Thu, May 29, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Hu's coming out party is tipped for success


China's President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) faces a test of his fledgling diplomatic skills as he embarks this week on a four-nation tour he will use to repair the damage to the country's image caused by the cover-up of the SARS outbreak.

But analysts expect a smooth debut on the international stage for Hu on an 11-day visit that will offer chances to rub shoulders with dozens of leaders and summits with Russia's Vladimir Putin and US President George W. Bush.

Even Washington's US$200 million sanctions on Chinese conglomerate North China Industries for alleged ballistic missile cooperation with Iran will be unlikely to sour the diplomatic coming out party for the new Chinese leader.

"Politically it won't be a good thing, but it won't affect the first summit meeting very substantially," Zhu Feng, a security expert at Peking University, said of the first meeting with Bush since Hu became president in March.

Bruce Dickson of George Washington University added: "If past trips are any indication, he is likely to make a very favorable impression on the leaders of other nations that he will meet."

At home, Hu has already gained in popularity for declaring war on the SARS virus and ordering the government to come clean. In a bid to show he meant business, he sacked the health minister and the mayor of Beijing.

The trip could help Hu shake off the influence of his still powerful predecessor, Jiang Zemin (江澤民), far sooner than many analysts had expected.

"This will be an important occasion for Hu to steadily get out of the shadow of Jiang," said Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "Pomp, dignity and some substance will help Hu win the support of the military as well."

Hu replaced Jiang as Communist Party chief in November and as state president in March, but still plays second fiddle to him on the Central Military Commission, which commands the 2.5 million-strong armed forces.

From May 26 to June 5, state television and newspapers plan blanket coverage of Hu's visit to Russia, France, Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

That will reinforce Hu's image as a man of action following visits to hospitals, where he shook hands with doctors and nurses on the front lines of the battle against SARS.

Until Hu demanded full disclosure about the disease in April, China had denied consistently it was facing a crisis and hid details from the world about the growing number of SARS victims.

More than 300 people have died of SARS in China.

On the diplomatic front, Hu may have little to show, but he could build on new-found respect for Beijing after it brought Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiating table last month to try to end a stalemate over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

"The US had complained China was not doing enough on North Korea. The Americans are now encouraged by Beijing's hosting of the talks," said Tao Wenzhao, an expert on the US at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.

"They have also applauded China's battle against SARS," said Tao, who had just returned to Beijing from a two-week visit to the US where he met officials and policy analysts.

Analysts said North Korea's nuclear ambitions, the sanctions and post-war reconstruction in Iraq were likely to top the agenda of Hu's third meeting with Bush since February last year.

North Korea also would feature in Moscow, where Hu will meet Putin and address parliament.

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