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03-11-05, 22:01
Here's Hu

Nov 3rd 2005 | BEIJING
From The Economist print edition

Enigmatic, but ubiquitous

PRESIDENT HU JINTAO, who only a few years ago had hardly set foot outside China, has become quite a globetrotter. His flurry of trips abroad this year most recently included his first state visit to North Korea, where Mr Hu has been capitalising on global concerns about the country's nuclear ambitions to establish China as a broker of peace. Known for his conservatism at home, could Mr Hu the diplomat be a bit more adventurous?

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, at least gave Mr Hu face by pledging to continue its involvement in the six-country talks, hosted by China, aimed at resolving the crisis surrounding its nuclear weapons. The North Koreans said they would uphold a vague agreement reached at the last round of talks in September, which committed the country to abandoning its nuclear-weapons projects, rejoining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and submitting to the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The next round is due to start on November 9th.

Mr Hu's diplomacy has been sweetened by handouts. He and Mr Kim toured a recently completed $30m glass factory close to Pyongyang, donated by the Chinese. Mr Hu also attended the signing of an agreement on economic and technical co-operation. Details have yet to be announced, but it suggests that China remains committed to propping up its neighbour's tattered economy.

Such a high-profile visit implies that China is reasonably confident that the talks are not about to collapse. A breakdown would be a setback for Mr Hu, who—unusually given China's normal preference for back-seat diplomacy—has decided his country should play an active role in trying to resolve the crisis.

Mr Hu is doubtless hoping to bask in the glory of his Korea diplomacy later this month when he sets off on his next trip (after North Korea, he spent three days in Vietnam boosting ties with another somewhat wary neighbour). This will take him to Britain, Germany and Spain, and then to South Korea for the first state visit there by a Chinese president in a decade. In South Korea Mr Hu will attend a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, including President Bush, who will then proceed to Beijing for what will be his first visit to China since Mr Hu assumed office in March 2003.

Since becoming president then, Mr Hu has travelled far and wide, often in the pursuit of strategic partnerships with commodity-rich potential suppliers for China's industrial machine. To that end he has toured Latin America, Africa, Australia, Canada and Central Asia. There remain, however, some notable omissions from his itinerary. He has yet to visit Japan, a country where he has shown little inclination for bold initiatives aimed at resolving festering disputes. He would have paid his first state visit to America only in September—and, as it happened, the main part of the trip was delayed by Hurricane Katrina, though he did make it to the United Nations in New York. Even if the trip had gone ahead, it would not have been entirely to the satisfaction of Mr Hu, a stickler for ceremony. His aides had been pressing for a more lavish welcome than Mr Bush was prepared to give.

All this exposure, however, is not adding much to the sum of knowledge about Mr Hu himself. He is the first top Chinese leader whose date of birth is a secret—December 1942 is all one is told. Diplomats say he is very bright, but apprehensive about informality. That may be a mercy: his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was famous for impromptu after-dinner sing-songs.