- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2003

BEIJING After he was chosen China's president, Hu Jintao bowed to legislators in the Great Hall of the People and said what he has so often in public in recent years: nothing.
Silence served the 60-year-old former engineer well during his long climb to the top. Keeping his head down, his mouth shut and his focus on work insulated Mr. Hu from Communist Party infighting while others were ruined after they showed too much loyalty to one failed faction or policy.
As the outside world and ordinary Chinese try to figure out the man who could lead this nuclear-armed Asian giant for as long as 15 years, the evidence consists of little more than a vague image of a bland, capable and diligent party loyalist.
But for many, Mr. Hu is just what China needs as it copes with wrenching economic and social change, and tries to forge a place on the world stage.
"I'm really glad he became the new leader. He's young, educated and full of energy," said Xu Quanmin, a 38-year-old businessman.
Nevertheless, Mr. Xu added, "It's too early to judge how successful his thinking will be. He has many tasks to do right away."
The job inherited by Mr. Hu and his fellow members of the "Fourth Generation" of China's communist leaders is daunting.
They will be expected to push market-style reforms while coping with layoffs and trying to spread prosperity to the vast poor majority left behind by China's two-decade boom.
Mr. Hu has begun to forge an image as a champion of the poor since his appointment as party leader in November. He and other members of the new leadership visited miners, farmers and traditional herders in the dead of winter.
But the image is more an expression of party policy than a personal crusade. China's leaders have been planning for years to shift their development efforts to the countryside. They worry that anger from chronic poverty and the yawning gulf between rich and poor could turn volatile and even threaten communist rule.
Foreign analysts say they see no sign that Mr. Hu is likely to engage in any drastic political reforms despite mounting pressure by China's public for a voice in its closed political system.
Mr. Hu has spent more than a decade being groomed for the task.
Mr. Hu, an engineering graduate of elite Tsinghua University, served as party secretary in Tibet when, in his 30s, he became the youngest member of the ruling party inner circle.
He was picked by then-supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s as the leading candidate to succeed President Jiang Zemin. Since then, Mr. Hu has been given sensitive tasks meant both to teach and to test him. Foreign diplomats say he emerged with a reputation for never making a mistake.
Beginning in 2001, Mr. Hu traveled abroad visiting Britain, Russia, Germany and ultimately the United States to introduce himself to foreign leaders and remedy his lack of experience abroad.
Foreign officials described him as smart and poised. In contrast to the 76-year-old Mr. Jiang, who played the piano and quoted Abraham Lincoln, they say Mr. Hu was all business, speaking in detail about policy issues without notes and skipping idle chatter.
But they say Mr. Hu stuck to accepted party policy and gave no hint of any individual world view.
Yesterday, Mr. Hu showed that same quiet control after the National People's Congress, China's ceremonial legislature, gathered to name him president, confirming a choice made by the party.
Another new leader for China is Wen Jiabao, 60, who was chosen as prime minister. He was confirmed today as successor to Zhu Rongji by the National People's Congress. As prime minister, he will assume control of one of the world's fastest-growing economies.

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