The Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s recently postponed visits to the White House and Yale University would have marked an important milestone in his political career and U.S.-Sino relations. If not for the unexpected Katrina catastrophe, these high-profile receptions would have been part of this first official visit to the United States as the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), allowing him to finally step out from the long shadow of his power-obsessed predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

Although many China analysts had hoped or predicated that Hu would become a progressive reformer, they were soon disappointed as Hu continued the repressive policies of Jiang toward the media and dissident groups. Today, most Western media sees Hu as a conservative and loyal supporter of the CCP. However, the jury is still out on whether Hu will take China in a new direction when an economic or political crisis threatens the legitimacy of CCP’s rule.

The critical question for China is not whether Hu wants to become the next reformist. The question is whether a crisis will force him to crack down for the sake of the Party (like Deng Xiaoping in the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre), or compel him, like Gorbachev, to free his country from one-party rule and save his own skin.

Today, the CCP is much weakened and besieged from internal strife, huge corruption scandals, labor unrest, and massive peasant riots all over the country. According to a New York Times report by Howard W. French, the Chinese government admitted to over 74,000 demonstrations and riots in 2004 alone. The CCP has turned to stoking the fires of nationalism in a desperate attempt to regain the loyalty of a population that has grown increasingly disillusioned with communism. A case in point is the anti-Japan “mass protests” in April 2005 that were officially sanctioned, orchestrated and even implicitly supported by the Chinese government.

If there is one crisis that troubles Hu and the CCP above all else, it is the four million participants of a growing national movement in China to renounce one’s communist affiliations, or the Tuidang movement. This movement began in December 2004, a month after The Epoch Times published the “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party” and set up a Web site for people to publicly renounce their communist membership. The Nine Commentaries is a series of editorials that gives an uncensored account of CCP’s history, from its rise, ideology and structure to its infamous killing history of 80 million Chinese during its 55-year rule. U.S. Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) compared it to Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” before the American Revolution.

Naturally, the CCP is obsessively worried about the Nine Commentaries and the Tuidang movement because it is a different kind of revolution against a different kind of tyranny. It is a peaceful revolution in the minds of the people against the communist control over free thinking. By pointing out the CCP’s distortion of China’s history, the Nine Commentaries refuted CCP’s claim of legitimacy and sparked a national movement for self-determination and rediscovery of China’s true history.

In response to this movement, Hu launched a national campaign in China to “preserve the advanced nature” of CCP members. The 60 million CCP members must go through communist study sessions and reaffirm their allegiance to the Party. Outside of China, the nuclear threat that Chinese general Zhu Chenghu made against the United States and CNOOC’s high-profile bid for the U.S.-owned Unocal oil company can be understood as signs of CCP’s insecurity and desperation. By flaunting its military and economic muscles (and dropping its “peacefully rising” image), the CCP wants to reassure worried foreign investors, gain international respect and, most importantly, direct the international media’s attention away from its internal woes.

Lacking legitimacy within, the CCP seeks legitimacy from without to buttress its rule. Ironically, although the Chinese government allowed the yuan to appreciate 2 percent and spent $5 billion on Boeing airplanes, Hu could only get a 21-gun salute and a White House lunch reception. In a resounding smack across the face that was heard across the Pacific, the White House repeatedly denied that Hu’s visit to the United States is a “state visit,” thus paying Hu personal honors while denying the CCP the legitimacy it craves.

So who will change China? On his own, Hu will not. But how he responds to the liberalizing changes brought about by the Nine Commentaries and Tuidang movement will be the question of this decade for Hu and his country. At this historic juncture for China, the American role is also critical. A lot depends on whether we will lend legitimacy to a troubled communist regime by giving it “state visit” honors, or whether we choose to side with the Chinese people who are waking up from the communist nightmare and demanding self-determination.

Hao Wang is a junior in Morse College.