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Saturday, 16 February, 2002, 19:12 GMT
Hu Jintao: Hardliner or liberal?
Russian, American and Chinese Presidents at last year's APEC conference
Will Apec 2002 mark President Jiang's swansong?
By Vickie Maximova of BBC Monitoring

When US President George W Bush arrives in Beijing he will be meeting China's Vice-President Hu Jintao, widely believed to be the favourite to succeed President and Communist Party leader Jiang Zemin.

Mr Jiang is expected to retire at the 16th Communist Party Congress to be held this autumn.

Mr Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has said the US leader does not plan to meet separately with Mr Hu, but she said he might see China's heir apparent at a group meeting, as he did last autumn during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum.

Mr Bush still has much of his current term in office left to run, and if he is re-elected he will stay in power for at least another seven years as of now.

So the personal chemistry beween Mr Bush and Mr Hu may well set the tone for Sino-US relations in the coming years.

Faceless apparatchik?

Remarkably little is known about 59-year-old Mr Hu. He has never given a news conference, nor offered any kind of media interview. In his youth he was interested in water conservation and read hydraulic engineering at Qinghua University in the 1960s.

Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao
Very little is known about the Chinese vice-president

Chinese and Hong Kong analysts are split over whether Hu's advent to power would usher in a change in China's home and foreign policy. Some believe that he might be a closet liberal, citing as evidence his inclination to send officials to management training courses in Harvard.

But others argue that Mr Hu is a "faceless apparatchik", without charisma or vision, and that his reported desire to set up a more professional civil service does not make him a liberal.

Much in Mr Hu's career, they say, points to his utter conservatism. He is often mocked, for instance, as a "yes man" or the sunzi, meaning grandson in Chinese, who has carefully avoided personal initiatives and stuck closely to doing the bidding of his elders.

Crackdown in Tibet

One of his most memorable public appearances on national TV was after the 1999 Nato bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

At the time he read out a statement, authorising demonstrations outside the US and British embassies in Beijing.

According to the Hong Kong press, Mr Hu made an even tougher statement on the occasion to party and government workers, reportedly saying: "Hostile forces in the United States will never give up their attempt to subjugate China."

Mr Hu also showed his hardline credentials when in 1988 he was given the task of running Tibet after anti-Chinese riots there. In Tibet he was responsible for imposing martial law and suppressing subsequent uprisings against Chinese rule.

Mr Hu presiding over return of ashes of Chinese journalists killed in Belgrade Embassy bombing
Tough talk from Mr Hu following Belgrade Embassy bombing

Mr Hu was the first non-military leader to run Tibet but Hong Kong sources say he spent little time in Lhasa, the capital of the province, saying he disliked high altitudes.

Instead, he supervised the Tibet crackdown from Beijing, which many now regard as a dress rehearsal for the introduction of martial law during the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing in 1989.

Some reports say Mr Hu was one of the first provincial leaders to send a message to the central government supporting the entry of troops into Beijing in June 1989.

Hu's rival?

When Mr Hu was transferred from Lhasa to Beijing in 1992 he was named as the most promising young leader and admitted to the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, which wields the real power in Beijing. The widespread view is that since then he has been cultivated as the core of the fourth generation of the Communist Party leadership.

Demonstrator waving Tibetan flag outside Chinese Embassy in Washington
Mr Hu "cracked down hard" on Tibetan uprisings against Chinese rule
Five years later, at the 15th party congress of 1997, his position as the core of the future leadership was enhanced, when he was re-elected to the Standing Committee of the Politburo. And he has been ranked number five since then among China's top leaders.

But some Beijing analysts say that although he is tipped to take over the leadership, Hu is not Mr Jiang's choice of heir and does not belong to the inner circle which the retiring leader brought with him from Shanghai.

Mr Jiang's real favourite, they say, is not Mr Hu but his most trusted associate, Zeng Qinghong. Mr Zeng, who is three years older than Mr Hu but remains lower down in the party hierarchy, has counselled Mr Jiang on all his key political decisions since the mid-1980s.

Foreign policy

Mr Jiang is expected to retire this autumn but China observers believe he may want to keep control of foreign affairs after he retires as president in 2003, in particular the key relationship with Washington.

According to the Hong Kong press, Mr Jiang may want to ensure Mr Zeng takes over the foreign policy portfolio from Qian Qichen, who will retire at the party congress this October as part of his effort to keep his finger on the pulse of China's relations with the world.

Indeed, Mr Zeng's recent movements suggest that he is being groomed for his new responsibilities. He has been joining Foreign Ministry-led trips as well as leading party delegations on trips abroad.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

See also:

10 Dec 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: China
15 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
Timeline: China
06 Feb 02 | Asia-Pacific
China builds Tibet 'liberation' statue
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