have described as an attempt to balance economic growth with concerns about the environment, the welfare of rural farmers and workers, and a widening income gap.

State media have trumpeted these policies, reinforcing Hu's image as a leader who is more concerned about those left behind by the country's reforms than his predecessor. But the shift has caused grumbling among business interests and party officials who advocate faster market reforms, said a party scholar.

"Hu spent all those years while waiting to take office thinking and planning what he was going to do, so he's not going to back off now," the scholar said. But he said Hu's populist approach has raised expectations among ordinary Chinese -- expectations the party bureaucracy is having trouble meeting.

The number of people who traveled to Beijing to plead for help in resolving grievances against local officials more than doubled last year, according to another party scholar, who was asked to study the situation. The sudden spike has alarmed the leadership because it occurred despite strong economic growth and as the number of protests across the country was also rising, he said.

Hu has responded by ordering new regulations drafted for handling such complaints, but the scholar said the rules will do little to help the petitioners and instead make it easier for local officials to punish them.

"The party's authority is gradually declining, and as a result, Hu is less confident and more insecure than the leaders before him," said a former provincial party chief, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "When a leader feels insecure, he tightens controls."

2005 The Washington Post Company

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