In the tumult that followed the events of September 11, President Jiang Zemin pledged China's support in the international war against terrorism. Smart move. China under Jiang had already made a herculean effort to enter the World Trade Organization, which formally admitted China in December. But the promised benefits of free trade that flow from WTO membership will count for little if security issues hamper the global movement of goods and services.
Jiang, though, isn't necessarily the one who will ensure that China stays the course in opening its economy and ensuring its security. Much of that task will fall to the man tapped to succeed Jiang as President, Hu Jintao, next year. The 59-year-old technocrat, an engineering graduate of Tsinghua University, China's best science academy, is largely a mystery to the West. One of his first high-level visits outside the country--a diplomatic tour of Europe and Russia--came just a few months ago. Hu is known, however, for his heavy-handed rule of Tibet, where he cracked down on pro-independence activists while serving as party secretary in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Most recently, Hu has served as China's vice-president in charge of the Communist Party's Central Party School.
Despite Hu's low profile and hard-line record in Tibet, observers are betting he will be a force for reform. A consensus-builder, he has overseen an academy that is pushing for better training for cadres, a stepped-up fight against corruption, and an open-door policy for entrepreneurs seeking to join the Communist Party. Indeed, Hu has shown strong interest in the experience of Europe's social democratic parties, meeting with party officials on his tour in Europe and commissioning studies on the topic. "He's very much pro-reform, but nevertheless very cautious," says one Western diplomat in Beijing.
Hu, born in Shanghai and raised in Jiangsu province, played key roles in running the impoverished provinces of Gansu and Guizhou, so he has firsthand experience of China's distressed rural areas. That could prove to be a valuable asset in a country with a growing economic gap between city and countryside.
Apart from the crucial task of adapting China to WTO membership, Hu, like Jiang, says he wants China to take part in the global fight against terrorism. While China has little chance of rivaling America's power in the world soon, it is determined to have its views heard and respected. Hu will play a key role in that fight.
By Dexter Roberts in Beijing