Vice President Hu Jintao Prepares to Visit the US

by Kim Zapfel

Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao has accepted American Vice President Dick Cheney's invitation to visit the United States this April. Because it is generally believed that Hu will succeed Jiang Zemin as Party Secretary General this autumn, and as State President in March 2003, his visit to the United States could be pivotal for future relations between the two countries. As China's future paramount leader, Hu will soon play a major role in shaping Sino-American relations.

Although, as Vice President of the PRC, Vice Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission, and a member of the Standing Committee of the CCP Central Committee Politburo, Hu has considerable influence in China, most Americans know very little about him. He has had surprisingly few contacts with Americans over the years and has rarely spoken publicly on major issues that have confronted Washington and Beijing. Party elders consider him intelligent, dynamic, articulate, loyal, and politically correct. In addition, most foreigners who have met with Hu have come away with a favorable impression. Hu is known for his photographic memory and can please his visitors by remembering specific details of past conversations.

Hu's rise to the top echelons has been surprisingly swift. He was born in Jixi, Anhui Province in 1942 and attended Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University, where he studied hydraulic engineering. After becoming a Party member in 1964, Hu quickly worked his way up the Party ranks. In 1967, while the Cultural Revolution was in full force, he was sent to Gansu for reeducation through manual labor. He remained in Gansu, joined the engineering bureau of the Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power, and over the next decade earned promotions to a variety of increasingly influential positions. In 1982, at the age of 39, Hu became the youngest ever alternate member to the 12th CCP Central Committee. During this time he also took up a series of offices in leadership positions within the Communist Youth League, the Young Pioneers, and the All-China Youth Federation.

Hu was appointed Guizhou's Provincial Party boss in 1985, a position in which he earned a reputation as a compassionate reformer. Two years later Hu became a full member of the 13th CCP Central Committee. In 1988, Hu was sent to Tibet as the Secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Party Committee. In Tibet Hu showed he could rule with an iron fist. He cracked down on pro-independence rallies in Lhasa, coordinating the movement of more than 100,000 troops into Tibet to contain the protests. Hu was still in Tibet during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, but proved his political savvy by being the first Provincial leader to declare his support for the Party Center after the incident. It wasn't long before Hu was recalled to Beijing and in 1992 he was named to the seven man Politburo Standing Committee. In 1998 Hu accepted his first position outside the party, becoming Vice President of the PRC. Shortly thereafter, he expanded his influence into military affairs as Vice Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission.

Despite his impressive resume, there are certain areas in which Hu lacks experience. His limited economic experience is particularly glaring in view of China's push toward economic reform. Furthermore, despite holding top government and party positions, Hu has developed few strong ties of loyalty with other high-ranking political elites and is thought to have a relatively weak power base when compared with previous PRC leaders. Because of the highly personal nature of Zhongnanhai politics, this weakness may prove to be one of Hu's greatest challenges for effective leadership.

From the U.S. perspective, Hu's fairly limited experience in dealing with issues in the Sino-American relationship may be an additional drawback. Hu has taken various trips throughout Asia and Europe and is considered the top decision maker for Chinese policy on Korea and Japan, but has generally left decisions on U.S. policy in the hands of current President Jiang Zemin. More recently, however, Hu did become involved in several sensitive situations in U.S.-China relations. After three NATO missiles hit the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia in May of 1999, Hu gave a nationally televised speech in which he encouraged the student protests against the U.S., while attempting to ensure that they did not get out of hand. He was also involved in mediating the EP-3 spy plane incident, heading the leading small group assembled to address the crisis.

Vice President Hu's trip to the United States this April will be a good opportunity for him to familiarize himself with the United States and for the U.S. administration and people to get to know China's future leader. The trip is sure to be a high-profile event and will lay the stage for bilateral ties once President Jiang retires. While Vice President Hu is in Washington, our Foundation will be cosponsoring a dinner in his honor.

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