Prague, 11 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Chairman Mao Zedong once swam across the mighty Yangtze River to demonstrate his strength. Current Chinese leader Hu Jintao is not being quite so spectacular, but his diplomatic program nevertheless is a marathon.
Hu's travels are taking him to meetings near and far. His message has been that Chinese power is not to be feared, but instead embraced as a factor for mutual prosperity. He set the tone in a speech to Vietnam's National Assembly in Hanoi last week.
"It is our policy that in politics, Asian countries should make peaceful contacts, in the economic sphere they should cooperate for mutual benefit, in security issues they should cooperate with mutual trust, and in cultural issues they should advance together," Hu said.
A China expert with the London-based Royal United Services Institute, Alexander Neill, has said Hu and Premier Wen Jiaobao want to project a new image of China. They want China seen as a responsible partner on the world stage.
And they themselves want to give the impression of being businessmen, with a professional approach to public diplomacy. Gone are the days of the "red-flag wavers," as Neill characterized the previous generation of Chinese leaders. And he said these are stirring times for Beijing.
"It's a very exciting time for China, because it is enjoying this huge [economic] growth -- it has been estimated at 9 percent [per year], I suspect it may be a little less than that, but even if you put it at 7 percent of persistent growth over the last, well, five years at least, you are looking at a huge engine of growth, and China is starting to become a serious world player in the global market," Neill said.
But a change of image does not always mean a change in basic realities. And leaders who create new profiles for themselves have to remember which audience they are playing to.
"The difficulty of course is that this public 'face-lift' is still underlaid by the old system: you still have a rigid politburo, you still have factions within the leadership, and you stil have an authoritarian one-party state; so the Chinese leaders have to be very careful about how they portray themselves internationally and how they are marketed domestically, they must be seen to be in control and not appeasing international interests and sacrificing Chinese nationalistic interests," Neill said.
Another analyst, Yiyi Lu of the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, agreed that China remains a one-party state, but she said that within this limitation, there has nevertheless been a great change in political mentality.
"It's the Communist Party which lanched this whole reform process, and if you compare China today with when the reforms started at the end of the 1970s, huge changes have taken place, you can't have such fundamental changes in the social-economic sphere without at least some political change," Lu said.
China's neighbors are uneasy at China's growing strength, on both economic and security grounds. The United States, which supports Taiwan, is also concerned at what it sees as a significant growth in Chinese military power.
U.S. officials, most recently Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have questioned why -- if China's military forces are only for defensive purposes -- there is such an extensive modernization under way. Analyst Neill gives his view of China's real military intentions.
"I would arge that China wants to secure things like energy resources, it wants to secure access to raw materials, by means of what are called SLOCS in military terms, that means sea lanes of control, and in order to do that, and to become a regional power, they have to have a more flexible and modern People's Liberation Army," Neill of the Royal United Services Institute said.
The time to regard the Chinese military as primarily focussed on Taiwan is gone, he said, the People's Liberation Army is now looking beyond that to a role as a regional military power.
As to human rights, Hu's genial attitude does not appear to have produced much difference there. The U.S. State Department on 8 November listed China as one of the eight countries with the worst record in its toleration and treatment of religions.