New Chinese Leader Looks Like Own Man

Times Staff Writer

He came across as a mystery man who had climbed to the top of the Chinese Communist Party by revealing as little as possible about his personality and political views. Yet within four months, Hu Jintao has moved to cast himself as a man of the people who cares about the plight of China's growing underclass.

This is a bold move, considering that his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, won't be passing the presidency to Hu until the annual session of the National People's Congress, which is set to begin Wednesday. Even then, Jiang is expected to hold on to considerable power as head of the Chinese military.

But if Hu's actions are any indication, China's new leader is determined to set his own course in tackling some of his nation's most pressing problems.

"Nobody was expecting him to make these kinds of changes so early on. He was seen as extremely cautious," said David Zweig, a China expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "But this leadership clearly understands that if you want social stability, you can't ignore the disadvantaged."

After 13 years in power, Jiang is perceived as an elitist who tied his legacy to opening the Communist Party to China's budding capitalists. In contrast, Hu is positioning himself as a populist.

In his first tour of the country after becoming party boss in November, Hu braved the bitter cold to pay respects to the hardscrabble farmers of Xibaipo, an old revolutionary base. He also paid homage to veterans of the revolution and touted the virtues of plain living and struggle.

Then he headed out to the snow-covered grasslands of Inner Mongolia to visit impoverished herdsmen missing out on the economic miracle transforming coastal China.

In a major policy address in January, Hu asked government officials to pay more attention to the backward regions of China and make the countryside a top priority.

Wen Jiabao, the man expected to take over the job of premier from Zhu Rongji, followed Hu's lead and paid similar tributes to the poor. State media showed Wen spending the Chinese New Year holiday down a mine shaft, where he ate dumplings with coal miners, men whose job is one of the most dangerous in the world.

It's too early to tell whether Hu and his new generation of younger leaders will be able to translate these public relations initiatives into successful policy changes. Much depends on how much room to maneuver Jiang gives his successor.

"The question is whether Jiang Zemin will preside over a smooth, gradual transition or stay on and retain ultimate power without [being] willing to give it up," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a longtime China watcher at the University of Michigan. "Nobody but Jiang knows the answer, and, quite frankly, his own views may change."

Whatever role he plays behind the scenes, Jiang probably won't be able to call the shots the way senior leader Deng Xiaoping did after his retirement in the early 1990s. Experts also say that Hu has become a more formidable force than people realize.

"Hu's not a mere figurehead. He's a powerful figure," said Cheng Li, a China expert and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "Jiang will eventually be pushed aside, maybe within two years. If he stays too long, it'll be a serious problem for the country."

Hu's challenge is to show that he can not only emerge from his predecessor's shadow but consolidate power without resorting to strongman politics.

Hu has subtly shown a willingness to challenge the supreme power of the Communist Party by talking about the rule of law and the importance of following the constitution. He has also called for more openness in the workings of the party Politburo, China's top governing body, through more-public meetings and agendas.

Although some of this might be rhetoric, analysts say there are signs that Hu's administration cares about public opinion and wants to be more responsive to a society buffeted by two decades of economic upheaval.

"Economic reforms, as successful as they have been, have created severe consequences, such as polarization [between rich and poor], unemployment, corruption," said Richard Baum, a specialist in Chinese politics at UCLA. "They muddled through the 1990s because of 8% to 9% economic growth. The days of muddling through are numbered."

Hu is unlikely to implement major structural reforms in the one-party system, but Baum said he has no choice but to welcome at least some tinkering to prevent the Communist Party from slipping into irrelevance.

The new administration knows its legitimacy rests on its ability to take better care of China's domestic affairs. That partly explains Beijing's relative silence on the world stage, particularly during the current crises involving Iraq and North Korea. China holds veto power at the U.N. Security Council and has been a longtime political ally of North Korea.

Those are areas where Jiang's expertise could come in handy.

"They may have decided on a division of labor," said Zweig. "Jiang on external affairs and Hu on domestic affairs."

But for now, it's China first.

"You didn't see Hu traveling abroad during his first months in office," said Cao Peilin, a political scientist at Shanghai's Fudan University. "You didn't see him take a more aggressive stance on the Middle East. The message to the world is we want to put our own house in order first."

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