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Monday, 16 March, 1998, 23:03 GMT
China: Who's Hu?
Hu Jintao (second left) watches Zhu Rongji cast his ballot at the National People's Congress
China's Parliament, the National Peoples Congress, has appointed a new vice president, Hu Jintao - the youngest of the Communist Party's top handful of leaders and a rising star in Chinese politics. Our Chinese affairs analyst James Miles reports.

The appointment of the 55-year-old Hu Jintao to the post of state vice president could well be of considerably more significance than his new title suggests. Although it does not confer any new powers on Mr Hu, his selection for the job is likely to strengthen speculation that he's being groomed as an eventual successor to President Jiang Zemin.

The vice presidency traditionally has been a low profile position. The previous incumbent was a businessman, Rong Yiren, whose role was purely symbolic. Mr Rong could hardly have expected to wield power since he was not a member of the Communist Party.

Dual roles

In the years since Mr Rong was given the vice presidential job, however, the state presidency has greater importance in Chinese politics. Before Jiang Zemin was made president in 1993, the post was usually filled by a semi-retired leader. But Mr Jiang was head of the party and military and far from retirement. In taking the job, he created a precedent for having the posts of party chief and state president occupied by the same person. Thus Hu Jintao's appointment as vice president suggests he could be in line to succeed Mr Jiang in both those roles.

As vice president, the hitherto shadowy Mr Hu will come into much greater contact with the outside world. He'll meet visiting heads of state and spend more time touring abroad. This will help reveal more about the man who was little known in the West before he was given a seat in the party's ruling Politburo in 1992.

Communist since 1964

If he does eventually succeed Mr Jiang, Mr Hu would be the first paramount leader of China whose party career began after the Communist takeover in 1949. Mr Hu did not join the party until 1964, when he was a student of hydroelectric engineering.

Mr Hu's party career began to take off after the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. He was close to the late party chief Hu Yaobang, who was known for his liberal views. For much of the 1980s and early 1990s, however, he served as party chief of the remote and backward provinces of Tibet and Guizhou. In Tibet, he demonstrated his toughness in the crackdown on separatist activity.

In 1992, he was catapulted to the Politburo's standing committee. He took over key tasks in the party, including handling personnel matters and supervising the ideological training of top officials. Mr Hu's own ideological preferences are unclear, but many regard him as a moderate, similar in outlook to President Jiang.

It's likely that President Jiang will step down as party chief at the party's 16th Congress, which is due to be held in 2002. By that time he'll be 75 years old. The following year his term as president will end. This will be a key period of political transition in China, and indications are strong that Mr Hu will be at the centre of attention.

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