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Last Updated: Monday, 26 May, 2003, 04:38 GMT 05:38 UK
Analysis: Chinese president steps out

By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC correspondent in Beijing.

Who is the leader of the world's most populous nation? Well, yes actually he is, except the name's spelt Hu not Who.

Hu Jintao and George W Bush
Hu will get exposure with the world's top leaders
Sorry, I realise that joke's wearing a bit thin, but the question is still one most people have difficulty answering.

Hu Jintao is by far the least known of the leaders of the world's major powers.

Since coming to power as leader of the Chinese Communist Party last November, the world has had little chance to get to know the man that supposedly runs this enormous country.

Easy start

Now that is about to change as Mr Hu steps out on to the world stage with a two-week trip to Russia, Europe, and maybe some other unannounced places along the way.

St Petersburg
Hu will meet Putin in the Russian president's home town
For his debut as international statesman he has chosen Moscow and a summit with President Vladimir Putin.

It is a deliberately easy start, a guaranteed warm reception from an old ally with a tame media that is unlikely to say anything too critical.

But while in Russia Mr Hu will also get his first chance as president to rub shoulders with the likes of George W Bush and Tony Blair as they all head for St Petersburg, and the 300th anniversary celebration of Russia's former capital, and Mr Putin's home town.

Next it will be off to France and the spa town of Evian for the G8 summit of industrialised nations.

China is not a member and says it is not interested in joining the "rich world's club", but Mr Hu is clearly not unhappy to have been invited.

Quiet approach

So what are we likely to learn of Mr Hu amid all the pomp and popping of champagne corks?

First off, don't expect any showmanship.

Mr Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was famous for his party antics, breaking in to song or reciting passages of poetry in English or Russian.

Mr Hu's style is said to be friendly, but businesslike.

Down to earth

Mr Hu may, nevertheless, impress the foreign leaders he meets in other, less voluble ways.

Those who have met him say he is down to earth and intelligent.

During China's current Sars crisis he has also displayed an ability to be bold and decisive, sacking the health minister and the mayor of Beijing and ordering the government to come clean about the extent of the epidemic.

Those moves have helped considerably to restore China's international image which was badly hurt by Beijing's failure to warn the world about the extent of the Sars outbreak.

No doubt the other leaders he meets will want to know from Mr Hu just how well the fight against the disease in China is going.

Hu Jintao
Hu is less flamboyant than his predecessor
The nuclear antics of China's neighbour and close ally, North Korea, will also be high on the agenda when Mr Hu meets with President Bush.

But ultimately this trip is, for Mr. Hu, more about symbolism than it is about substance.

How he is seen at home is far more important than what the rest of the world thinks of him.

China's state-run media will give wall-to-wall coverage as Mr Hu rubs shoulders with the great and the good.

For the hundreds of millions watching back at home it will re-enforce the image that China is a great power, and that Mr Hu is a statesman, taken seriously and treated with respect by the leaders of world's most powerful nations.

And hopefully, when its all over, a few more people will know the answer to that question.

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07 Mar 03  |  Asia-Pacific


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