China's Hu: well liked, little known

During US visit, Hu Jintao will promote trade and stronger diplomatic ties.

Feted by Bill Gates, anticipating a 21-gun salute at the White House, spending $15 billion on US aircraft, software, farm and other goods, China's president Hu Jintao intends to show Americans this week that the world's fastest-rising power is not a threat. Mr. Hu is giving three speeches in four days, "more talking than he has done to the Chinese people all year," as a Western diplomatic source here puts it.

At home, Hu, the youngest man ever to enter China's inner circle and likely to be top leader until at least 2012, is well liked among the masses for the humility and genial persona he projects. But he is still not well known, even in elite Beijing circles. His status, habits, life, and advisers remain a mystery.

"He doesn't truly believe in Marxism, or open markets," says one Communist Party member who asked to remain anonymous. "He doesn't buy international revolution, or Western-style democracy. We know what he doesn't believe. We just aren't sure what he does believe. Even Chinese can't read his face very clearly."

Hu's views are not known on the most important debate in China today: balancing a "rightist" element that wants speedier reforms in openness, banking, and private property - potentially widening the wealth gap - with a "left" that wants less reform and foreign influence, and to redistribute wealth and lower the social strain among peasants. Hu has encouraged both sides.

Yet in this sense, Hu reflects present-day China: As leader, he has not yet found a clear pathway, sources say. His country is at a major juncture of greater expectation, but with no clear direction or footing, socially or politically. Hu is not a zealous ideologue, a visionary economist, nor is he ready to force a war over Taiwan. He is cautious, lawyerly, a survivor, say numerous scholars, diplomats, and party sources. To Chinese, he is as much a mystery as he is to the foreign community in Beijing. Whether he has yet consolidated power in China's secretive leadership enclave is still speculated about.

"He is difficult to quantify," says Russell Leigh Moses, at People's University in Beijing. "He hasn't cut off the argument between right and left, which leaves a lot of frustration out there."

Relations between Hu and the "Shanghai faction" of former leader Jiang Zemin, a set of "best and brightest" players, are unclear. Hu has made crucial appointments in the provinces, and runs three of the five internal foreign policy advisory groups. Yet Hu, whose leadership posts were in rural areas like Gansu, Guizhou, and Tibet, takes potshots from the corporate talent that stoked China's dazzling east coast commercial boom.

Hu, from a tea-selling family in Anhui, is a product of Mao's revolutionary youth brigades of the 1950s and '60s. His formative experience was in the brutal and extreme Cultural Revolution. As a student in the water-conservancy program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and member of the Communist Youth League, he trained fellow students in ideology. This mind-set left a powerful imprint. Recently, in Moscow, he said he loved Russia's great literature. Asked which works, he recalled a mid-'50s Soviet tract about the proper behavior of teenage Soviet "young pioneers."

Yet Hu's common touch makes him popular among ordinary Chinese. Many feel a nostalgia for the simple security of the Mao era. At a time of grumbling over high healthcare costs, Hu's "people's first" policy and "harmonious society" are seen as sincere. Unlike Mr. Jiang, an urbanite who played show tunes on the piano for foreign dignitaries, and loved opera (Jiang's $425 million French-designed opera house project opens next year), Hu seems stiff, earnest, youthful. If Jiang likes Italian opera, Hu is a local Beijing opera guy.

Hu's rise to power was positively meteoric. He was noticed by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1988. Deng was watching a video of the put-down of a popular uprising in Tibet, and asked about the young man giving orders to soldiers. Shortly after, Deng reportedly said, "Hu is good."

By 1992, Deng vaulted the 49-year-old out of Tibet and into the innermost sanctum, the Standing Committee, an extraordinary leap in the step-by-step system. At the 14th Party Congress that year, Deng brought Hu in, since "Deng worried that if he waited too long, Hu may not be able to withstand the internal struggle," says a senior party member. "In Chinese politics, a lot of things happen behind the scenes."

The period was profoundly colored by the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and this offers clues to Hu's caution, experts say. Hu was close to beloved leader Hu Yaobang, whose death that April helped spark the protest that ended with the deaths of hundreds of young democracy idealists starting on the evening of June 3, and leaving a scar on the nation. Hu Jintao had been close to Hu Yaobang. But during the earlier student protests of 1986, Hu Yaobang was purged for being too mild. (Senior leader Wan Zhen advised breaking up the protests with flamethrowers.) Hu Jintao was forced to denounce the elder Hu - or be cast out himself.

Hu's entry onto the ruling stage then was difficult. "After June 4, Hu had to stay away from any clear positions or stand. He was already cautious, and he became more so," says the senior party member. "And he had to wait a long, long time under Jiang." (Last summer's rehabilitation of Hu Yaobang was approved by Hu Jintao, sources say. Hu reportedly wept on a visit to Hu's tomb, reports of which circled widely in Internet gossip groups.)

"Hu is a new type of Chinese leader," says Yang Zhaohui at Beijing University. "His legitimacy doesn't come from the patriotic war or significant party achievement ... but is being established by winning support from the people themselves."

Currently, China's social atmosphere is in a period of scattered darkness and light. Ever more construction and international trade are under way, and communication technology continues to open up; but the centers of authority are less clear. The government is pythonlike in its constriction of free speech, with dozens of journalists in prison. And, as Hu told Bush when they met for the fourth time in September, Chinese leaders are worried about growing instability and protests in the countryside.

In the US - despite an agenda of prickly topics like rising trade deficits; Taiwan, Iran, and North Korea; energy competition; troubled Japan ties; and counterfeiting - what Beijing most desires is a visit where Hu comes across as a sincere and trustworthy interlocutor.

Yet last year, a Pentagon report pointed to heavy expenditures aimed at weapon systems whose only use is against the US military. But China's proclaimed budget falls far short of nearly all independent estimates. China image strategists earlier coined the phrase "peaceful rise" to describe the country's rapid growth in Asia. Yet as one US official puts it, "Until we hear a better explanation of why China is developing certain strengths, we aren't yet using the phrase 'peaceful' with 'rise.' "

Hu has attempted to diversify his foreign policy away from the US-centered policy of predecessor Jiang. By placing energy needs squarely into foreign policy, China has opened ties with states like Venezuela, Iran, Canada, and Australia. Yet it is too early to tell how well China's policy is developing in southeast Asia and Latin America. Attempts early in the Hu era to solidify ties with the European Union (EU) as a counterweight to the US have been rebuffed by the EU. Hu's current trip shows a great refocusing on US-China ties, as a key to China's desires to reunify with Taiwan and to keep matters friendly with China's best customer, with which it holds a $202 billion trade gap.

Anger in Congress over China's artificial exchange rate and currency evaluation, however, will probably not spur more than the small adjustments China has already made. Powerful state banking interests are opposed to reevaluation; one US diplomat say the banks worry they can't compete.

As China prepares for the 2008 Olympic games, Hu is expected to get his main team in place, and begin to address how a one-party system might adjust to global complexities. "We won't see Hu's real face until 2007," when the next party congress occurs, says a party source. "By that time, we will need to see him."

Hu tours America

April 18: Visit with Bill Gates at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Dinner for 100 at Gates home.

April 19: Tour of Boeing's Everett, Wash., factory. Tentative agreement reached this week to buy 80 planes for $5.2 billion.

April 20: Bush greets Hu on White House South Lawn with 21-gun salute and review of honor guard. Meetings later with the vice-president, members of Congress, and others.

April 21: Hu visits Yale University.

Sources: White House, wire services.

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