Hu Jintao has a trait that's rarer than his photographic memory: the more power he has, the more enigmatic he becomes. Even longtime colleagues in the Politburo are stumped by the flawlessly smooth exterior of China's new party chief, who is scheduled to assume the presidency in March. His uncanny skill at keeping a low profile, no matter how high he climbs, has served him well on his way up. China specialist Murray Scot Tanner of Western Michigan University says: "Hu has shown himself able to simultaneously impress people on both the right and the left, and to be promoted when his nominal patrons were at each other's throats." Yet that same unassertive approach has also led critics to label Hu an apparatchik and a flunky. They wonder if he is really up to the job of leading a country of 1.3 billion that is fast emerging as Asia's dominant military and economic power.
He's plainly nobody's fool, and proves that every time he opens his mouth. China's top officials can be painfully awkward on the podium. After 13 years on the job, the outgoing president, Jiang Zemin, sometimes uses a crib sheet when answering tough questions. Hu speaks extemporaneously in clear, complete sentences. He even makes eye contact with the audience. And he's equally at ease talking one-to-one with a dairy farmer in Germany or a peasant in Hebei province. Unlike most of the hierarchy, he knows rural life first-hand, having spent much of his career in some of China's poorest backwaters.
Hu's background could help save China from economic catastrophe. Economists warn that the widening gap between China's wealthy coastal cities and the impoverished farmlands, where 80 percent of the population lives, is reaching the danger point. And Hu will be able to focus on domestic issues without too much distraction, at least for now. Jiang, 76, will likely handle foreign-policy matters as head of a newly created National Security Commission, and aides expect he will also keep control of the military until 2005 or so. That kind of gradual handoff is typical at the top in China. With luck, the long lag time will give the rest of the world a chance to study the new leader's moves.