When Hu Jintao succeeded Jiang Zemin as Chinese president in March 2003, he embarked on a series of state visits to boost economic links. He was the very picture of a technocrat, the chief executive of China plc. Yet outsiders still weren't sure how they should view him, or his country. The Chinese people enjoy greater personal freedom today than at any time since the "liberation" of 1949, yet the country remains a communist autocracy: it is still a one-party state, public dissent is punishable and justice is a creature of power.
China is controlled by the collective leadership of the Communist Party; it is a "Party dictatorship". Hu Jintao is the Party chief, head of state and chairman of the central military commission. But he himself is not a dictator. Ranged around and beneath him is a vast bureaucratic system, with competing institutions and ministries, princes and barons, some so powerful that they can challenge Hu, either collectively or separately.
This method of government is not new. The "First Emperor", Qin Shi Huang, who unified China 2,200 years ago, favoured a strong central authority flanked by an army of bureaucrats - the Mandarins. In China, the power balance between ruler and bureaucracy is always an intricate one. A strong ruler controls the bureaucrats; a weak one can be controlled by them. In the first case, the danger is tyranny; in the second, it is immobility leading to disintegration. Either way, the people are the last to hear and the first to suffer.
Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were strong rulers, true successors to the authoritarian imperial tradition. Hu is essentially a mandarin. He now has the delicate task of running both a communist autocracy and a dynamic market economy. China's growing official corruption suggests that, the faster the economy grows, the greater the pressure on the authorities to accept the rule of law. This does not mean they will, though.
Xiao Jia Gu is a specialist writer on Chinese culture