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Hu Jintao Rises to the Top in China, Remains a Mystery - 2003-03-14

Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Jintao is to replace 76-year-old Jiang Zemin as the country's president. Mr. Hu became party leader last November, and since then has portrayed himself as an advocate for China's poor and disadvantaged. But it is still not clear how much real power he will wield, or whether his beliefs will translate into policy changes. In many other countries, a candidate for president would try to win power by proclaiming his convictions and setting a clear political agenda. Not so in China. Sixty-year-old Hu Jintao has climbed to the top by remaining a mystery.

Mr. Hu has been groomed as China's next ruler for at least a decade, quietly biding his time and careful not to offend senior party leaders.

Fred Teiwes, a Chinese politics professor at the University of Sydney, says Mr. Hu owes his promotion to former supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping. He says Mr. Deng handpicked the young Hu as a successor to President Jiang Zemin during the 14th Communist Party Congress 11-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, and I think the evidence on the whole suggests it was really Deng's imprimatur which put the issue beyond any doubt," he says.

China's decision-making process is collective and secretive among the elite party inner circle. That circle is still today influenced by Mr. Deng.

Mr. Teiwes says that although current President Jiang Zemin did not personally want Mr. Hu to succeed him, Mr. Hu won the approval of other senior leaders by avoiding being identified as either a conservative or a 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.

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. Thanks largely 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 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 believe Mr. Hu's achievements at the Central Party School indicate he is a moderate liberal.

At the16th Communist Party congress last November, Mr. Hu inherited Mr. Jiang's position as party chief. During the past four-months he has slowly begun to stake out positions.

Wu Guoguang, a political scientist at Chinese University in Hong Kong, says Mr. Hu has portrayed himself as a friend to China's disadvantaged masses, especially farmers and laid-off workers. Professor Wu says Mr. Hu has made frequent, highly-publicized trips to backward regions of the country, calling for more poverty and unemployment relief.

But Mr. Wu and others say it is too soon to tell if Mr. Hu's politicking about China's poor will actually result in meaningful policy changes.

Mr. Hu is just one person in China's nine-member elite governing body, the Politburo Standing Committee. Six of the other eight most-powerful men in China are loyal to Mr. Jiang, due to friendship or a shared background in governing Shanghai, the country's financial capital. Mr. Jiang is staying on as head of China's military.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, says Mr. Hu may find it difficult to do anything without Mr. Jiang's indirect oversight. "I rather see Hu Jintao keeping his cards very close to his chest as long as Jiang Zemin remains influential, and as long as he has not secured a more powerful power base, before initiating any new reforms," he says.

Mr. Cabestan and other observers expect that at least in the short term, Mr. Jiang's allies will have the upper hand over Mr. Hu in terms of formulating policy. President Hu may be China's top ruler in name, but it could well be years before he reveals his true political nature, and what impact it will have on China.