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.
Ever since the 1989 suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese people no longer believe in the legality of the Communist Party. Its ability to grow the economy has become the party's only selling point. Even so, the growth we've seen hasn't been the "common prosperity" that is the goal of communism, but rather a group of highly corrupt bureaucrats monopolizing China's wealth and resources. The daughter of former Premier Li Peng runs a major subsidy of China Power; his son is vice governor of Shanxi, one of China's major coal-producing provinces. Examples abound. Many high leaders' families do real estate development: Xi sister Xi Qiaoqiao and her husband Deng Jiagui own a major real estate company named Beijing Central People's Trust Real Estate Development Corporation Ltd. They have the easiest method of doing business: Many local government officials offer the company the best land in order to improve their relationship with Xi Jinping.
People say Hu and Xi belong to different political factions. They say Hu comes from the Communist Youth League and is therefore more populist, whereas Xi, because he represents the "princelings" -- sons and daughters of high officials -- works in service of the wealthier coastal provinces. I think they're not that dissimilar. No matter if it's Hu or Xi, they're still only representative of the few-hundred families who make up the Chinese aristocracy. They are not in office thanks to a Western-style election, but are the products of a black-box operation. They didn't rise because they're clever and capable, but precisely because they're mediocre. They are where they are today because they are harmless to the special interest groups that run China.
Like Hu, if Xi has any special ability, it's his ability to balance himself on a steel wire. Xi served in Hubei, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, among other places. Nowhere does he have any political accomplishments worth praising, or any offenses worth condemning. No one knows his real thoughts: He hides them even deeper than Hu did before he became chairman. Unlike Bo Xilai, a fellow princeling who has been conducting Mao-style politics in Chongqing, the city that he runs, Xi has no edges or corners.
Xi's family background appeases China's senior statesmen: He's "their man." Xi was in the army; the military and other powerful departments all support him. Xi's father was a liberal, so the groups with reformist aspirations preserve that fantasy in their hearts.
In today's China, where vested interests have solidified like concrete, at most Xi is the country's "chief maintenance officer." As the Communist Party's crisis of rule grows more serious by the day, China needs a charismatic and farsighted leader. Xi is neither. The party's talent-selection mechanism has already rotted -- they're no longer able to produce people like Zhao Ziyang or Hu Yaobang, the type of excellent leaders China had in the 1980s (both were deposed by former leader Deng Xiaoping because they wanted to change the system).
They say Xi will rule us for a decade, but can this outwardly strong but inwardly weak regime maintain itself for another 10 years? Economic development cannot continue at this same speed. When Hu passes the power to Xi, he will finally be able to breathe a big sigh of relief knowing that he won't be the last king of a dynasty. Will Xi be able to say the same?