China’s Steps Backward Began Under Hu Jintao

Beijing’s new aggression and ideological reaction started well before Xi Jinping.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with China's former President Hu Jintao
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with China's former President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 24, 2017. Wang Zhao/AFP via Getty Images

China’s stunningly reckless response to the coronavirus pandemic has hastened the need for an examination of America’s problematic policy of engagement with China and a determination of what went wrong. The conventional answer has been that Xi Jinping changed everything when he became the country’s leader in 2013. But this implies that the United States’ engagement policy with China was sound before his rule. Not so. While Beijing exhibited some troubling behavior in the 1990s, it was Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, who presided over changes the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) internal system and foreign policy the following decade. Understanding changes in China’s grand strategy requires a close examination of China’s internal politics, now and in the future.

By the time Hu became general secretary of the CCP in 2002, Deng Xiaoping and his anointed successor Jiang Zemin had radically reformed and opened up the Chinese economy. Beijing joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 with a huge U.S. assist. With economic reforms came modest legal and political reforms, such as allowing lawyers to redress citizen grievances before local and sometimes central authorities and creating a more consensus-driven elite political system. Deng and Jiang had created a so-called developmental autocracy akin to South Korea and Taiwan before they democratized in the 1980s. During this reform period, engaging China in the hopes that both its political system and national interests would converge with those of the United States seemed reasonable.

But China’s spectacular economic growth and Beijing’s consequent optimism about its future obscured major political changes. By 2002, the CCP’s conservative neo-Marxists, who had been shunted aside by Deng and Jiang, struck back with a vengeance. Hu struggled against his predecessor Jiang’s political moves to remain powerful and influential. Weakened by this factional fighting, Hu buckled under intense pressure from ideological opponents of “reform and opening” and rolled back key economic and legal reforms. He switched from a pro-entrepreneur economic posture to a policy that created national champions. Hundreds of industries deemed “strategic” were consolidated and secured mass subsidies from the state. Beijing once again protected failing Chinese state-owned enterprises. Private entrepreneurs in China suddenly had a difficult time accessing capital.

Hu also placated the neo-Marxists politically. They had argued for expunging so-called spiritual pollution—i.e., Western intellectual, political, and cultural influences—from Chinese society. As internal political attacks against reform and opening continued throughout the early aughts, Hu became alarmed by the pro-democratic color revolutions in Europe and Central Asia and by the Middle East popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring. Hu’s response was to allow his powerful internal security czar, Zhou Yongkang (later considered a political opponent by Xi, who purged him), to build an empire of fear. Zhou became one of the most powerful people in China. He ruthlessly dealt with dissent, expanding the power and resources of China’s internal security apparatus, and reforming the institution. His influence could be felt in China’s courts and intelligence agencies as well. China began turning into a police state under Hu, not Xi.

Hu also set the stage for Xi’s aggressive international diplomacy and accelerated military modernization program. He developed a precursor to Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, asking Chinese state-owned enterprises to “scavenge” the earth for commodities and buy up and invest in overseas companies. He announced “New Historic Missions” by the Chinese military to protect the country’s growing overseas commercial interests, and he began to aggressively advance China’s maritime claims, while pushing the military to leverage international task forces’ missions in the Middle East and Africa to improve China’s power projection capabilities and develop a network of basing and logistical hubs. China’s efforts to build ports and naval facilities throughout the Indian Ocean to protect its energy supplies—its “string of pearls strategy”—began under Hu.

To explain his national goals, and long before Xi adopted the phrase, Hu used the term “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Under Hu, China’s rubber-stamp parliament passed an anti-secession law expanding justifications to allow China to go to war against Taiwan, and China provocatively tested an anti-satellite weapon to signal that it could challenge the United States in space.

Understandably, most U.S. analysts missed this hard turn in Chinese domestic and economic policy. China was still engaging in a charm offensive throughout Southeast Asia and wowed countries with its “Beijing model” of authoritarian capitalism abroad. China’s economy was also still booming from the changes it had made in the 1980s and 1990s that allowed it decades of growth.  It was thus easy to miss Hu’s reversals of economic reforms.

Some Chinese aggressive actions were harder to overlook. Even though China was also suffering economically from the 2008 financial crisis, Beijing believed the United States was suffering more and thus took a confrontational approach toward Washington in the aftermath. Consider the CCP’s 2009 humiliation of U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where the Chinese delegation tanked the talks. Beijing embarrassed the U.S. president again during his first trip to China later that year. Obama was lectured on U.S. economic policy, restricted from speaking to ordinary Chinese citizens, and ignored on human rights issues. The Chinese were also more emphatic about standing up for their “core interests,” and Hu insisted that China needed more influence and power in international politics.

Hu also turned China’s attention to the South China Sea, which it viewed as America’s soft underbelly. He directed China’s military and diplomats to launch a full-court press in Southeast Asia. Foreign oil companies exploring in these seas were sent démarches as objections and were harassed by Chinese naval and civilian law enforcement vessels, even when in international waters. Beijing buttressed its administrative control of disputed waters and islets, and international oil companies were told to stop joint exploration with other South China Sea maritime claimants such as Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. These countries faced unrelenting Chinese diplomatic pressure to cease fishing and oil exploration. In essence, China began treating the South China Sea as Chinese waters—and the activities of other countries in them as violations of China’s laws.

Under Hu, the Chinese navy sent a task force to circle the entire South China Sea and conduct exercises, beginning the now-regular pattern of cutting through the Japanese archipelago and the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines to demonstrate its freedom of action in the Western Pacific. The navy also stationed vessels near several disputed reefs. Beijing’s aggression (and U.S. objections) dominated the July 2010 meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum.

The Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly Islands, close to the Philippines, now exemplifies Chinese attempts to control the South China Sea. Tensions began when the Philippines caught Chinese vessels illegally exploiting the waters around the shoal and attempted to chase them away. China’s responded aggressively to the Philippines by boycotting exports, harassing ships, initiating military pressure, and imposing a unilateral fishing ban. By the end of Hu’s term, China effectively controlled Scarborough Shoal, had started regular patrols in the South China Sea, begun the militarization of islets, and strengthened what it called the Sansha administrative district to govern territories within the South China Sea. Sensing how much resistance this would cause, Hu warned the Chinese navy to “prepare for warfare.”

Xi has gone further than Hu. He has centralized authority and developed a cult of personality that is comparable to Mao Zedong’s. He has done away with the established two-term limit and anointed no successor, leaving no endpoint to his rule. As the CCP response to the coronavirus has shown, he has instilled such fear among officials nationwide that no one will act without permission. He has also been far more open about creating a Chinese world order and challenging the United States for global leadership.

Still, Xi’s policies are not a radical break from Hu’s. They are built on them. U.S. policymakers had ample opportunity to reassess U.S.-China engagement before the current pandemic. And, instead of reevaluating the Sino-American relationship as China grew more aggressive and repressive from 2002 until today, Washington asked the CCP to join in providing global public goods such as international maritime security.

The United States must pay close attention to internal changes within the CCP. A more moderate regime will temper  Chinese foreign policy.  More internal repression equals a more aggressive government. The next thing for policymakers and analysts to watch is the internal reaction to Xi’s massive mistakes, including to the biggest: failing to respond rapidly enough to the coronavirus outbreak.

Elites in China were already frustrated with Xi’s internal and foreign overreach, which they argue caused the United States to impose tariffs, support Taiwan, and increase pushback in the South China Sea. Worrisomely, Xi’s foreign policy will likely become more aggressive as he looks for victories abroad, though a serious internal political fracturing could send China’s foreign policy in unknown directions.

Dan Blumenthal is director of Asian studies at AEI and the author of the forthcoming book “The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State” (AEI Press September, 2020).

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