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Hu performs without song and dance

By CNN Senior China Analyst Willy Wo-Lap Lam

Hu performs a
Hu performs a "Hongi" -- the Maori traditional greeting -- with a Maori elder during his visit to New Zealand.

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(CNN) -- Unlike predecessor Jiang Zemin, President Hu Jintao neither shows off his foreign-language skills nor sings karaoke while on tours overseas.

Yet it is obvious the 60-year-old supremo is happy with his just-completed tour of Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.

In typical fashion, though, the president and Communist party general secretary has chosen to stick with understatements.

When asked whether he was satisfied with his performance after giving a much-applauded speech at the Australian parliament last week, Hu said: "You can see for yourself based on the reception that my friends here have given me."

While the foreign media had faulted Hu aides for playing hardball and forcing his hosts to keep protestors out of the president's earshot, diplomatic analysts say Hu had gone beyond his predecessors in establishing China as a major foreign-policy player in the Asia-Pacific region.

They say Hu even overshadowed U.S. President George W. Bush, who had turned off some audiences during his Asian tour with his obsession with the anti-terrorism campaign.

President Hu also sounded convincing when he gave a big push for "the road of multilateralism," a concept seen in some Asian capitals as more acceptable than "American unilateralism."

It is true that the "China threat" theory -- including accusations Beijing has kept the renminbi deliberately undervalued -- was at the back of the mind of many Asian leaders.

However, Hu was able to woo them with the prospect of a fast-opening Chinese market and the lure of trade deals -- attested to by the fact that imports into China had risen by more than 40 percent this year.

While Hu has largely come out of the shadow of his powerful predecessor Jiang, analysts in Beijing say he needed to score big in two areas in order to become an effective -- and globally respected -- "core" of the Fourth-Generation Chinese leadership.

Jiang's address to Australian parliament last week was well received.
Jiang's address to Australian parliament last week was well received.

Firstly, the president has yet to prove his reformist credentials, particularly in the litmus-test issue of political liberalization.

In Bangkok and Canberra, Hu merely repeated the hackneyed Jiang line that Beijing would "implement reform of the political structure according to China's national conditions -- and in an enthusiastic and stable manner."

That this meant a relatively cautious -- even conservative -- pace of political change was evident from a series of discouraging signals:

• Earlier this month, Luo Yongzhong, an intellectual based in the northeastern Jilin Province, was given a three-year jail term for posting "anti-government" essays on domestic Web sites.

• Last week, Beijing announced draconian methods to police the increasingly-popular Internet cafes, most of which would be forced to use officially approved software.

• Shirali, a political activist in Xinjiang province, was recently sentenced to death for advocating "ethnic separatism."

• New cases of harassment of underground church leaders, including the detention of 12 Hebei-based Catholic missionaries, have been reported.

• And the ban on public discussion of sensitive topics, including the revision of the constitution and political reform itself, has continued unabated.

Shanghai challenge

On the personnel front, Hu, the head of the so-called Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction in Chinese politics, still faces a tremendous challenge from the Shanghai clique led by Jiang.

This was evident from Hu's recent effort to resuscitate the political fortune of CYL affiliate Meng Xuenong, the Beijing mayor who was fired last April for failing to tackle the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

Many China observers thought then that Meng was made the scapegoat because major decisions were taken by the municipality's No. 1 cadre, veteran party chief Liu Qi.

Former Preident Jiang (seen here with Canadian PM Jean Chretien) still remains a political force.
Former Preident Jiang (seen here with Canadian PM Jean Chretien) still remains a political force.

According to a Chinese source knowledgeable about the Hu team, the president had originally wanted Meng to assume the newly vacated post of President of the China National Offshore Oil Corp., a key state petroleum monopoly.

Instead, Meng landed the less important job of deputy chief of the South-North Water Diversion Project Construction Committee.

Diplomatic analysts in Beijing say the real extent of Hu's clout could be gauged by whether he was successful in engineering changes in the party leadership of Shanghai and Beijing.

They say in the event Shanghai party secretary Chen Liangyu had to take political responsibility for the series of corruption and real-estate scandals in the East China metropolis, Hu would favor Jiangsu party boss Li Yuanchao taking Chen's place.

Li, another member of the CYL, is a long-time Hu confidant. His elevation to the crucial Shanghai post will confirm the 51-year-old as a leading member of the up-coming Fifth-Generation leadership.

Former president Jiang, however, who opposes Li's promotion, is said to be adamant about either keeping the incumbent Chen, or replacing him with State Council Secretary General Hua Jianmin, a former Shanghai cadre.

Another senior official tipped to fade away soon is Beijing party secretary Liu, a Jiang protege who many thought was as responsible for the SARS fiasco as the sacked health minister Zhang Wenkang.

It is understood that Hu is quietly lobbying for Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan to be promoted party chief of the capital.

While Wang has no connections with the CYL, the rising star is said to be leaning toward the Hu rather than the Shanghai Faction.

Partisans of the CLY Faction have claimed Hu is dragging his feet in reform owing of his still-shaky grip on power.

The president's critics, however, are adamant that unless Hu is willing to think big and bite the bullet on liberalization, he may never win the domestic following -- and foreign support -- necessary to become China's master reformer.

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