Hu Climbed Ladder Quietly

Hu Jintao, China's new Communist Party general secretary, is known for being smart, cautious — and able to keep his personality and views on politics a mystery to outsiders.

Recommended by former supreme leader Deng Xiaoping as heir to President Jiang Zemin, Hu spent the intervening decade building alliances and gaining experience while drawing little attention.

On Friday, Hu, also China's vice president, was named to the top post by the party's governing Central Committee a day after Jiang left the body at a national congress. Hu is expected to take over Jiang's post as president in March.

"We must live up to the trust of all party members and the expectations of all Chinese people," Hu said moments after being introduced as the new top party man.

Although long expected to replace Jiang, 76, as general secretary, the 59-year-old Hu spent years giving no hint that he was expecting to lead China for the next generation.

While officially the secretary general of the congress, Hu didn't utter a public word before the meeting ended Thursday. Instead, he deferred to Jiang and Li Peng, another party heavyweight also headed for retirement.

Hu always appears poised and well-prepared in his brief appearances. He speaks without notes, sticking to safe topics, and is said to have a photographic memory. On overseas visits, he leaves pleasant but vague impressions.

A native of the eastern farming province of Anhui, Hu is married and believed to have at least one son and a daughter. He trained as a hydroelectric engineer at prestigious Tsinghua University and worked for a time constructing power stations on the upper reaches of China's Yellow River.

In 1982, at 39, Hu became the youngest member of the party's governing Central Committee before being sent to Guizhou, a depressed inland province, as party secretary.

Some have suggested his experience in the impoverished area might make him more inclined to devote resources to China's poor west than his predecessors, who put great efforts into developing booming cities on the east coast.

Hu served as party secretary of Tibet for four years and was there in 1988 during riots against Chinese rule. He imposed martial law, though diplomats and foreign scholars warn against reading much into that, because he probably was carrying out orders from Beijing.

His official biography plays down Tibet, noting that Hu was the only party chief there "with a civilian background." It says he contributed to "unity, stability and development" while serving in the post.

In 1992, Hu was elevated to the party's Politburo and, at about the same time, was tapped by Deng to succeed Jiang. He was made vice president in 1998 and is also Jiang's deputy on the powerful commissions that control China's army.

Still, he was little known even in China until U.S. bombs destroyed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Three Chinese reporters were killed, setting off furious anti-American protests in Beijing and elsewhere in China.

As a mob besieged the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Hu appeared on national television praising the protesters for expressing "the Chinese people's strong indignation" and patriotism.

While little is known about his personal tastes or habits, Hu has displayed key traits for success in Chinese politics: loyalty, discretion and conformity. A saying attributed to Hu in his biography says success in life "requires resolve, attention to concrete matters and courage in making decisions."

To introduce himself to the outside world, Hu toured Europe last year and visited the United States this year, meeting with President Bush. Hu introduced Bush at Tsinghua this year by saying China and the United States "bear important responsibilities and have extensive common interests."

A U.N. official who traveled to China this fall with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said Hu repeated to Annan almost verbatim the comments Jiang had made the day before. The official described Hu as "very, very cautious."

On Friday, a smiling Hu sounded confident as he made his first remarks. But his generalities, while optimistic, offered no clue about what his priorities might be:

"We will closely unite and rely on all the party members and Chinese people of all ethnic groups to build on the past, forge ahead into the future, keep pace with the times and work hard to build a well-off society in an all-around way."