Global News Journal

Beyond the World news headlines

Hu hiccup gives vent to China power speculation

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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.

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