- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

He likes movies and opera. He plays a respectable game of table tennis. He grew up wanting to be an engineer, not a politician. He is said to have a photographic memory and likes to memorize his speeches. He joined his college's student dance team and, according to his official biography, "occasionally danced solo at parties."
With Hu Jintao cutting such a low public profile, such nuggets of personal information are treated as analytical gold by those trying to predict the leadership style and policy leanings of the man most expect to take over China's two most powerful positions in the next 12 months.
Those who have met Mr. Hu describe him as intelligent and well-briefed in private conversations, though he has favored a relentlessly bland public style in his previous trips abroad.
"That shouldn't be surprising given his position right now in the hierarchy," said one East Asian diplomat who has watched Mr. Hu for many years. Chinese President Jiang Zemin "is still No. 1, and the last thing Hu wants to do is upstage his boss."
Despite a party career that began in some of China's most remote provinces and then moved to Beijing for the past decade, he has shown an interest beyond China in recent years. He traveled to Central Asia and Romania in 1995, and visited Mexico, Colombia and Cuba two years later.
Last year, in what was widely viewed as a coming-out party for the anointed leader of the Chinese Communist Party's "fourth generation," Mr. Hu made a five-nation swing through Europe, meeting with political and business leaders in Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Russia.
Despite persistent press reports that Mr. Hu was part of a delegation that visited the United States in the early 1980s, Chinese officials insist that his current trip will be his first visit to the United States.
He was born near Shanghai in 1942 into a modestly prosperous family of merchants. He gained admittance to Beijing's Tsinghua University, China's elite technical school, in 1959, earning a degree in hydraulic engineering a year before Mao Tse-tung unleashed the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
He joined the Communist Party while earning his degree and also met his wife, Liu Yongqing, who was also earning a degree in engineering at Tsinghua. (Mrs. Liu works as vice chairman of the Beijing Urban Planning Committee and is two years older than her husband.)
He spent a year doing manual labor in a housing-construction unit in the remote, arid province of Gansu and then was given a series of increasingly powerful party jobs, many linked to his engineering expertise.
He impressed colleagues and superiors in Gansu and at a subsequent posting in the equally impoverished Guizhou for his energy and willingness to get out of the office to inspect problems first hand.
Song Ping, a conservative party veteran and Mr. Hu's first significant patron and mentor, once praised his protege as a "walking map of Gansu" for his familiarity with the province he ran.
As is the custom with Chinese political leaders, personal details are scarce on Mr. Hu's official biography. The Hus have a son and daughter, but their names and ages are unknown. Chinese government officials say they have no idea whether a story that Mr. Hu's daughter is studying at a school in the United States under an assumed name, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, is true.
Mr. Hu left contradictory impressions during his European tour last fall. Some called him stiff, sticking to prepared speeches that were bland even by Chinese standards.
But at a banquet held by the China Britain Business Council in October, Mr. Hu surprised his hosts by agreeing to take questions from the floor, even making a tiny bit of news by conceding that the war on terrorism had slowed but not stopped China's rapid economic expansion.
But Mr. Hu's British hosts said the putative Chinese leader seemed most engaged during a meeting with engineers studying the problem of pollution in the Thames River.
Alan Cooper, Asia-Pacific director of Thames Water, told the BBC news service: "He was confident, at ease discussing issues of waste water."

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