No free thinker: Hu knows what's what

The man tipped to lead China is unlikely to rock the boat, writes Herald Correspondent John Schauble. Beijing: "Who's Hu?" has been the question testing China watchers for weeks as the country's leadership ventures from its closely guarded compound for the highly stylised annual spectacle of the National People's Congress.

That Hu Jintao is little known outside China is hardly surprising. The Vice-President is considered No 5 in the political hierarchy. He has never been to the United States or to Europe, although he did visit Australia briefly in 1982, and has travelled extensively in the region.

Mr Hu has come to prominence internationally only twice in recent years. A decade ago, as Communist Party head in Tibet, he led a crackdown on dissent.

More recently, when NATO bombers struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, it was Mr Hu who appeared on state-run television in May 1999 to condemn the attack, subtly urging on the thousands of protesters outside the US and British embassies in Beijing.

In China, where being seen as a challenge by one's political superiors can have terminal consequences, Mr Hu has kept a relatively low profile. All that might change when the Communist Party meets for its 16th party congress next year.

He is widely regarded as the man most likely to succeed. A protégé of President Jiang Zemin, he is spoken of as the "anointed"' successor and could well be leader of China by the end of 2002. Mr Jiang, compelled to retire because of his age and because the Constitution prevents him serving another term, is tipped to maintain a leadership role.He will probably retain the post as head of the Central Military Commission, in effect boss of the armed forces.

While Chinese politics moves with almost glacial speed much of the time, the next 12 months will see much manoeuvring behind the scenes in one of the rare changes of the guard in the leadership.

But whether Mr Hu's ascent would mark a serious shift in political direction is doubtful. The closest there has been to the emergence of "Hu thought" have been pronouncements that China should continue to embrace reform and seek technological solutions to emerging problems. Such sentiments scarcely presage a profound shift in direction.

His views, to the limited extent they have been publicly expressed, have not marked him out as a free thinker. He is more likely to keep a steady hand on the tiller than redirect the barge.

At 58, Mr Hu is a relative youngster. President Jiang is 75, the Premier, Mr Zhu Rongji, is 72.

Mr Hu represents a generational shift in the leadership. Those of Mao Zedong's circle (the so-called first generation) and Deng Xiaoping (second generation) had revolutionary credentials. The third generation of Mr Jiang and Mr Zhu were old enough in 1949 to have played a part as student leaders or young party cadres. But Mr Hu is seen as representing the "fourth generation" - one that has grown up in the People's Republic.

Theirs is also a generation whose early adulthood fell under the shadow of the Cultural Revolution during the 1960s and '70s, a period that ripped out the intellectual heart of China. Mr Hu was one of the fortunate ones and had completed his university education before the Cultural Revolution bit hard.

He is often seen as bland, rather than forceful - a follower rather than a leader. But behind the scenes he has evidently played a skilful political game. Born the son of a shopkeeper in Jixi county, in central Anhui province in December 1942, he trained as a hydro-electric engineer at the Qinghua University in Beijing, joining the Communist Party in 1964. Like most intellectuals of his generation, he did not escape the Cultural Revolution entirely. and he was sent to far western Gansu province in 1968, where he spent more than a decade.

His exile proved a fruitful one. In Gansu, after a year of manual labour on a housing project, he carved out a career as a party leader within the local office of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power.

He was elevated to China's most powerful body, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, in 1992 aged just 49, and appointed vice-president in 1998.

Mr Hu first came to notice outside China after he was appointed party secretary in Tibet in December 1988, a post he held for four years. Last week, at the National People's Congress, Mr Hu returned to the subject of Tibet, telling delegates that maintaining stability there required "cracking down hard on separatist activities and enhancing patriotic education of teenagers".

He is known to hold equally strong views about containing the spread of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement.

If, as most observers suggest, he becomes the next leader, his is likely to be a transitional leadership. In any event, "Who's Hu?" is a question less likely to be asked.