Hu hiccup gives vent to China power speculation

December 19, 2008

By Benjamin Kang Lim and Simon Rabinovitch

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.

What do you think?


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He just lost his place in the sentence. It happens often during long speeches.

Posted by Larry Green | Report as abusive

The Chinese state is a reformed constitutional state today. Its origin as the Ch’in state and replacement by the Han ensured that these patterns should remain in the character of China through its cycles of dynasties. As a reformed Empire today, we can know the character of Mao as similar to the worst aspects of Ch’in Shih Huang-tse, while we are patiently working to support China in its continued development from a class society yet one divided according to its long-standing divisors. These are referenced in the pause, where traditional divisions between provinces and the capital, between the bureaucracy and the ruler, between the army and the bureaucracy, between the army and the center (ie. the emperor) and between north and south China still exist today. As Confucius stated originally, prior to the construction of ornate temples in his name, Li are found throughout nature and society as a part of nature, much as stated by Thomas Jefferson in the introduction for the Declaration of Independence.

Posted by Eric Hands | Report as abusive

Whether or not there was a pause, clearly President Hu was in control as the head of the nation. Otherwise, the state could not function.
The difference between western and eastern rulers is the immense respect by the current leaders for their past or retired mentors in the socialist society.

Posted by Yap | Report as abusive

They still lack the ideas and innovation to save their country.

Posted by phobe lexx | Report as abusive

It is little secret that this present CCP regime is a hybrid of at least three party centers (interest groups), with the clique of President Hu’s Communist Youth League, the CCP princelings represented by Xi Jinping, and the notorious Jiang Zemin and his proteges. Jiang and his pawns manage to continue exert enormous influence at the powerful Politburo, turning Hu’s presidency the feeblest of all CCP emperors since 1949. Hu’s hiccup on “one center” during the speech appears to be a natural react to this multi-center regime and out of his instinctual fear of offending Jiang who has been looking for an excuse to oust Hu at any opportunity. This is a regime that is delicately put together as any misstep could lead to the tilt of the present power balance, hence the desperate call for “stability above all.”

Posted by Erping Zhang | Report as abusive

What is fascinating is that in this huge country and in this modern age, we still have so little idea what is going on among the Chinese leadership…

Posted by tom s | Report as abusive

Notice too that praise of Hu’s “scientific development concept” seems to have grown more widespread in China state media. We hear about cadres at all Party levels, including the very top, forming study groups on how to “uphold” the concept. The same thing happened with Jiang’s “three represents” when he was trying to solidify his power base later in his presidency.
Hu may well have just lost his place, but he clearly hopes to consolidate power too.

Posted by Owen Fletcher | Report as abusive

Globalization has rendered the pyramid of CCP/Politburo
into various factional groups to cope with demands of adjustment to financial and related crisis with US and world. How mainland China comes out of this crisis will decide the place of Hu in the heirarchy.

Posted by hari | Report as abusive

[…] rare silence during a speech by President Hu Jintao gives rise to a flurry of speculation about the motive and meaning behind the missing words. [Reuters Global News […]

Posted by China Journal : Best of the China Blogs: December 22 | Report as abusive

It says a lot about China in the 21st century that 6.5 seconds of silence has Beijingologists reading the tealeaves in a way highly reminiscent of the Mao era.

Posted by Michael Rank | Report as abusive

“They still lack the ideas and innovation to save their country.”

what a joke… doesnt even has the right to comments on this right now, you guys are the people who lack the ideas and innovation to save your own country now

stop being arrogant anymore, and dont spend too much on your credit card….

Posted by denny | Report as abusive

Looking for clues in Chinese rhetoric is like looking for a needle in a haystack in my opinion. This is especially true for politicians. Everything from speeches to academia that emerges from the political class is usually extremely straightforward. There is rarely subtle commentary to decipher “in between the lines,” and the same is true in this case (in my opinion). It was probably the fact good old Hu Jin, as the pillar of Chinese leadership did not want to be seen choking on his own words. It doesn’t look good to choke in public if you’re a big leader. Anyone remember what happened to Bush when he choked on the pretzel? Hehe

Posted by Bennett Reiss | Report as abusive

My initial response to the article was to conclude that it was a “verbal misstep”. But on giving it more thought it seems there is more. While the pause is understandable, his inability to finish the second part of a phrase repeated so often is not. Because of that, I think there’s some intentionality to Hu’s pause and choice of words.

Posted by Mike | Report as abusive

Since economic prosperity and growth was the basis of the Communist Party’s legitimacy, the economic slowdown must be making many in government nervous and restless. No doubt, there seems to be a jostling for power in Beijing, but that was always present in varying degrees. I wonder if there is now a new jostling for ideology. Some could argue that Hu’s and Wen Jiabao’s “scientific development” mantra has failed as much as Jiang’s “Three Represents” idea, in that it has not made China safe from economic instability. Others with other ideas must see this moment as an opportunity and perhaps Hu wants to let them know he is still very much in charge (or at least, very much wanting and fighting to be in charge).

I wonder what will happen if China’s sick banks also start revealing the full extent of their own exposures to the subprime crisis….

Posted by Jehangir Pocha | Report as abusive

If every country gets one Hu Jianao, whole world will be a developed place. I salute the work he has done for his country.

Amaresh Gangal

Posted by Amaresh_Gangal | Report as abusive