- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

BEIJING All the gossip during the past week's National People's Congress (NPC) has focused on Hu Jintao, the Chinese vice president who is expected to assume at least nominal control of the world's most populous country as early as next year.
Yet the former hydroelectric engineer, whom Tibetan activists charge has blood on his hands from his time as Communist Party boss in Lhasa, has never visited Europe or the United States and remains a mystery even in his own land.
By Chinese government standards, the 58-year-old heir-apparent to President Jiang Zemin is an ambitious and relatively youthful politician making spectacular progress to the top. His rise reflects the march of time threatening China's aging leadership and, perhaps, some hope of long-delayed political reform.
Bound by promises to lower the age of the ruling clique in Beijing, 74-year-old Mr. Jiang has indicated he will cede power to the "fourth generation" of leaders at a key Party Congress in the autumn of 2002. The process may start at the legislature's annual session next March.
While Mr. Hu is the standard-bearer for the "fourth generation" of officials in their late 50s to early 60s, he also appears to be a good student of China's messy succession politics.
"First generation" leader Mao Tse-tung felt betrayed by both his designated successors, so he condemned one to die in jail and forced the other to flee abroad. He died in a plane crash en route.
"Second generation" leader Deng Xiaoping also removed both of his favorites, before installing Jiang Zemin as the "core of the third generation" in 1989.
Apart from Mr. Jiang, all these heirs-apparent broke China's golden rule of survival, namely that silence is golden. Put forward too many opinions, raise too high a profile, and your mentor may perceive a threat to his legacy, for tradition dictates that each generation writes a post-mortem on the last.
In Hu Jintao, Mr. Jiang may have found not a doting scribe, but a cautious and loyal operator. Mr. Hu is known for keeping his counsel to himself.
Born in eastern Anhui province in 1942, the shopkeeper's son got his first break when he entered Beijing's elite Qinghua University, where he became a party member and met his future wife.
University roommates remember a serious student who seldom laughed at their jokes. Mr. Hu was also fortunate enough to graduate in 1965, just before Mao's Cultural Revolution closed all schools and colleges.
In 1968, like many from his generation, Mr. Hu was banished to labor in the Gansu countryside in China's northwest.
In 1988, Mr. Hu was trusted with the sensitive party secretary job in Tibet, where he proved his mettle by dispersing demonstrators and imposing martial law in the spring of 1989.
In 1992, he rose to the yet more rarefied air of the Politburo Standing Committee.
Mr. Hu returned to the question of Tibetan separatists in his remarks last week to the NPC, which is often seen as a rubber-stamp legislature but offers a window onto China's political shadow-play.
"We must severely hit hard on secession," he said, adding that "illegal activities under the cover of religion must be resolutely stopped and punished according to law."
Hungry China-watchers feast on tasty tidbits such as last week's promotion of Ling Jihua, the director of Mr. Hu's private office, onto the NPC plenary session secretariat.
Mr. Ling's boss, dubbed the "core in waiting," seems to hold all the cards. Mr. Hu is vice president, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and No. 5 in the party hierarchy one of only two men on the seven-member Standing Committee who will survive beyond next year's Party Congress because of a 70-year age limit.
However, there are other "fourth generation" pretenders to China's throne, notably Zeng Qinghong, 61, a close associate of Mr. Jiang; Guangdong province chief Li Changchun, 57; and Vice Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, 58.
The victor may well be restrained by the backstage presence of Mr. Jiang. Just as Mr. Jiang only truly took center stage once Deng Xiaoping died in 1997, so the current president is expected to retain significant influence.
Despite the hand behind the curtain, analysts predict the next leader will be obliged to set in motion badly needed reforms of China's ossified political system.
"The fourth generation of leaders will be more democratic than the third generation of leaders led by Jiang," said one commentator in Beijing. "They'll have to be, for their very survival. The Communist Party must undertake internal political reform before it is overthrown by violence."

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