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Hu hiccup gives vent to China power speculation
When Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke to the nation this week, an unusual six-second pause may have said more about elite politics in this secretive state than the other 90 minutes of
stolid Communist Party rhetoric. In an address marking 30 years of economic reforms, Hu appeared to lose his place in the middle of a sentence, halting awkwardly for 6.5 seconds — the only such break in his speech and an extremely rare bump for Chinese officials long-practised in flawlessly reading out speeches.
When Hu picked up again, he skipped a chunk of the prepared comments, forming a sentence that appears in none of the official transcripts of his speech, nor any Chinese press report. “One
centre”, he said, then went silent before continuing, “is the lifeline of our Party and our nation.” The official transcript read, “one centre and two basic points are mutually linked,
mutually dependent”, a slogan coined in the 1980s in which “one centre” has a purely economic meaning.
In skipping the second part of the slogan, some thought Hu was using “one centre” in a political sense, referring to himself as that nation’s paramount leader. Hu’s pause could have been a simple verbal misstep. But it came in a passage broaching the touchiest of issues for the 65-year-old president, who also serves as Party chief: how much power does he wield and has he
won the “core” status accorded early leaders. And some observers spied a message in Hu’s silence.
Faced with his stiffest challenge yet as the economy slows sharply, Hu may have been trying to stress to the Party that he was still firmly in charge. Even had he lost his place during the address, the “one centre” phrase leads into a slogan repeated so often by Chinese officials that it would be unusual for Hu to have missed its second part. “One centre is the lifeline. It doesn’t imply another way,” said a Chinese scholar, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of talking about the top leadership.
The setting for Hu’s speech, given before ranks of senior officials, retired and in office, seated in the huge Great Hall of the People magnified the potential significance of his comments. The highest-ranking Party officials sat on the stage behind Hu and directly to his rear was Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor as president who still wields huge influence. Hu had paid tribute to Jiang earlier during his speech, using an officially sanctioned phrase to call him “the core of the Party’s third generation of leadership”. The assembled Party members gave Jiang a strong round of applause. Hu, the paramount leader of the so-called fourth generation, is still not referred to as its “core” despite having ascended to the presidency in 2003.
The “one centre” phrase also recalled comments reportedly made by army officials in 2003 when Hu was consolidating his power but Jiang was still chairman of the Central Military Commission. “One centre is called loyalty. Two centres strung together is trouble,” two military delegates to the National People’s Congress, or parliament, told Hu and Jiang, according to the Liberation Army Daily newspaper.
Speculation that the omission in the speech may hint at cracks at the top of China’s leadership pyramid is officially denied and also dismissed by many observers. “Take what is in the People’s
Daily as accurate,” the State Council Information Office, the media arm of the government, told Reuters. The People’s Daily transcript included the text skipped by Hu in his speech, effectively erasing his one-centre-as-lifeline comment.
Jin Zhong, publisher of Hong Kong’s monthly Kaifang, or Open, magazine, said Hu may simply be trying to alter Deng’s “one centre” slogan, looking to replace the second half that he left out with his own views.
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