US meets China's heir apparent: Who's Hu?

During his first trip to the United States, Hu Jintao visits the White House today.

Peking opera performances always take place on an empty stage, with no props. The actors' faces may be stoic or serene. But the slightest flutter of a finger can signal deeper feelings below the surface.

Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao, the presumptive heir apparent to lead the world's most populous nation, meets US leaders today in a country he has never seen before – and in what seems to be the start of a new Sino-US opera, with a new Chinese lead.

The trip is largely being billed here as a friendliness offensive, but with a finger fluttering over the contentious issue of Taiwan. Mainly it is an attempt by Washington, which issued the invitation, to take a look at the man next in line.

Hu is paramount among a so-called "fourth generation" of Chinese leaders set to emerge this October in a party congress that takes place every five years.

Mild and fresh-faced in appearance, and described as a moderate reformer with an eye for detail, Hu shot to the top of China's party structure in 1993, and has since weathered years of self-imposed anonymity within a political culture unforgiving to those who show traces of ambition.

Not until a brief European jaunt this winter, in fact, has Hu officially traveled abroad. Few outsiders know him. Even fewer have been able to "read" him.

In China, Hu is not seen as a Gorbachev figure ready to shake the system. He was a Beijing engineering student in the 1960s, joined the Communist Party but was "sent down" to the province of Gansu during the Cultural Revolution. He proved a skillful organizer of the Party Youth League, however, and moved quickly up the ranks, becoming the youngest member of the Central Committee.

He is known for giving the orders to crush a revolt in Tibet – but also for attempts to reform the Central Party School in Beijing, moving it from an outpost for propaganda and ideology to a center of debate about political reforms and modern management techniques.

On his US trip, Hu has to avoid sounding too bright a note with the Americans, which could harm him at home with hard-liners and opportunists.

Hu's visit comes amid challenging times in China, where leaders have been ruffled by recent labor protests and worker unrest as China shifts from a state-run to a private economy. China's officials this week quietly noted that unemployment may triple in coming years.

In the region, China's rise as an economic dynamo – is further straining relations with Japan.

China is still adjusting to a post-9/11 geopolitics in which its influence in the region of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia remains peripheral.

China's most important relationship, its ties to the US and the US economy, are increasingly at odds with what Beijing sees as its most proprietary issue – Taiwan.

President Bush has twice been to China and has spoken of creating a constructive and friendly relationship. Yet, at the same time, the Bush administration has gone further than any recent White House in support of the island nation Beijing claims as its birthright.

Top US officials have hosted the Taiwanese defense minister, a break with the past. US officials have visited Taiwan in a casual manner that stupefies Beijing, and enrages many in the Chinese military.

"Beijing feels it is getting a mixed message from Washington," says Cheng Li. "Right now, the Chinese are sending a mixed signal back."

That mixed message is evident in the sudden Chinese courting of the Arab and Muslim world, just as sensitivities there are heightened by a perceived lack of US involvement in the Israel-Palestine standoff. President Jiang has recently been in Iran and Libya; Premier Zhu Rongji was in Egypt. The Lebanese president is in Beijing this week.

"The Chinese chose a time when the Muslim world feels especially ambivalent about its relations with the US," a Western expert in Beijing states.

Hu's test in Washington, one source here says, is simply to deliver a hard-line warning to the White House on its arms sales and friendly attitude to Taiwan – while making sure that "everyone keeps smiling."

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