Manipal, India — Four years before Chinese President Hu Jintao took over as both head of state and, more importantly in China, head of the Communist Party, this observer of his country had deduced that he was on a steady ascent to full power. Even in 1998 it was clear that the mild-mannered, ever-courteous lifelong Party member was a deadly player on the chessboard of power.
Over the preceding years he had avoided much entanglement with the reigning hierarchies in the only parts of China that President Jiang Zemin was interested in, the high-growth centers along the coast and Beijing. Instead, he used the anti-corruption machinery of the state and Party to prise away those who were less than completely loyal to Deng Xiaoping's personal choice to replace Jiang in 2002.
Barring a handful of provinces, by 1999 Hu had put into position individuals that he could relate to and that were far removed from the glitzy and immensely wealthy Jiang cohort. Over the next couple of years, he interacted extensively with senior military and civilian cadres, almost always leaving the impression of a thoughtful individual whose objective was to ensure the continuation of China's ascent begun under Mao and Deng.
Very little of this came out even in the Chinese media, and in the Jiang-obsessed Western press there was almost zero mention of the Heir Apparent. Not that this bothered Hu. He knew that what counted was not a Kissingerian celebrity status but IOUs on the inside, and of these he had accumulated a copious amount. Silently, almost secretly, Hu ensured that the ruling hierarchy in that huge part of China ignored by Jiang looked upon him as a deliverer from the neglect of the past decade, even while the military accepted his patriotic credentials and an ability to stand apart from Western needs and perceptions -- even oppose them -- that Jiang Zemin never seriously attempted
As the time came for the handover of the baton from Jiang to Hu, the international media speculated that the new general secretary would have to remain content with just that job, leaving the titles of head of state and chairman of the Central Military Commission to Jiang.
When Hu took over as both Party and state chief, commentators spoke of how the continuation of Jiang in the CMC was evidence that it was Jiang Zemin who was still in charge, even though the older man had "generously permitted the younger to grab the spotlight." For now. It was regarded as only a matter of time before Jiang's men would elbow out Hu's backers from the top slots.
Five years after such a forecast was first made, and despite no facts on the ground indicating that this was correct, even right before the Party Congress there was intense international media speculation about Hu getting marginalized by his predecessor, especially in the matter of his own successor.
The reality is that Hu is very much in command, and has been since 2002. Even at that point in time, he could have taken over the CMC chairmanship as well, but allowed Jiang to occupy the office for a while longer in order to save face. Indeed, he sanctioned a massive office complex for Jiang in Beijing that is the most over-furnished but under-worked in the city's VIP district.
It is this very Chinese regard for "face" that has obscured the immense shift that has taken place in China, from the West-centric, business-oriented crowd around Jiang to the technocrats and specialists around Hu. The shift in China has been as profound as that which took place in Russia when Boris Yeltsin was replaced by Vladimir Putin, but because it has happened away from the media -- and involves individuals who, unlike the Jiang set, dislike interacting with the international media -- the shift in power in China has been as little understood as that in Russia was until a couple of years ago
Not that the international media or pundits can be blamed for missing out on the significance of the transition from "Westernizer" Jiang to "Asian (mainly Chinese) nationalist" Hu. After all, very few of those close to the current Chinese president travel abroad with anything approaching the frequency of the visits made by the Jiang cohort. According to the new team, stays in Paris and London are for tourists, not serious people, who are instead concentrating on Africa, South America and in those parts of Asia which foreign and economic policy errors, not to mention the racist immigration policies of the European Union, have prised loose from the West.
Unlike Jiang, who shouted aloud but seldom brought out the stick, Hu Jintao has made China a formidable competitor for U.S.-EU influence across the globe, providing the same geopolitical option for, among several others, Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmedinejad that the fall of the USSR temporarily took away in 1991.
Across the world, Hu's China is emerging as a formidable competitor to the brief unipolar status of the United States, aware that the low prices of Chinese goods make them politically impossible to replace, no matter how shrill the rhetoric of the Peter Mandelsons. If inflation is low in the United States and the European Union, a lot of the credit goes to the Chinese worker, who is waiting to experience the benefits of a better lifestyle that Hu and his team have promised him.
And it is here that China's president will be challenged. Not within his own Party, which has for years accepted him as the only Top Gun in the system, but among the people of China, who are battling with a miserable health care system, expensive education for their children and low-income jobs despite all the hype about China rising.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University.)