Person of the Year 2009






Before his elevation in 2003, profiles of China’s new president were often prefaced, ‘Not much is known about Hu Jintao’. Five years on, we know only a little more about the man who leads the most populous nation on Earth.


Two events intensified the world’s gaze on China in 2008: the tragedy of the Sichuan earthquake and the triumph of the Beijing Olympics. Yet neither of these was clear-cut. For while the quake catalysed an unusually open (though not perfect) state response, it also exposed China’s structural corruption and rural poverty. And while the Games were spectacular, their scale and security were premised on a firmly authoritarian grip. These tensions characterise both modern China and Hu himself.


Hu Jintao was born in 1942 to a family of tea merchants. He grew up in Taizhou, Jiangsu, and in 1959 entered Beijing’s Qinghua University, where he excelled in hydroelectric engineering. It was here he met his wife, with whom he has a son and daughter. In 1964, Hu joined the Communist Party and worked as a political instructor, before the Cultural Revolution banished him to the countryside for ‘re-education’. In 1968, he was sent to the desolate Gansu province, where he laboured for a year before he was promoted to technician. Hu worked assiduously, travelled extensively in the region, and formed powerful Party allies.


In 1982, he was transferred to Beijing, and in 1984 he headed the Communist Youth League. A year later, political intrigue forced him back to the provinces as Party Secretary in Guizhou. Yet he shone in this role too, and in 1988 became the first civilian Party Secretary in Tibet.


Interpretations differ as to Hu’s role in the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tibetan unrest, but he proved himself no squeamish moderate, and after Tiananmen Square he did not hesitate to voice his support for the Party.

In 1990, Hu returned to Beijing, where he was propelled by Deng Xiaoping, the author of China’s reform era, to the top ranks of the political hierarchy. After a decade’s tutelage, Hu succeeded Jiang Zemin as China’s top party, government, and military leader between 2002 and 2005.


Some were warily optimistic of Hu as China’s paramount leader, considering him technocratic, pragmatic, and even reforming. His response to the 2003 SARS outbreak was initially secretive, but he responded to international criticism with greater transparency. Similarly, he reacted to protests in Hong Kong by shelving an anti-subversion law. Hu’s ideological innovation is ‘scientific development’, whereby economic growth is tempered by social and ecological considerations for a ‘harmonious society’.


Yet while this ‘people first’ approach has ameliorated corruption, pollution, inequality, and incivility, Hu is unwavering over Tibet and Taiwan, and severe in his treatment of political dissidents, religious activists, and media critics. Hu is working to focus China’s awesome potential so that the environment and the poor are not crushed in the stampede.


But he is far from ushering in Western capitalist democracy. As he said in 2007, ‘only socialism can save China and only reform and opening up can develop China, socialism, and Marxism’.


Hu is expected to retire in 2012, the year London’s Olympics will be compared to Beijing’s. Expect profiles to begin: ‘Not much is known about Hu’s successor . . .’