BEIJING, Sept 22 (AFP) - Already the fifth-ranking official in the Communist Party at the tender age of 56, Hu Jintao saw his widely held
image as the groomed successor to China's top spot strengthen with his elevation as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission Wednesday.

Hu Jintao was born December 21, 1942, in Jixi, in the Anhui province of China, to a merchant family. Hu excelled as a student and studied at the Department of Water Conservancy Engineering at Tsinghua University, graduating with a degree in engineering in 1964. Hu did postgraduate work at the university, also working as an instructor and in research and development there. During China’s Cultural Revolution, Hu spent a year as a construction worker.

Hu's advancement to the powerful commission comes after being named as China's vice president in March 1998.

His appointment at the Communist Party plenum which ended Wednesday further highlights the efforts of Jiang Zemin to make the People's Liberation Army accountable to the party and its top civilian leadership.

The handsome and stylishly-suited Hu gained the sobriquet as the chosen leader for the 21st century when he became the youngest member of the party's all-powerful politburo standing committee in 1992.

He reportedly had the personal support of late paramount leader of Deng Xiaoping, who singled him out to become the core of communist China's "fourth generation" of leaders.

For the last six years, he has headed Beijing's Communist Party School, which handles the ideological indoctrination for elite leaders.

He is thought to be the country's top official on personnel matters, although his lack of a government post in recent years has kept his
activities in the shadows.

Born in Jixi city in eastern Anhui province, he joined the party in 1964 while a hydraulic engineering student at Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University.

After graduating, he worked his way up through the ranks in the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Power until the early 1980s, when he took up a series of offices in the leadership of the Communist Youth League, Young Pioneers and All-China Youth Federation.

His rise at this time was propelled by the patronage of Hu Yaobang, the party's chief under Deng and a liberal reformer. According to sources in Beijing, Hu Jintao himself leaned politically toward greater openness.

But he was appointed party secretary of Tibet and the far-western province of Guizhou from 1985-1992, posts which kept him out of harm's way when hardliners in the party rallied to have Hu purged and later crush the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement.

Some speculate that Beijing's inner circle sent him to Lhasa in 1988 to handle the "dirty work" of crushing separatist agitation -- also a means of toughening him for future leadership responsibilities.


Hu Jintao

Engineer and President of China