"I like to say his speeches don't spill a single drop of water, a perfect quality in the communist system," said one party member. "In China the more cautious you are, the better your chances are of climbing the ladder."
Hu worked during the Cultural Revolution at a large dam on the Yellow River. His career saw him spend eight years in Gansu province, three in Guizhou province and four in Tibet.
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.
His assignments in some of China's poorest areas reportedly gave him an appreciation for the plight of those at the bottom of society. He also developed a reputation for meeting with farmers and hearing about their problems directly rather than relying on information filtered through party channels. When called upon, he showed his mettle -- another key criterion for party leadership -- by presiding over a crackdown in Tibet.
All that may not be an ideal background for the assignment that image makers now say Hu should pursue: looking as relaxed and approachable as possible on camera and speaking some English even if it's not perfect, to make a direct connection with Americans. Ideally, he should also find an opportunity to act spontaneously, preferably using a bit of self-deprecating humor, they say.
Such moves are not second nature to Chinese leaders, who rise through a top-down system that places a premium on ceremony, control and careful planning to maintain the dignity of the leader and, by extension, the nation.
"In Chinese culture, unpredictability is not seen as a virtue," said David Wolf, president of Wolf Group Asia, a public relations consultancy. "Whereas in America, it's seen as a sign of hidden genius."
Those who pierce the veil in China face the wrath of the system. In 2004, the government arrested Zhao Yan, an assistant in the New York Times' Beijing bureau after the paper got advance word that Jiang was relinquishing a top post. Zhao remains in jail, though charges against him were dropped last month. Chinese journalist Wu Shishen was released last year after 12 years in prison on charges of "illegally divulging state secrets abroad" for giving an advance copy of a Jiang speech to a Hong Kong journalist.
China's ceremony-laden political blueprint, which dates back centuries, is often at odds with the "wing it" approach Americans are sometimes accused of, or the folksy persona Bush has cultivated.
"Bush is very relaxed and casual, but sometimes Chinese feel it's a bit unstatesmanlike," biographer Ma said.
"Maybe we lack a sense of humor. It's still hard to imagine Asian leaders laughing at themselves."