Average Chinese citizen asks who’s Hu

B By Henry Chu

bEIJING – Talk to ordinary Chinese about Hu Jintao, the man who was just named the new leader of their country, and the biggest impression you get of him is that he seems to have made none.

“Generally speaking, I have no impression of Hu Jintao,” confessed Liu Shuguang, an economics professor here in the capital. “He’s so quiet and behind-the-scenes that I don’t know what he thinks or what he wants to do.”

As he takes over as general secretary of the Communist Party – the No. 1 job in China – the 59-year-old Hu seems to have excelled in fading into the background in a land more accustomed to personality cults and incessant public adulation of its top leaders.

Indeed, his very modesty might have been what helped propel him to the apex of Chinese politics, by making him a less likely target of jealousy and enmity among his rivals.

As a result, not only are world leaders puzzling over what to make of the new head of the world’s most populous nation, but so are most of his fellow citizens.

Little is known about the bespectacled, unassuming Hu beyond what appears in the official biography. Before his meteoric rise – the Chinese call it “helicoptering” – to the top, he served in some of China’s poorest inland provinces. He was in charge in Tibet when the Beijing regime declared martial law there in 1989. And he is reputed to have a near-photographic memory and a fondness for dancing.

But his personal political views, beyond the scripted tributes he has paid to the policies of his predecessor, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, remain a mystery.

Even during last week’s national party congress, Hu made no public statements until Friday, when he was unveiled as the new party chief. His brief remarks emphasized continuity in Chinese policy and nothing more.

Graduate student Lin Shan, 22, reads the newspaper every day. Yet it was still hard, he said, to make any comment about Hu.

“Hu was so quiet, and there were very few reports about him. I think everything will remain pretty much unchanged,” Lin said.

Not everyone was as diligent as Lin in keeping up with the news coming out of the party congress.

When Hu’s promotion was announced on national television Friday morning, along with the new lineup of eight men who will serve with him on China’s ruling council, most Chinese seemed to be going about business as usual – working, shopping, getting ready for lunch. Few were huddled around their televisions watching the great unveiling.

In some ways, the fact that regular Chinese know so little about Hu, yet aren’t bothered it, is a testament to one positive element in China’s politics: a move away from absolute rule by a single person, as was the case under Mao Zedong and, to a lesser extent, Deng Xiaoping.

During Mao’s era, a single pronouncement by the “Great Helmsman” literally could mean life or death for millions of people, as his underlings rushed to carry out his policy decrees, no matter how disastrous their effects.

By contrast, many people now have faith that China’s collective leadership will continue down the path of economic and social liberalization no matter who the top dog is. The country’s modernization drive, many believe, is irreversible and no longer subject to the whim of one man.

“A single individual’s role is very limited in the new leadership,” said Liu, the economics professor. “That’s a good sign.”

In addition to his eight colleagues in the inner sanctum of Chinese politics, Hu also will be constrained somewhat by his predecessor, Jiang.

Although Jiang has handed over the post of party chief, he managed to pack several loyalists onto the new ruling council and to preserve for himself a key military-related position. His presence will hover above Hu through the near future.

On Saturday, China’s state-run media made no secret of Jiang’s lingering influence. Newspaper front pages featured photos of Jiang alongside – and sometimes more prominently than – photos of his successor.

Jiang, 76, a leader who basks in the limelight, is still far more of a household name than Hu.

“All I know is Jiang is older than Hu, and Jiang probably has more experience when it comes to political skills,” said Xu Bin, a doorman in Shanghai.

The relative indifference toward the new party chief springs also from the fact that Chinese politics remains a hermetically sealed world in which regular citizens have next to no say.

Only in such a secretive, unrepresentative system could someone about whom so little is known rise to the top of the greasy pole, through patronage and back room dealing.

Hu’s polite televised speech after his elevation Friday was one of his few addresses to the Chinese masses he now leads. Since he joined the Politburo a decade ago, he has maintained an extremely low profile.

Earlier this year, on a visit to Malaysia, he gave a rare audience to reporters, one of whom remarked on how inscrutable he seemed.

“That description is not fair to me,” he replied.

Then he walked away.