- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

BEIJING The new leader of China's Communist Party, bundled up in winter coat and muffler, picked a decidedly humble setting for a highly publicized outing a tent on windswept grasslands, where he sat on a stool and chatted with a family of traditional herders.
That image of Vice President Hu Jintao was splashed across state television and newspaper front pages earlier this month. Its message was clear: Mr. Hu cares about the poor.
It's a theme the party is anxious to promote these days. Two decades of economic reform have given millions of Chinese a chance to lift themselves out of poverty but left behind hundreds of millions more. The growing gap is fueling protests by laid-off workers and violent clashes in the countryside between farmers and tax collectors.
The Communist Party has begun a fundamental policy shift aimed at spreading prosperity concentrated for now in China's eastern cities to the workers and peasants who formed the foundation of its 1949 revolution.
Mr. Hu, 60, succeeded President Jiang Zemin as party general secretary in November. The chance to craft an image as champion of the poor lets Mr. Hu contrast himself with Mr. Jiang, 76, who is likely to be seen meeting foreign corporate bosses or naming a new microchip factory.
"Hu Jintao wants to be the symbol of this new orientation," said Jean-Paul Cabestan, director of the Hong Kong-based French Center for the Study of Contemporary China. "He wants to develop an image as closer to the people and in touch with the ups and downs of life."
How much of this image reflects the former engineer's personal concern and how much is changing party policy isn't clear. Since the late 1990s, the party has talked with mounting urgency about shifting development from the booming, export-oriented east to the farming hinterland.
The transformation is prompted in part by unease at growing unrest among the rural poor and laid-off workers. At the same time, diplomats and foreign analysts say, many party leaders are genuinely distressed at the plight of millions of Chinese in poverty as incomes in the financial capital of Shanghai have surged past $3,000 per person.
Beijing has started a giant "Develop the West" campaign aimed at promoting growth in its isolated regions, many of them inhabited by restive ethnic minorities. It calls for spending billions of dollars building roads, railways, gas pipelines and other facilities.
Mr. Hu, who also is expected to replace Mr. Jiang as president this year, spent his early career in Tibet and the northwestern desert province of Gansu, two of China's poorest areas. Wen Jiabao, a member of the party's ruling Standing Committee believed to be in line to replace Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, spent a decade in Gansu as a geologist.
By contrast, Mr. Jiang and Mr. Zhu are both former Shanghai mayors who made their careers in the urban east.
The new leadership declared its back-to-basics focus by taking a highly symbolic "study trip" in early December to Xibaipo, a town southwest of Beijing where the party Central Committee met in 1949 on the eve of the communist victory.

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