Ten years ago, China's "crown prince," Hu Jintao, visited the United States and was treated with the highest respect. Back then the Chinese people, not to mention a large portion of Western political elites and China experts, held extremely high hopes for his tenure. The U.S. government wanted to win over Hu so it could press him to start political reform as soon as possible.
Now, with Hu's reign coming to an end, the Chinese people have realized that after Mao Zedong, no Chinese leader has been as hostile to the West as President Hu. Instead of launching political reforms, he tried to use the Chinese model of "crony capitalism" to compete with the Western democratic system. And the state of human rights in China took a huge step backward.
My own experience serves as proof. During the Jiang Zemin era from 1997 to 2002, I participated in many human rights activities, such as running the Independent Chinese Pen Center with Liu Xiaobo and sending out open letters, including one suggesting changing Mao's mausoleum into a museum about the Cultural Revolution. Secret police trailed me and tapped my phone, but they did so quietly, and with a sense of integrity. In 2009, during the Hu era, I published a book about Premier Wen Jiabao, claiming he wasn't a real reformer. That year, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, police used a table to block my door and wouldn't let me leave my apartment. They acted brazenly and without a sense of shame. In October 2010, after Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, they put me under house arrest and then kidnapped and tortured me. One of the secret police warned me: "We could bury you alive within half an hour." I believed him. In the Hu era, China has taken a big step toward fascism.
We all fall in the same place we have fallen in the past. Now that Xi Jinping is visiting the United States as the successor to the throne, people are reprojecting the ardent hopes they had for Hu onto Xi. Will Xi become China's Mikhail Gorbachev or its Boris Yeltsin?
Optimism pervades everywhere. Most surprising is the view of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, who met with Xi in 2007 and concluded: "I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings affect his judgment."
"Personal misfortunes?" That stunned me. Xi isn't any more like Mandela than Adolf Hitler is like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Mandela spent 27 years in a dark prison for the cause of freedom and human rights. Those are Mandela's "personal misfortunes." After getting out of jail, in the spirit of forgiveness and benevolence, he transformed South Africa's society into one where different ethnicities could settle their differences. He was a man worthy of the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Xi, the offspring of a high leader who temporarily fell from power, was engulfed by one of Mao's political campaigns and sent to a poor village in western China. Xi has never publicly questioned or criticized that period. He said that period of "eating bitterness" only increased his loyalty to the Communist Party.