Mao Zedong once described the Chinese people as "poor and blank." He saw these qualities as virtues, he said, because "on a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written." Chairman Mao filled in the blankness, all too often with chaos.
In today's China, it is the top leaders who seem blank. Two years after taking power, President Hu Jintao, 62, remains an enigma to the outside world and to the Chinese he rules. Here's what we know: Hu has evinced concern for the plight of ordinary peasants; there are rumors he likes ballroom dancing; some say he is a liberal at heart. Hu rose through the ranks of the Communist Party by not being outspoken and not offending important personages.
But if the record reveals little about Hu, it says plenty about China. Today's leaders are reserved and ascetic, willing to forgo grandstanding, bold position taking and self-promotion. As the economy motors ahead, what's needed is not a grandiose leader but the equivalent of a skilled hotel manager who, by coordinating complex forces, factions and egos and without becoming too partisan or revealing too much, can keep things functioning. Hu's reluctance to write himself more boldly may also show he hasn't fully prevailed over the Shanghai faction associated with his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. If he can accomplish that, we'll see if he lives up to the hopes that he has a plan for political reform.
Schell is dean of the graduate school of journalism at U.C. Berkeley.