An effervescent character he is not. He is introverted, reserved, and maintains an expressionless face. He seldom tells jokes. He gives boilerplate speeches that rarely draw lasting attention. He is old, wears thick glasses, and stands a whole head shorter than Barack Obama.
Yet, he is one of the most successful leaders in the world today.
Even as President Hu Jintao of China steps down after a decade of rule, he remains well-loved by hundreds of millions of his countrymen. In a 2012 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 82 percent of Chinese surveyed were satisfied with their country’s direction. Only 29 percent of Americans felt the same way about the United States’ direction.
What is the appeal of Hu Jintao?
He has captured the imagination of millions of patriotic Chinese, who see the 21st century as a golden period for a rising China. Over this past decade, China has averaged 10 percent GDP growth, hosted a successful Olympics, and launched men into space. Having exceeded the $3 trillion mark, China’s foreign currency reserves now represent the world’s single biggest pile of wealth. And as Hu Jintao leaves office, he leaves behind a country with the world’s largest modernized electric grid, the world’s longest high-speed rail network, and the Three Gorges Dam.
Compare this to the war-torn China that Hu and his fellow citizens grew up in. As a young boy, Hu grew up watching China emerge from the Sino-Japanese war, which cost 20 million Chinese lives. By the time of his twentieth birthday, Hu had witnessed his country emerge from a civil war, the Korean War, and a famine that cost another 30 million lives. The China of old was a decrepit, impoverished civilization with a cursed capacity for human suffering.
Trained as an engineer, Hu spent his entire career helping to fix China’s many problems. Yet, despite his many accomplishments, Hu Jintao kept a low profile. How many of Hu’s speeches have made primetime news on BBC or the front pages of the International Herald Tribune? Does anyone remember a single controversial phrase uttered by China’s president?
In a world where politicians often display Trump-like egos, Hu maintains a modest, quiet demeanor. Surely there is something inspiring about the humility of the man.
Now, a decade after entering office, Hu steps down as a leader of a rising power. No doubt China still faces mammoth challenges, but it is nonetheless on the path to prosperity. Every year, China crosses yet another milestone: dominating another industry, launching another spacecraft, or producing another gold medalist in a sport that Chinese people aren’t known for being good at. And as President Hu retires, he will remain widely admired for his role in helping to restore a civilization to its former glory.
Perhaps this tells us something about the nature of leadership. Reserved, reflective, and cautious, President Hu is living proof that competence can sometimes outweigh charisma, accomplishment can sometimes outweigh adulation, and that purposefulness can sometimes outweigh popularity.
Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs on Wednesdays
The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.