At nearly 70, Hu is much younger than Mao and Deng were, as both men kept the seat of power warm well into their 80s. (Jiang stepped down as president at 76.) Although thought to be diabetic, Hu is seen as healthy. But Hu, a stiff, diffident apparatchik, also lacks his predecessors' athleticism, ease, and charisma. Despite rumors that he was "a mean dancer at Tsinghua University in the 1960s," Hu "is not a physical man," says Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney's China Studies Center and author of Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler.
Hu's robotic personality at state and international functions might be a subtle criticism of Jiang, whose detractors criticized him for embarrassing China with his buffoonish behavior abroad, including singing a karaoke version of Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender" at an Asia-Pacific summit in 1996. Hu acts so constrained that one European head of state, after a visit with Hu, called him the most boring person the leader had ever met, according to a person briefed on the conversation.
But it's not just personality holding Hu back. The president's evident lack of interest in swimming might also have to do with the changing nature of Chinese leadership, an American academic who asked to remain anonymous told me. Unlike his flashier predecessors, Hu must govern by consensus -- he doesn't have the clout to stage an event rich in symbolism like public swimming. "Maybe no one covered it when he swam because if you let other people do that, you have to give them something else," said the academic.
A lack of willingness to share the spotlight might have led to Bo's downfall. Bo's Mao-style campaigns in Chongqing, where he sent text messages of the Great Helmsman's quotes to millions of cell phones across the municipality and encouraged thousands of people to meet to sing Cultural Revolution-era songs, worried other leaders who thought he was becoming too transparently ambitious. Bo also reportedly liked to swim; in a 2009 speech in which he accepted the honorary chairmanship of the Chinese Swimming Association, Bo quoted a line from a Mao poem about swimming: "With confidence man can live 200 years, and can swim 3,000 li."
It's anyone's guess what kind of leader Hu's heir, Xi, will be and whether he has the confidence that Mao and Bo shared, but he seems like a step up in the charisma department. In a written question-and-answer session with the Washington Post in February, Xi said, "I like sports, and swimming is my favorite."