My College Upper Classman, Hu Jintao

Wan Runnan (R) met Hu Jintao (C), then secretary of Guizhou Provincial Committee of the Communist Party in 1987.

Hu Jintao was my upper classman when we were both students at Tsinghua University . Forty years ago, we belonged to the same culture and arts group on campus, and as such dined in the same cafeteria, lived in the same dormitory, and took part in activities of the same branch of the Communist Youth League. We were quite close during that period. So listening to the speech he gave at Yale University recently raised some peculiar emotions in me.

Hu said: “Coming to the Yale campus, with its distinctive academic flavor, and looking at the eager young faces in the audience, I cannot but recall my great experience studying at Tsinghua University in Beijing 40 years ago. Indeed, what happens during one’s school year will influence his whole life. I still benefit greatly from the instruction and my interaction with other students.”

The Top Political Counselor of the Cultural and Arts Group

Among the teachings of our professors, most important were those of university president Jiang Nanxiang. In the welcoming party for freshmen, president Jiang told us, “Students educated at Tsinghua will play an important role in the political life of our country 20 years later.” I did not understand what he meant then, but I have come to understand it better now.

In her 300 years of history, Yale has produced many members of the elite, among them five presidents of the United States . But in 20 years, Tsinghua produced four members of the current Standing Committee of the Politburo, including Hu Jintao. From the standpoint of timing, Tsinghua exhibits a better efficiency.

How did president Jiang Nanxiang achieve this? Mainly by using a system of “political counselors” to train student cadres. At the time I was there, the student cultural and arts group had four counselors: Yin Fusheng, Hu Jintao, Li Guiqiu and Ren Lihan. Among them, Yin and Li were cold and remote, and Hu and Ren more personable. But they all had something in common: obedience and efficiency. Their nicknames were indicative of their roles and characters: Three were given a nickname based on their names: Lao Yin (meaning Old Yin), Li Gui, and Xiao Han (meaning Little Han). Only Hu Jintao was called “Commander.” Why was he addressed this way? I once asked Lao Yin. He said he had no idea. But it now seems this nickname was accurate. Hu rose from “Commander” of the student cultural and arts group to “Commander” of the Youth League of the communist party, then to Commander of Guizhou Province and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and now of the whole country.

But among the four counselors of the cultural and arts group at the time, Lao Yin had the most superficial resemblance to a “Commander.” Among the four, Lao Yin was the branch secretary, or top leader. Hu was the group leader, that is, second in command. The two of them worked together very well. Lao Yin was a strong and single-minded leader, while Hu was modest and easy-going, understanding and considerate. When they conducted meetings, it was Lao Yin who drew the line and summed things up, while Hu filled in the blanks and meticulously finalized the details.

During the early days of the Cultural Revolution, the four counselors jointly issued a big character poster in defense of the university Party committee with the title “The Party Committee of Tsinghua is Yan’an, not Xi’an .” This move was led by Yin, and Hu just signed his name. Later on in the Cultural Revolution, Lao Yin was involved in all the important events on the campus, but Hu stayed very low key, never actively participating again. There was a clear division among the supporters and opponents of Lao Yin, but Hu had practically no opponents. Being modest, easygoing and good-natured, he won the friendship of everyone. As for looks, Lao Yin was dark and handsome, with penetrating eyes, while Hu Jintao had a fair complexion and regular features that contributed to his gentle and courteous image. As Chinese say, hard and rigid things break easily, while soft and flexible things can weather through. Likewise, Hu Jintao was able to overcome hurdles and opponents on his way and finally became the ultimate “Commander.”

Travels with Hu

During that period, to get things done I would rather follow Lao Yin, but for leisure activities I would rather follow Hu. During the Cultural Revolution, while writing big character posters and organizing struggle groups, I always stuck with Lao Yin; for traveling outside the campus to establish ties with other groups or taking sight-seeing trips, I would stick with Hu. I took two of these tie-establishing trips, one on my own, traveling from Beijing to Guangzhou and subsequently to Hainan Island , Zhanjiang , Nanning , Guilin and Shanghai ; and the other one with Hu.

The two of us started from Beijing , traveling to Xi’an , Chengdu and Chongqing , and then in Chongqing took a boat heading east along the Yangtze River . We rarely mentioned the Cultural Revolution on the trip, but rather immersed ourselves in the scenery: the simple classical atmosphere of Xi’an , the bustling prosperity of Chengdu , the rolling hills of Chongqing , the precipitous Three Gorges, the vast expanse of the Yangtze. Hu disembarked in Nanjing , presumably returning to his native place of Taizhou; I took off in Shanghai , also paying a visit to my home. Along the way, it was Hu who looked after me. He took the initiative in making all the arrangements, while making me feel respected, and with an attentiveness and thoroughness that made me feel comfortable all the way.

Hu Jintao was in the fifth class of the hydraulics department, and he should have graduated in 1965. As a political counselor, he would normally have graduated a year later than his classmates, but in his case the postponement brought him right into the Cultural Revolution period, and he did not leave Tsinghua until 1968. I remember that he was deployed to Liujiaxia , Gansu Province. Before leaving Beijing , he treated Lao Yin and me to dinner. Saying that we had to fleece him, Lao Yin picked the Jinyang Restaurant. It was the first time I had gone to a big restaurant in Beijing .

Jinyang had once been the library of Yuewei Cottage, home of the renowned Qing Dynasty scholar Ji Xiaolan, whose Yuewei Cottage Sketchbook I admired. The courtyard was quiet, deep and wide, with carved wooden pillars, and was considered to reflect a genuine flavor of Shanxi Province , the first such restaurant in Beijing . Here one dined among the fragrance of books. As I recall, we had a few drinks that day. The three of us could not help but sigh over the knowledge that our farewell would correspond with the Chinese saying,

“Tomorrow we will be separated by mountains and the vastness of world events.”

Indeed, this parting ultimately lasted 14 years. In 1982, while serving as a member of the Gansu Province Construction Committee, Hu was dispatched to Beijing to study in the Central Party School . At that time I was working in the computer center of Academia Sinica in Beijing . To report to the Party School , Hu took a bus from the train station. When the bus reached Huangzhuang Station, Hu made a point of stopping off to see me briefly. Later on he was assigned to work in the central office of the Youth League, and the reports and word of mouth from various circles were pretty good. For some reason, I felt personally honored.

Another five years passed. In 1987, private entrepreneurs in the technology industry held a meeting in Guiyang City . Stone Corp., the computer company I founded, had already won a reputation. Hu was then the Party secretary of Guizhou Province , and I made an appointment to pay him a visit at his office. The reception room was warm and simple, even more so than my office, which was already very simple for a corporate president. Hu was still modest and cautious. From our conversation, I gathered that he was on good terms with the various circles of influence in his province. This had always been his strength. Officials from the provincial science committee accompanied me during the meeting. We chatted about the planning of science and technology development and also science enterprises. When I departed, Hu insisted I take two bottles of Maotai. I had no doubt that they were the genuine stuff.

The Parting of Ways

Then came the political disturbances of 1989. After that, the trajectories of our lives spun off in two extremes, but deep in my heart, I have continued to wish him well. First I wished him a smooth power succession, and then that he could make a genuine contribution. When news broke out that he had sent people to Europe to study the development of social democracy, and that he made arrangements for the Politburo to study constitutional law when he first made it to the top, that he spoke publicly about the havoc wreaked by SARS, that he brushed aside objections to memorial activities for Hu Yaobang, he ignited a certain hope. However, his speech on the need to learn from Cuba and North Korea was extremely disappointing.

But these hopes and disappointments are my own problem, and nothing to do with Hu. As Zen Buddhists say, “What matters is what moves the heart, not what moves the flag.” He is still the “obedient and efficient” Hu Jintao within the Communist system.

Still immersed in my worldly dreams, I recently wrote three essays: “Parting with the Communist,” “Why the Communist Party is Not Yet Finished” and “Communist on the High Planes.” The first was to mourn the passing of an elder, the second to sort out my own thoughts, and the third as suggestions to those both in and out of office. Whether anyone will take any notice of them is not something that I can allow to concern me.

I will probably stop writing this kind of essay from now on. So many people are writing that no one will notice my absence. I would like to write about things that I want to and things that only I can write; to tell my own story. I plan to write 100 pieces regarding “My Years in Tsinghua,” 100 pieces on “The Stone Corp. Story” and 100 pieces on “Life in Exile,” just to give an account of my life.

After reading what I wrote recently, someone said, “Wan Runnan, it seems you have no intention to go back (to China ).” True, except for my parents who are now in their eighties, I don’t have much that concerns me there. Some time ago, my mother came down with acute pneumonia, running a fever of 39.6 ℃ . The hospital said she was in critical condition, and some faithful friends tried to arrange for my return. But I made it very clear: I would not say anything against my conscience. At this age, I want to remain true to myself. Although it ultimately did not work out, I am most grateful for the kindness of my friends, to the bottom of my heart.

Wan Runnan

Editor’s Note: The author was personally acquainted with Hu Jintao, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, when both were students at Beijing ‘s Tsinghua University . Mr. Wan later became president of Beijing-based Stone Corp. before fleeing into exile after the “June 4 th” incident of 1989. Here he writes of his friendship with Hu during their college years before each eventually went his own way. This is a valuable historical piece for the study of the fourth generation of Chinese communist leaders.

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