China grooms Hu, the next emperor

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The Independent Online
THE REST of the world will this week get its first real chance to see China's new emperor-in-waiting.

Hu Jintao, the man unofficially anointed to succeed President Jiang Zemin early next century, is scheduled to appear in his first significant diplomatic role when he represents China on Wednesday in informal talks with the Association of South-east Asian Countries (Asean) in Hanoi.

Who Hu? is likely to be most people's response. Here is the man who is ear-marked to become the leader of the world's largest country, yet his name is virtually unknown outside China except, infamously, among Tibet- watchers.

He was the region's party secretary when, in March 1989, anti-Chinese demonstrations were violently crushed in Lhasa. Even within his own country, Mr Hu is a politician in need of an image, though the official biography tries hard to cast him as man in contact with the younger generation. "When he worked in the Communist Youth League Central Committee, he occasionally danced solo at parties," it reveals.

Given China's opaque political system, all that is clear is that Mr Hu is now the heir apparent. He was already the youngest member of the politburo's standing committee when, earlier this year, he was appointed vice-president.

The Asean meeting has been chosen as the springboard for a more high- profile role for Mr Hu on the world stage, part of the process of grooming him to take over from Mr Jiang as party chief in 2002, at the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress.

As such he is designated to become the "core of the fourth generation leadership". But what sort of a man is Mr Hu? Young, for sure, having reached his current position at the age of 56, long before many leaders have left the middle-ranks.

Professor David Shambaugh, at George Washington University, said little was known about what Mr Hu represented. "He has not had anything to do with the economy, he has not had anything to do with military affairs, he has not had anything to do with foreign policy. They are now trying, in making him vice-president, to get him to interact with foreigners more," he said.

Trained as an engineer, Mr Hu rose to prominence as head of the party's Youth League, and at 42 became the youngest provincial party secretary, in the southern region of Guizhou.

From 1988-92, he held the top party post in Tibet, though he spent little time there because he reportedly could not cope with the altitude. Lhasa stands at 16,500ft above sea level.

In 1992, he was catapulted on to the politburo standing committee, partly in recognition of his hardline tactics in Tibet.

According to the official biography, Mr Hu once said that a good leader should "be capable of taking resolute action at critical moments".

So far, Mr Hu has kept his political thoughts to himself, assiduously backing Mr Jiang's position in posts as president of the Party School and Party Central Committee.

In other words, Mr Hu is a classic Communist Partyapparatchik, with no discernible patriarchal qualities.

Gerry Segal, a China expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, describes Mr Hu as a "swing voter" at a time when the entire Chinese leadership remains "dazed by the bonfire of the certainties that is ravaging East Asia".

The fact that Mr Jiang is following in the mould of Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping in trying to anoint his own successor shows a certain lack of vision about China's political culture. "To that extent, Hu is the natural successor to Jiang, but also a natural reason to worry about China's future," said Mr Segal.

Of course, heirs apparent in China know they have to watch their backs. Two of Deng Xiaoping's chosen successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, fell by the wayside when it became politically desirable for their mentor to abandon them.

The ever-cautious Mr Hu must know that four years as an emperor-in-waiting is a long time in Chinese politics.