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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 October 2007, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
China's elusive president
As China's Communist Party Congress opens, the BBC's Beijing correspondent James Reynolds examines the quiet rise and reclusive style of China's leader.

Chinese President Hu Jintao inspects a guard of honour during a welcome ceremony for Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno in September
Little is known about Hu Jintao
Chinese President Hu Jintao is one of the most powerful men in the world.

He leads more than a billion people, runs the world's largest army, controls the world's fourth biggest economy, and, if he wants, he can fire off the first weapons in a global nuclear war.

But outside China, he is almost entirely unknown. There are no pictures of Hu Jintao going bare-chested fishing like Russian President Vladimir Putin, or power-jogging like France's Nicolas Sarkozy.

China's president could quite easily spend his entire day in Times Square in New York or Trafalgar Square in London and go completely un-noticed.

Hu Jintao began his quiet rise in the early '80s when he was chosen to lead the Communist Youth League. The organisation quickly became his power base. Those who worked under him now hold powerful positions across the country.

Those who want to follow Hu Jintao to the top of the Chinese Communist Party have to go to the gym
Hu Jintao and his proteges make up what is known as the populist faction of the Communist Party - those who want to try to make the poor catch up with the rich.

"He is very charming," says Ni Jian from the Youth League. "He came to our national youth congress and spoke to us. He gave the impression of being a very amiable person."

But you would hardly get to know that from his public appearances. Every night the main evening news in China shows Hu Jintao holding meetings with Communist officials.

A typical session shows Mr Hu talking from behind a desk. His subordinates solemnly note down what he says (no doubt so they can study his thoughts at their leisure).

China's leader rarely allows himself to show any kind of emotion - indeed, he and his colleagues in the politburo are so controlled and motionless that it is sometimes hard to tell whether or not they are actually alive.

The party college

China values discipline in its leaders and its disciples.

Those who want to follow Hu Jintao to the top of the Chinese Communist Party have to go to the gym.

Mid-level officials are being trained for further promotion at the Beijing Party School
Mid-level officials are being trained for further promotion
At a party college in Beijing, several dozen party lawyers, taxmen and bureaucrats spend the afternoon skipping, stretching, and doing jumping jacks.

Some exercise in their office clothes, looking just a little bit uncertain. One man takes part in full military camouflage. Everyone here is on a three-month course to learn how to be better - and fitter - Communists.

"The government wants us to learn more leadership," says Ben Zhongyong, who is an urban planner.

"Like Hu Jintao ?" I ask.

"No," he laughs. "Just low level or mid level."

For much of the day, the officials attend lectures on leadership and public administration. For the Communist Party these courses are important. Getting everyone together is a useful chance for the party to broadcast its message and pick out its future leaders.

Wang Wei runs a tax office in Beijing. He follows the morning class on rural collectives with intense interest. He and his colleagues also have to study the thoughts of Hu Jintao, and their leader's theory of a harmonious society.

"He is a Communist, a Marxist. He is a great leader," says Wang Wei. "He's found the right way for China and the right way for the people here."

Behind a wall

Hu Jintao goes about his job without any kind of flamboyance - and that is deliberate. China spent decades living under the shadow of one man - Chairman Mao. It doesn't want any more personality cults.

Hu Jintao with other senior leaders in August 2007
Chinese leaders are keen to keep the press at arms' length
So there are no posters of Hu Jintao, no poems or songs written in his honour. He works in a walled-off compound called Zhongnanhai, just a block away from Tiananmen Square.

It is China's White House or Downing Street - but nobody knows what it looks like inside. So my colleagues and I try to go in and have a look.

As we approach the entrance, four policeman come up to us, make us put our camera down, and tell us to go back. Hu Jintao stays behind his wall.

But there is one way of getting to see China's leader up close.

In front of the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, a military band plays for the president of Chad who is on a state visit. Hu Jintao has left his compound to welcome him. The square has been sealed off for the two of them.

Their officials, a few soldiers and a handful of reporters are the only ones allowed to watch.

After the national anthems, Hu Jintao escorts his guest up into the great hall. A few minutes later we follow and wait in a corridor. Then, an official points us towards a big wooden door.

We're allowed into a room to wait for Hu Jintao to come in for the signing ceremony. On the wall there's a mural of the Great Wall of China. Inside this inner sanctum of the Communist Party everybody whispers. It's a bit like being in a museum, or a library.

Hu Jintao then comes in and stands at the back. Ministers sit down in front of him and sign an agreement. The leaders then toast their success with a drink that looks like a powerful spirit - but I'm told it is just apple juice.

The man who leads more than a billion people does not hang about. Hu Jintao slips past the wooden door and out of sight.

This article is part of a week of special coverage on how China is ruled.



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