Tue, Nov 11, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Cautious, colorless Hu Jintao finally finding his feet

ONE YEAR ON China's president is slowly chipping away at his predecessor's influence, bolstered by his performance during the SARS and Hong Kong crises

REUTERS , BEIJING

Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) spent a decade preparing for high office with a career that marked him as cautious, colorless and, perhaps, capable.

After a year in power, Hu has surprised many critics, weathering two major crises with a combination of decisiveness and determination while shadow-boxing to erode the power of his still influential predecessor, Jiang Zemin (江澤民). All the while, he has carefully avoided a political showdown.

"As Hu has not yet fully consolidated power, he does not want to trigger a direct and serious confrontation with Jiang," said Kou Chien-wen (寇健文), a China expert at Taiwan's Institute of International Relations who is working on a biography of Hu.

Hu has chiselled away at party traditions and Jiang's policies, cultivated allies among the other top leaders and left no opening for his chief rival -- the Jiang ally, Vice President Zeng Qinghong (曾慶紅).

Hu, named party chief on Nov. 15 last year at a congress that saw the first smooth transition of power in Communist Chinese history, now aims to survive through the 17th congress in 2007.

"If Hu is re-elected, Zeng will no longer be a real threat," Kou said.

Hu, 60, also took over as state president in March this year, but Jiang remains chief of the Central Military Commission, which commands the 2.5 million-strong People's Liberation Army.

In a sign of Jiang's residual influence after a 13-year reign, his protege Zeng has taken on a military portfolio and become point man on Hong Kong, sources said.

But the balance of power in the party's nine-seat Politburo Standing Committee -- a Jiang stronghold at the time of the leadership succession -- has quietly shifted. Standing Committee members on Hu's side or in neutral territory are now in the majority, eroding Jiang's grip on the body, sources said.

Analysts said Hu had emerged stronger from two major crises -- an outbreak of the SARS virus and Hong Kong's biggest street protest since 1989 -- and had largely succeeded in spinning himself the image of a man of the people.

"Hu enjoys the support of the people. It'll be difficult for Jiang to dethrone him unless he fumbles big time," said a Chinese political scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"There are two preconditions for reform -- the Communist Party's position as ruling party, and socialism should not change," said Wang Yukai, a professor at the National School of Administration.

Hu has moved to make the party's elite, 24-member Politburo more transparent and flirted with political, media and judicial reforms to help curb corruption and make officials more accountable, but has played within the party boundaries.

His dramatic decision to report openly on the SARS epidemic, followed by China's unprecedented disclosure of a submarine accident, spawned brief hopes of prolonged transparency and more radical reforms.

But authorities continue to jail cyber-dissidents and pro-democracy activists and have gagged academic debate on constitutional change.

In China, power struggles at the top are an art -- subtlety over showdown. Hu has proved an artful tactician. He ordered study sessions on the constitution, ostensibly a push to strengthen the rule of law. But analysts said it also could be seen as a swipe at Jiang for clinging on to the top military job in violation of the constitution.

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