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China Hopes Hu Makes Good Impression

The president lacks the spontaneity of his predecessors. But officials know the image he projects on U.S. visit could pay dividends.

April 18, 2006|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Visiting Chinese leaders in the past have warmed American hearts by donning cowboy hats, dancing the hula and belting out renditions of "O Sole Mio," helping soften an impression of robot-like communist officials.

Image makers say China faces a tougher sell with President Hu Jintao, who lands in Seattle today on the first leg of a three-stop U.S. visit. Though China's fourth leader since 1949 is a serious, careful man with a near-photographic memory, spontaneity and off-the-cuff witticisms are not his strong suits.

"He's an already cautious person made more meticulous by his years of work inside the [Communist] Party," said Ma Ling, author of a 2002 biography.

Foreign Ministry officials privately say they understand the enormous dividends a good public impression can yield in a democracy in which Congress is heavily influenced by public opinion.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 20, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Hu visit: An article in Tuesday's Section A said Chinese President Hu Jintao's current visit to the U.S. was his first as president. It is Hu's first official visit; he traveled to the United Nations General Assembly meeting last year.

"I wouldn't underestimate how much China thinks about this," said Scott Kronick, president of public relations firm Ogilvy China, which has advised Beijing on its U.S. image.

But image shaping doesn't exactly play to Hu's strength, so most of this week's events are directed at elites in a position to argue China's case on his behalf. During his first U.S. visit as president, Hu is expected to meet with Microsoft and Boeing executives, including a dinner visit with Bill Gates in Seattle; confer with President Bush; have dinner with congressmen and China experts in Washington; and give a speech at Yale.

"From the itinerary, there's no program that puts him in touch with your average Joe," said Minxin Pei, China program director with Washington's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Yale is about as far from average Joes as you'll get, as is Bill Gates. Nor is there a joint press conference scheduled with Bush, another opportunity to speak directly to Americans."

Chinese officials say plans are not final and that there may be opportunities to meet with factory workers and ordinary Americans, although analysts say these are more likely to be Microsoft engineers with PhDs than North Carolina textile workers.

"Hu Jintao is not a charmer and probably won't even try with the American people," said Wenran Jiang, a political science professor at Canada's University of Alberta. "He'll emphasize what he does best, using smaller groups for serious engagement."

Another reason Hu's handlers may balk at too many unscripted events is the prospect of being heckled by human rights activists and members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, banned and denounced in China as an "evil cult."

But in the Chinese context, Hu, 63, is seen as one of the country's more down-to-earth leaders, intent on easing the plight of China's 700 million peasants, and pictured in the state-run media eating dumplings with poor farmers at Chinese New Year.

"Hu spent Chinese New Year with the average Wangs, but I think he has better instincts about Chinese politics than American politics," said the Carnegie Endowment's Pei. "In China, where you don't vote, he plays the populist. In the United States, a democracy, he doesn't."

Hu is generally recognized as lacking flair compared with predecessors Deng Xiaoping, who donned a 10-gallon cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo in 1979, and Jiang Zemin, who swayed his hips with Hawaiian schoolchildren during a 1997 stop; donned minuteman garb at Williamsburg, Va.; and exercised his vocal cords with "O Sole Mio" at a 2002 luncheon in San Francisco. Nor does Hu have former Premier Zhu Rongji's charisma, humor or blunt repartee.

There are a few hints of personality in Hu's sanitized biographies, but not many. Born in 1942, Hu officially hails from Jixi, a town in Anhui province. But other published reports suggest his hometown was Shanghai, or perhaps Taizhou in Jiangsu province.

The discrepancy, according to one biography, reflects efforts to distance Hu politically from his predecessor, Jiang, born in Jiangsu province, in a nation where regional associations remain strong.

Hu came from a family of businessmen, a stigma in communism's heyday. Former high school classmate Ju Hongfu said in a 2002 interview that Hu's family history forced him to try harder than others, given the stigma of having a shopkeeper for a father.

In a November 2002 interview, classmate Liu Bingxia recalled the young Hu as carefully controlled, studious and someone who always held his temper.

After an early interest in medicine, Hu chose hydraulic engineering upon entering Beijing's elite Tsinghua University in 1959 and developed a reputation as something of a "dancing prince charmer," according to a biography co-written by former aide Ren Zhichu. The dancing helped him catch the eye of classmate Liu Yongqing, his future wife.

Hu soon became active in the Communist Youth League and joined the party in 1964.

Early in his career he was also known to like singing. As he climbed the ladder, however, his reputation for conservative, cautious competence grew.

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