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Hu Jintao: Waiting in the wings

Hu has begun courting world leaders as he continues his path to the top of the Chinese leadership
Hu has begun courting world leaders as he continues his path to the top of the Chinese leadership  

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
Senior China Analyst

(CNN) -- The low-profile Chinese Vice-President, Hu Jintao, has been methodically preparing to take power since 1999.

The big question however is not whether he will succeed Jiang Zemin as Communist party general secretary next year, but whether the youthful-looking Hu could speed up economic and political reform.

A brilliant engineering student at the elite Tsinghua University, Hu made his mark in Chinese politics in the Communist Youth League, generally regarded as the reformist wing of the party.

Since the late 1990s, Hu, a former first secretary of the league, has been able to promote a large number of his proteges to senior positions in both Beijing and the provinces.

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Beijing analysts say among Fourth Generation leaders, or cadres in their late 50s and early 60s, Hu has the best power network in the country.

Youth league alumnae who have occupied senior positions in the party and government include the Minister of Personnel Zhang Fusen, the Minister of Justice Zhang Xuezhong, and the vice-head of the party's United Front Department, Liu Yandong.

Regional leaders considered close to Hu include the young Governor of Henan Province, Li Kejiang and the party secretary of coastal Fujian province, Song Defu.

It is, however, in the Chinese tradition for up-and-coming cadres not to be seen upstaging their senior colleagues or to be too aggressive in sponsoring new ideas.

In Jiang's footsteps

While Hu, 59, has been a member of the supreme Politburo Standing Committee since 1992, he has been very careful to toe the line of President Jiang, the "core" of the Third Generation leadership.

In the past year, Hu has been at the forefront pushing the theories of the president, who is anxious to enshrine Jiang Zemin Theory in the Communist party charter.

Beijing academics familiar with Hu said, however, that the vice-president had ideas of his own and that because of his more liberal background, he would be expected to push reform, including political reform, at a faster pace than Jiang.

For example, Hu has favored the adoption of a Western-style civil service system, including the public recruitment of relatively senior officials.

He is also said to be interested in borrowing the ideas and organization principles of European-style social democratic parties.

The Beijing academics said, however, that the vice-president would keep the liberal ideas to himself until he felt confident about his grip on power.

While visiting Moscow last weekend, Hu stuck to a conservative line when asked about his views on Hong Kong.

When asked by Hong Kong reporters about the crisis of confidence in Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Hu said he had full confidence in his ability.

The vice-president said particularly in difficult times, Hong Kong residents should "unify their thoughts and remain united" behind Tung.


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