He may be the kind of guy you wouldn't ordinarily think twice about—cautious, colorless and corporate. In the past he has often lost the spotlight to other world leaders with bigger egos and sharper elbows. But to underestimate Hu Jintao would be a monumental error. His position as China's president makes him CEO of a financial juggernaut that's projected to post a $280 billion trade surplus this year. While the rest of the world plunges deeper into recession, Hu the Humble is emerging as the one who is holding the lifeline. (Story continued below...)
Thirty years of drastic reforms have transformed China from a vast sinkhole of poverty into the world's third-largest economy—one that's still growing. Recent projections for GDP growth in the coming year hover around 8 percent or somewhat lower. The country's decades of massive profits have enabled Beijing to become the U.S. government's biggest creditor, investing billions in American T-bills and shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Any retreat from that position now could doom Barack Obama's hopes of funding a stimulus package for the U.S. economy.
Hu also holds the purse strings for other countries that are vital to U.S. interests—places like Pakistan, America's frontline ally in the Afghan war. Back in October, a quest for emergency economic assistance brought President Asif Ali Zardari straight to Beijing on his first official state trip. "China is the future of the world," Zardari declared on his arrival. (He left without the multibillion-dollar loan he wanted, though.)
But Hu's influence goes far beyond his position as a global banker. His government has played a central role in efforts to dismantle North Korea's nuclear-arms program, and energy-development ventures have raised China's profile in critical places like Sudan, Iraq and Angola. More than that, Hu's cooperation is a must in any attempt to control global warming. Already one of the world's heaviest carbon-dioxide emitters, China has argued that developed nations like the United States should make the biggest sacrifices because their cars and factories have been belching smoke so much longer. Still, Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao know that three decades of pell-mell growth have severely devastated their country's environment. Ambassador Wu Jianmin, one of the Foreign Ministry's most senior diplomats, says China's leaders "realize they need a new development model—one that's cleaner, greener and less polluting."
Hu is anything but a grandstander. Instead he rules by consensus of China's all-powerful nine-man standing committee of the Politburo. But in the aftermath of Wall Street's meltdown, his low-key competence is just what Beijing wants—and may be what the world needs as well.