Unlike predecessor Zhou Enlai, he never lounged in the cafes of Paris and Berlin. Nor did he ever sit in a lecture hall at Lomonosov University in Moscow, like other members of China's political elite. Chinese President Hu Jintao, 62, does not speak a foreign language. And he has no friends abroad, apart from official comrades such as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.
Instead of traveling the world, Hu spent his formative years stamping party directives in austere, drafty offices in the Chinese provinces. He sat on countless lace doily-covered chairs listening to his comrades' reports. And he has spent hours reading out Marxist-Leninist treatises and the thoughts of Mao Zedong.
His eight colleagues in the Politburo Permanent Committee, the center of power in China, can look back on similar careers. Only one senior party official studied abroad: Luo Gan, the head of the police and intelligence service, in the East German cities of Leipzig and Freiberg in the 1950s and 1960s.
When China's leaders meet with Hu each week in Beijing's government district, Zhongnanhai, they could spend hours discussing cables, switches, tool-making machines and control devices. That's because every one of them has a degree in engineering. The president himself, the son of a tea merchant from Jiangsu Province, trained to build hydroelectric power stations, while the others hold degrees in electrical engineering, metallurgy and geology.
These nine relatively uncosmopolitan technocrats face the enormous task of moving China's economy forward while modernizing the country. At the same time, they must prevent social tensions from tearing apart their realm of 1.3 billion people.
Hu -- on a three-day visit to Germany this week -- belongs to a generation of Chinese whose political careers began during the Cultural Revolution with which Mao plunged China into bloody turmoil between 1966 and 1976. During the years of chaos, Hu, like many of his fellow students, was sent to do manual labor in the bleak northwest province of Gansu. But his organizational talents were recognized so quickly that he didn't develop many calluses on his hands.
He was noticed by patriarch Deng Xiaoping, who liked comrades of Hu's mold: "revolutionary, younger, knowledgeable and more specialized." When Deng died, Hu was asked to help his widow scatter his ashes at sea. It was considered a great honor.
Deng's political heirs have been impressing the world for years with growth rates of more than 9 percent. China, together with Hong Kong, has amassed more foreign currency reserves than any other country, and Chinese companies are beginning to invest abroad. To support this economic boom, the country has become one of the world's largest consumers of natural gas, coal and oil.
The price of modernization
Of course, this ambitious modernization has come at a price. China's economic boom is devastating the environment, while the gap between rich and poor is widening dramatically. Millions of poor peasants are crowding into the cities. China's leaders bear some resemblance to circus trainers riding a wild tiger.
Whereas his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, would occasionally add levity to official events by serenading his guests or reading them poetry, Hu is as stiff as a board. When he speaks, each hair on his head perfectly in place, hardly a muscle in his face moves. He has a razor-sharp memory and is always well-prepared when called upon to recite what his assistants have written down for him.
Technocrats like Hu are managing China's rise with great caution. He recently warned his comrades of the cautionary example of Mikhail Gorbachev. Hu believes Gorbachev neglected the leadership role of the Soviet Communist Party and granted all sorts of liberties much too soon.
That, Hu believes, must not happen to the technocrats of Zhongnanhai.
Translated from German by Christopher Sultan