China is expected to announce a new leader to succeed President Jiang Zemin, during the 16th Communist Party Congress. Vice-President Hu Jintao is likely to become the new party chief when the congress ends this month, and the new president next March. But very little is known about the man tipped to govern the world's most populous country, or how much real power he will wield.
Leadership transitions in communist China have always been messy. Two successors originally chosen by Chairman Mao Zedong died in infamy, after being dismissed as disloyal. Two anointed by supreme leader Deng Xiaoping were cast aside for being too liberal. So although there is a general expectation that Vice-President Hu Jintao will become China's new ruler, nothing about this succession is certain.
Chinese state media have never stated that Hu Jintao would succeed Jiang Zemin as Communist Party chief. Indeed, Mr. Jiang has never confirmed that he would actually retire. But China watchers, who make a career analyzing the opaque politics here, say all the signs point to Mr. Hu.
Fred Teiwes, of Australia's Sydney University, says Hu Jintao's rise to the top had been set in motion by previous leader Deng Xiaoping - who signaled his protégé had special status at the 14th Communist Party Congress 10 years ago. "With Hu Jintao … we do know that in 1992 … when he was raised to the Standing Committee of the Politburo at the age of 49, that this was at the very least a decision sanctioned by Deng," says Mr. Teiwes. "And I think the evidence on the whole suggests it was really Deng's imprimatur which put the issue beyond any doubt."
China's decision-making process is generally collective and secretive among the elite party inner circle. That circle is still today influenced by Mr. Deng. Analyst Fred Teiwes says that although current President Jiang did not personally want Mr. Hu to succeed him, Mr. Hu won the approval of other senior leaders by avoiding being identified as either conservative or reformist. "Being that in no way did Jiang Zemin have the same sort of clout and authority as Deng Xiaoping, the position then was subject I think to a certain amount of ratification by a broader collective decision," he says.
In the last 10 years since being hand-picked by Mr. Deng, Mr. Hu - now 59-years-old - has bided his time and remained a mystery to Chinese and Westerners alike. Born in 1942, Mr. Hu studied hydraulic engineering at Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University. He earned his Communist Party stripes working in the poor, inland provinces of Gansu and Guizhou. During this time, the conservative party chief of Gansu, Song Ping, became Mr. Hu's mentor.
Largely thanks to his connection to Mr. Song, Mr. Hu was promoted rapidly, becoming the youngest member of the party's Central Committee in 1982. He was appointed party chief of Guizhou province for several years, then became party head of Tibet from 1988 to 1992, taking on one of the most politically sensitive posts in the country.
Mr. Hu declared martial law in Tibet in March 1989, to crush widespread anti-government protests. Tibet activists point to his record in that region as proof that Mr. Hu is a hardline conservative. But other observers say Mr. Hu spent most of his time outside Tibet because of his altitude sickness, and may simply have carried out orders from Beijing.
In 1993, Mr. Hu became head of the Central Party School, where government officials are trained. He shook up the stolid curriculum, introducing lively debates about political reform and Western management. Some analysts believe Mr. Hu's achievements at the Central Party School indicate that he is a moderate liberal.
Throughout Mr. Hu's career, however, he has left very few impressions on those who have come into contact with him. Wu Guoguang is a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a former Communist Party official. He says he met Mr. Hu several times, but does not know how to evaluate him. Mr. Wu says Mr. Hu's very survival over the past 10 years has depended on his keeping a low profile and avoiding making any major mistakes.
Mr. Wu believes, however, that Mr. Hu will continue to support China's economic reforms and integration in the global economy. He says that as a member of the so-called "fourth generation" of Chinese leaders to come of age during the turbulent Cultural Revolution, Mr. Hu is a beneficiary of China's reform policies and would not want to reverse them.
Yet even if, as expected, Mr. Hu becomes the next general secretary of the Communist Party, many analysts say it could be some time before Mr. Jiang relinquishes control over all aspects of the government. As an untested leader, Mr. Hu must win the trust and confidence of other senior leaders, and defer to the ongoing influence of the elder Mr. Jiang.
Evan Medeiros, a China analyst at the Rand Corporation in Washington, says that in some ways, Mr. Hu's situation resembles that of Mr. Jiang when he first assumed power from relative obscurity in 1989. "Whether the general secretary is Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin, both of them face the structural constraint of operating in an increasingly consensus-based decision-making structure," he says.
So while Mr. Hu may become China's new ruler in name, most observers believe he will continue to carry out the same policies initiated by Mr. Jiang and his allies. It may well be years before Mr. Hu will reveal his political nature and what impact it will have on China.