Chinese President Hu Jintao arrives for talks with Obama

Chinese President Hu Jintao, arguably the most powerful world leader after President Obama, arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington on Tuesday for his first visit to the U.S. capital since 2006.

Plans called for Hu to have a private dinner Tuesday with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, then spend Wednesday in meetings with Obama and other officials before attending a black-tie dinner. On Thursday, he’ll meet with congressional leaders and business executives before traveling to Chicago, emphasizing China’s economic relationship with the United States.

The soft-spoken Chinese leader, who does not give interviews and looks stiff in public, is considered a curiously vague figure who lives up to the constant puns of “Who’s Hu?”

But scholars of the Chinese political system say the 68-year-old technocrat should not be underestimated. His blandness is the product of a system in which decisions are made by consensus and officials who don’t make mistakes are elevated over those who show initiative.

He’s led the world’s most populous nation for nearly a decade. Since the death of Mao Tse-tung, each successive leader, from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin to Hu, has wielded progressively less personal power.


“The Chinese system has gone from being a one-man show to being run by a committee of leaders. There is no question but that the standing committee of the Politburo has a consensus that Hu has the most important role in decisions,” said Li Datong, a retired Communist Party newspaper editor who knew Hu personally in the 1980s, when the future Chinese leader was a top official of the Communist Youth League.

Hu was raised in Jiangsu province, near Shanghai, in a family that owned a small tea shop. Without money or connections, he worked his way up through the system the old-fashioned way. An excellent student with a photographic memory, he was admitted to Beijing’s Qinghua University, where he graduated with a degree in hydraulic engineering. Later, he climbed the ranks of the Communist Party through his diligence and modesty.

“He was a very ordinary person, easy to talk to. In the traditional old Communist official way, he would come over and visit during holidays,” said Li, whose newspaper, China Youth Daily, was under Hu’s party supervision.

After stints in impoverished Gansu and Guizhou provinces, as well as in ethnically restless Tibet, Hu was tapped in 1992 by Deng Xiaoping to represent the upcoming generation of the leadership. At the relatively tender age of 49, he became the youngest member of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. In 2003, he was elected to the first of two five-year terms at the Chinese version of a legislature, the National People’s Congress, which then reelected him in 2008 with a hefty 97% of the vote.

Hu is the leader of an authoritarian regime. He is limited to two terms in office and is expected to cede his position in 2013 in what is predicted to be an uneventful transition.

“He is not an emperor and he doesn’t want to be,” said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political scientist. “The collective leadership sets the agenda and Hu Jintao is clearly the first among equals.”

Among Hu’s other titles are general secretary of the Communist Party of China and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Last week, when the People’s Liberation Army upstaged a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates with a flight test of a new stealth fighter plane, the J-20, Pentagon officials said Hu appeared not to have been informed in advance and might be somewhat out of the loop in his nominal position overseeing the military.

Political analysts in Beijing dismiss the suggestion.

“He is a busy man. He doesn’t keep track of every detail,” said Li, the retired editor. “I don’t buy the argument that the military has gone rogue.”

During their meetings, Obama will no doubt try to impress upon Hu the top items of the U.S. agenda — the artificially low exchange rate of China’s currency, which gives it an unfair edge in the export market, nuclear nonproliferation, the need to rein in North Korea.

But how much leeway Hu will have when he goes home to sway Chinese policy remains in question.

“The way the machine runs, no matter who is in charge, it is not going to change the system. On the important questions, how to deal with Taiwan, human rights, Hu can’t change what his predecessors have done because the system is stagnant,” said Jin Zhong, a Hong Kong-based analyst of Communist Party politics.

Times staff writer James Oliphant in Washington contributed to this report.