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Saturday, 27 April, 2002, 22:26 GMT 23:26 UK
US eyes China's coming man
Hu Jintao (right) with US President George W Bush in Beijing, February 2002
President Bush will want to get to grips with Mr Hu
The man expected to become China's next leader, Hu Jintao, has arrived in the United States for what is thought to be his first ever visit. The BBC's Beijing correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes asks if the trip will shed light on a still shadowy figure.

For China's Vice-President Hu Jintao, this is the most important foreign trip he has ever made.

He does, we are told, a pretty good foxtrot... But as to what he believes almost nothing is known

After decades spent carefully climbing the greasy poll of China's Communist hierarchy, Mr Hu's moment is about to arrive.

Now he is being launched on to the world stage with a visit to its most powerful nation and a meeting with its most powerful leader.

So who is Mr Hu, and why should we care?

Man of power

The second question is easier to answer than the first.

Protests in Beijing against the 1999 Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
Mr Hu approved Chinese protests against the US and Nato in 1999

We should care because Mr Hu, in all likelihood, will very soon be the leader of the world's most populous nation.

In September he is almost certain to take over from Jiang Zemin as head of China's Communist party, before assuming the state presidency early next year.

If he can consolidate his position, Mr Hu will lead China for the next decade. It will be a decade of enormous challenges.

Pressure for change

In the last 20 years China has undergone huge economic change.

Mr Hu has risen to the top of China's Communist oligarchy by not doing or saying anything controversial. He is not about to start now

State ownership and central planning have been largely junked, replaced by a raw and unruly market.

But while the economy roars, political change is being left further and further behind.

China's current generation of leaders, headed by President Jiang, have resisted even the slightest move towards political liberalisation, fearful that the situation would quickly unravel, bringing chaos and the collapse of Communist party rule.

But the pressure for change is growing.

In the old industrial rust-belt of China's north-east, tens of thousands of unemployed workers took to the streets last month.

In poverty-stricken villages across rural China, discontent simmers. Massive corruption pervades every level of the Communist bureaucracy.

How will Mr Hu deal with these challenges?

That is a much more difficult question to answer.

Reformer or else?

Biographies of Mr Hu talk of his love for ballroom dancing. He does, we are told, a pretty good foxtrot. He is said to be highly intelligent and have an almost photographic memory. But as to what he believes, almost nothing is known.

Lhasa skyline
Mr Hu also cracked down on Tibet in the 1980s

Some have suggested China's Vice-President is a closet reformer, and that once in power he will show his true stripes.

To support the theory, they point to Mr Hu's close relationship with Hu Yaobang (no relation), the reforming Communist party secretary-general who led China in the mid-1980s, before being deposed by hard-liners.

Others disagree, pointing to Mr Hu's years spent as Communist party chief of Tibet, where he is reputed to have crushed protests against Chinese rule with an iron fist.

But the simple fact is that even the most experienced China watchers have almost no idea who Mr Hu is, or what he stands for.

It is a situation senior members of the US administration will be seeking to change during his visit.

US Vice-President Dick Cheney and his team will be doing all they can to get some idea of Mr Hu's vision for China.

Treading carefully

But they should not expect any surprises. Mr Hu's enemies in Beijing will be watching like hawks.

Any small slip - for example looking too friendly towards his American counterparts or not being tough enough on Taiwan - could be used as ammunition against him.

Mr Hu has risen to the top of China's Communist oligarchy by not doing or saying anything controversial.

With power almost within his grasp he is not about to start now.

See also:

26 Mar 02 | Asia-Pacific
China stops US warship's HK call
26 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
Chinese vice-president in Singapore
24 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
China's Hu warns 'bullying' nations
16 Feb 02 | Media reports
Hu Jintao: Hardliner or liberal?
20 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Neither enemies nor friends
20 Feb 02 | Americas
US-China dialogue warms
18 Feb 02 | Business
China and US reap economic rewards
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