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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China's Future Leader Steps Into the Spotlight

BEIJING -- He's getting star treatment in Europe. President Vladimir Putin took time to discuss terrorism. Queen Elizabeth is giving him a private audience at Buckingham Palace.

The target of Europe's enthusiasm is China's vice president, Hu Jintao. He rarely travels abroad and is a political enigma, even at home. But this former engineer excites interest because he is widely expected to be China's next leader.

Hu has been groomed for a decade as successor to President Jiang Zemin, who is expected to start handing over power next year. At 59, Hu is young enough that he could rule China for 15 years.

"He is being introduced to the world as the successor of Jiang Zemin," said Joseph Cheng, director of the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong.

Foreign governments get the message, and are treating Hu to high-level hospitality.

The trip that began Saturday in Moscow is Hu's first to every country on his itinerary -- Russia, Britain, France, Spain and Germany.

Hu joined the Communist Party in 1964 while still an engineering student.

Hu rode quickly to the top, becoming the youngest member of the party's elite Central Committee at age 39.

But he has avoided being associated with any faction or policy. Now, he is under pressure not to outshine Jiang in a society where folk wisdom advises, "The bird that sticks its head out gets shot."

"Hu has no clear political or ideological leanings. To show that is risky in Chinese political life. That's why he has survived so long," said Wu Guoguang, a former Chinese official who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

It was Deng Xiaoping, the late supreme leader, who endorsed Hu as Jiang's successor in the early 1990s.

Deng died in 1997, but his blessing still protects Hu, said Cheng.

Jiang benefited from a similar surprise choice when Deng summoned him from Shanghai to lead the party after a 1989 power struggle.

Jiang, 75, is expected to hand the party leadership to Hu next year, and the title of president in 2003. It isn't clear whether Jiang will give up his most important post as head of the commission that controls China's military. But Hu already is his deputy there.

Hu's first major test came in 1999, when Jiang put him in charge of responding to the NATO bombing of China's embassy in Yugoslavia.

Many Chinese got their first good look at Hu when he appeared on television during rioting by protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Hu declared the protests expressions of "patriotic anger."

His second test came during the confrontation in April over a collision of a U.S. Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. Hu is said to have made the day-to-day decisions while Jiang left on a Latin American tour.

The biggest skeleton in Hu's political closet is his tenure as party secretary for Tibet. He was in charge in 1989 when soldiers opened fire on Tibetans protesting Chinese rule.

Hu also has to contend with the dismal record of past heirs apparent, whose wrecked careers litter China's recent history. Zhao Ziyang, once Deng's man, fell out of favor in 1989 and has lived under house arrest ever since.

That record suggests why other candidates have yet to challenge Hu, said Cheng.