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Who is Hu Jintao?

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam
CNN Senior China Analyst

Hu Jintao, soon to be the toast of Beijing?
Hu Jintao, soon to be the toast of Beijing?

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(CNN) -- The low-profile Chinese Vice-President, Hu Jintao, has been methodically preparing to take power since the late 1990s.

A brilliant engineering student at the elite Tsinghua University, Hu, 59, is one of the handful of senior cadres who have spent a large chunk of their career in western China.

While born in Shanghai, the likely new party general secretary and state president spent more than two decades in Gansu, Guizhou and Tibet, three of the poorest provinces in the country.

The photogenic Hu played a key role in the suppression of the lamas' pro-independence demonstrations in Lhasa, Tibet in March 1989.

His ability to protect the interests of the central government was said to be a key factor behind the surprise decision by late patriarch Deng Xiaoping to elevate him to the Politburo Standing Committee in 1992.

However, Hu, who lists himself as a native of Anhui Province, is best known as head of the Communist Youth League (CYL), generally regarded as the reformist wing of the party.

Well networked

Since the late 1990s, Hu, a former party secretary of the league, has been able to promote a large number of his protégés -- most of whom are CYL alumnae -- to senior positions in both Beijing and the provinces.

Beijing analysts say among Fourth Generation leaders, or cadres in their late 50s and early 60s -- as well as the Fifth Generation, a reference to officials in their 40s -- Hu has the best power network in the country.

CYL affiliates 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.

While Hu is expected to succeed Jiang Zemin as party chief at the 16th party Congress, he has been very careful to toe the line of President Jiang, considered the "core" of the Third Generation leadership.

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

Political reform

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, the vice-president would keep the liberal ideas to himself until he felt confident about his grip on power -- a process that could take a few years.

This is why it may not be until Hu's "second term" -- meaning the five years after the 17th party congress in 2007 -- that the new leader will feel comfortable enough to thrash out his new ideas and programs in economic and political reform.

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