On the eve of the Lunar New Year, China's most important holiday, the country's President took time out from running the world's next superpower, drove several hours outside Beijing and knocked unannounced at the two-room village home of peasant Lu Zhanlin. As Lu gaped in astonishment, Hu helped the family stuff dumplings and chatted for an hour about corn prices. Then he handed Lu a red envelope with $120 to buy fertilizer and left. "Hu says he'll help us grow richer, and he follows through on his promises," says Lu, who was impressed--even though "my dumplings looked nicer."
The social call punctuated Hu's banner year after taking over China's presidency from Jiang Zemin. At home, Hu fashions himself as a uniquely accessible Communist Party leader concerned with the plight of common folk--far different from Jiang, who seemed most comfortable in his glitzy Shanghai hometown. Ordinary Chinese welcome Hu's pledge to raise stagnant peasant incomes, his firing of officials for covering up last year's SARS epidemic and his ban on ostentatious airport send-offs for traveling dignitaries. At the same time, he has hobnobbed with leaders of capitalist nations at G-8 meetings and pressured North Korea to surrender its nuclear-weapons program.
To leave his mark on China's long history, though, Hu will have to encourage something his predecessors blocked: political reform. As a hydropower engineer whose competence, not creativity, pushed him through the party ranks, Hu, 61, seems ill suited to the task. On his watch, some 3,000 people were sentenced for political and religious crimes last year. Yet a growing number of activists who push for cautious change--like curbing the country's labor-camp gulags and ending arbitrary police detentions--take heart from Hu's reluctance to crack down on their efforts. Many see him as a pragmatist who will continue the party's slow withdrawal from a complex society. "Hu isn't changing China. China is changing Hu," says Li Fan, director of the private Beijing-based World and China Institute, which promotes local elections. The unanswered question: Can Hu change fast enough? --By Matthew Forney