China's tough and nimble leader yet to show his hand

 

CHINA: Clifford Coonan, in Beijing, profiles China's hugely powerful but largely enigmatic Communist Party president, Hu Jintao

Hu Jintao presides over 1.3 billion people in the world's fastest growing major economy and emerging global power, but China's most powerful man remains an unknown quantity, both inside and outside China.

Always smiling in public, Mr Hu has a grin which masks a remarkable political cunning. He is a gifted politician who has navigated the hazardous upper reaches of the Chinese Communist Party to get to the very top.

His politics are as difficult to pin down as his personality but Mr Hu is best understood as a Brezhnev figure rather than a Gorbachev, a leader whose task is to consolidate power and bed down the changes of the past two turbulent decades of Chinese history.

These days, the Communist Party dislikes the cult of personality, which is probably why there are few personal details known about Mr Hu, except he likes to foxtrot and play ping-pong, and has a photographic memory.

Even his birthplace is a mystery - the official biography says he was born in 1942 in Jixi in Anhui province, although in other versions he was born to tea merchants in Taizhou in Jiangsu, and his grandfather came from Anhui.

And nobody knows for sure where he lives, although it is presumed he lives in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound beside the Forbidden City in Beijing. He gives the occasional stage-managed press conference and has granted one interview since he ascended to the leadership in 2002.

Like many of the new generation of leaders, he studied engineering at Tsinghua University. His wife, Li Yongqing, is an urban planner and they have two children - one son, and a daughter, who went to university in the US under an assumed name to avoid attracting attention.

The public profile he has cultivated is that of a man of the people, very much in the communist tradition. This has seen him join Mongolian herdsman in a tent in freezing weather, shake hands with coal miners and medical workers battling Sars and ride his bicycle to work on occasion.

His frugal lifestyle - he once spent just 30 yuan, or €3, on two days of meals on an official trip - goes down well with the general populace, particularly at a time when the widening gulf between rich and poor is putting such pressure on the government.

He was purged at the start of the 1966-76 ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution and went to remote, impoverished Gansu province, which gave him first-hand experience of the wealth gap.

It was to prove a brief resettlement, and Mr Hu was anointed as future ruler by Deng Xiaoping and catapulted to the Standing Committee in 1992, aged just 49, making him by far its youngest member.

He had never served on the party's powerful Politburo.

As the first cadre with no military experience to be leader of Tibet, he brutally suppressed a rising by monks in 1989, showing a steely resolve which impressed his elders.

Mr Hu is certainly politically nimble. Although he became Communist Party chief in 2002 and state president in 2003, he was almost two years into his mandate as Communist Party chief before he swooped to replace his predecessor Jiang Zemin (78) as chairman of the Central Military Commission.

This gave him China's top three posts and completed the leadership succession. His success in consolidating his power within the army and the party has been blinding.

Mr Hu has expanded his power base through the appointment of proteges to top posts and cultivated allies in the top echelon, leaving no opening for his chief rival, vice-president Zeng Qinghong, Mr Jiang's closest political ally.

He firmly entrenched his political credentials with his handling of the Sars outbreak in 2003, when he ended a government cover-up, ordered more open reporting and sacked the minister for health and the mayor of Beijing.

So what kind of leader is he? Well, the jury is still out on whether he truly is an ultraconservative, or a closet liberal, biding his time and consolidating power before introducing sweeping reforms.

Some see him as a hardliner, citing his ruthlessness in Tibet, his welcoming of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and his speech backing anti-US protests after the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

Certainly Mr Hu has few qualms about showing his conservative credentials to allay fears among hardliners that reforms could erode the party's grip on power. Mr Hu has ruled out western-style democratic reforms and is clamping down on popular protests to avoid the kind of revolutions that toppled the Soviets in 1989.

Journalists and dissidents have been arrested and he has introduced regular party ideology study systems across the country. In the last year there has also been a crackdown on the internet.

At the same time, Mr Hu is aware that the richer the society becomes, the more people demand a say in their own destiny, and he has introduced cosmetic democratic reforms, as well as efforts to make the government more transparent and accountable.

Most remarkable was his recent decision to rehabilitate a reformist predecessor, Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, at a ceremony in November.

In foreign policy, he has tried to boost China's image by helping broker a deal on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions and he has generally steered clear of antagonising the US and Europe on trade issues.

A key challenge facing any Chinese leader, from the emperors through to the current generation of communist leaders, is how you manage your succession.

Mr Hu is China's fourth generation leader after Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, but many China-watchers are interested to see if he has the political clout to name a fifth-generation successor.

To cement his power base, Mr Hu needs to name a successor for when he turns 70 in 2012, at the end of his second five-year term as party chief.

The intervening years ought to keep the smile on Mr Hu's face.