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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."