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Hu Jintao

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Hu Jintao Guang Niu / Getty Images

China's former General Secretary, Hu Jintao, looks like a quiet, kindly sort of technocrat. Under his rule, however, China ruthlessly crushed dissent from Han Chinese and ethnic minorities alike, even as the country continued to grow in economic and political clout on the world stage.

Who was the man behind the friendly mask, and what motivated him?

Early Life:

Hu Jintao was born in the city of Jiangyan, central Jiangsu Province, on December 21, 1942. His family belonged to the poor end of the "petit bourgeois" class. Hu's father, Hu Jingzhi, ran a small tea shop in the small town of Taizhou, Jiangsu. His mother died when Hu was only seven years old, and the boy was raised by his aunt.

Education:

An exceptionally bright and diligent student, Hu attended the prestigious Qinghua University in Beijing, where he studied hydroelectric engineering. He is rumored to have a photographic memory, a handy trait for Chinese-style schooling.

Hu is said to have enjoyed ballroom dancing, singing, and table tennis in university. A fellow student, Liu Yongqing, became Hu's wife; they have a son and a daughter.

In 1964, Hu joined the Chinese Communist Party, just as the Cultural Revolution was being born. His official biography doesn't reveal what part, if any, Hu played in the excesses of the next few years.

Early Career:

Hu graduated from Qinghua University in 1965, and went to work in Gansu Province at a hydro-power facility. He moved to the Sinohydro Engineering Bureau Number 4 in 1969, and worked in the engineering department there until 1974. Hu remained politically active during this time, working his way up within the hierarchy of the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Power.

Disgrace:

Two years in to the Cultural Revolution, in 1968, Hu Jintao's father was arrested for "capitalist transgressions." He was publicly tortured in a "struggle session," and endured such harsh treatment in prison that he never recovered.

The elder Hu died ten years later, in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution. He was only 50 years old.

Hu Jintao went home to Taizhou after his father's death to try to persuade the local revolutionary committee to clear Hu Jingzhi's name. He spent more than a month's wages on a banquet, but no officials turned up. Reports vary as to whether Hu Jingzhi has ever been exonerated.

Entry Into Politics:

In 1974, Hu Jintao became the Secretary of the Construction Department of Gansu. Provincial Governor Song Ping took the young engineer under his wing, and Hu rose to Vice Senior Chief of the Department in just one year.

Hu became Deputy Director of the Gansu Ministry of Construction in 1980, and went to Beijing in 1981 along with Deng Xiaoping's daughter, Deng Nan, to be trained at the Central Party School. His contacts with Song Ping and the Deng family led to rapid promotions for Hu. The following year, Hu was transferred to Beijing and appointed to the secretariat of the Communist Youth League Central Committee.

Rise to Power:

Hu Jintao became provincial governor of Guizhou in 1985, where he gained party notice for his careful handling of the 1987 student protests. Guizhou is far from the seat of power, a rural province in the south of China, but Hu capitalized on his position while there.

In 1988, Hu was promoted once more to Party Chief of the restive Tibet Autonomous Region. He led a political crackdown on the Tibetans in early 1989, which delighted the Central Government in Beijing. Tibetans were less charmed, especially after rumors flew that Hu was implicated in the sudden death of the 51-year-old Panchen Lama that same year.

Politburo Membership:

At the 14th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which met in 1992, Hu Jintao's old mentor Song Ping recommended his protege as a possible future leader of the country. As a result, the 49-year-old Hu was approved as one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee.

In 1993, Hu was confirmed as heir apparent to Jiang Zemin, with appointments as the leader of the Secretariat of the Central Committee and the Central Party School. Hu became Vice President of China in 1998, and finally Party General Secretary (President) in 2002.

Policies as General Secretary:

As President, Hu Jintao liked to tout his ideas of "Harmonious Society" and "Peaceful Rise."

China's increased prosperity over the previous 10-15 years had not reached all sectors of society. Hu's Harmonious Society model aimed to bring some of the benefits of China's success to the rural poor, through more private enterprise, greater personal (but not political) freedom, and a return to some welfare support provided by the state.

Under Hu, China expanded its influence overseas in resource-rich developing nations such as Brazil, Congo, and Ethiopia. It has also pressed North Korea to give up its nuclear program.

Opposition and Human Rights Abuses:

Hu Jintao was relatively unknown outside of China before he assumed the Presidency. Many outside observers believed that he, as a member of a newer generation of Chinese leaders, would prove far more moderate than his predecessors. Hu instead showed himself to be a hard-liner in many respects.

In 2002, the central government cracked down on dissenting voices in the state-controlled media and also threatened dissident intellectuals with arrest. Hu seemed to be particularly aware of the dangers to authoritarian rule inherent in the internet. His government adopted strict regulations on internet chat sites, and blocked access to news and search engines at will. Dissident Hu Jia was sentenced to three and a half years in jail in April of 2008 for calling for democratic reforms.

Death penalty reforms enacted in 2007 may have decreased the number of executions carried out by China, since capital punishment is now reserved for only "extremely vile criminals," as the Supreme People's Court Chief Justice Xiao Yang has stated. Human rights groups estimate that the number of executions dropped from about 10,000 to a mere 6,000 - still considerably more than the rest of the world's toll put together. The Chinese government considers its execution statistics a state secret, but did reveal that 15% of lower court death sentences were overturned on appeal in 2008.

Most troubling of all was the treatment of the Tibetan and Uighur minority groups under Hu's government. Activists in both Tibet and Xinjiang (East Turkestan) have called for independence from China. Hu's government responded by encouraging mass migration of ethnic Han Chinese to both frontier areas to dilute the restive populations, and by cracking down hard on dissidents (whom it labels "terrorists" and "separatist agitators"). Hundreds of Tibetans were killed, and thousands of both Tibetans and Uighurs were arrested, never to be seen again. Human rights groups noted that many dissidents face torture and extrajudicial executions in China's prison system.

Retirement:

On March 14, 2013, Hu Jintao stepped down as President of the People's Republic of China. He was succeeded by Xi Jinping.

Overall, Hu led China to further economic growth throughout his tenure, as well as to the triumph of the 2012 Beijing Olympics. Xi Jinping's government may be hard-pressed to match Hu's record.

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