In an emotionally charged moment Tuesday, Hu Jintao revealed the high level of personal strain that he experienced during the SARS outbreak earlier this year, a crisis of great magnitude that he had to tackle only a short time after becoming Chinese president.
"When thousands of my countrymen were under the threat of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and hundreds were dying from this epidemic, I felt as if my heart were on fire as the state leader," Hu told a news conference.
"As leaders of China, we could not account to the 1.3 billion people in this country and we would even feel responsible to the people of the whole world if we could not control this epidemic effectively and if we sat idly by and saw the spread of this dangerous disease to other parts of the world."
Hu opened up on his feelings after being asked about his toughest challenge so far since taking office.
Hu said emphatically that it was the SARS outbreak that surfaced in South China's Guangdong Province and spread to several other countries, killing 774 people and affecting nearly 8,100 worldwide.
Apart from revealing the considerable personal pressures he has been experiencing as leader of China, Hu showed too the lighter side of his nature. He smiled and joked when dealing deftly with questions ranging from China's political reform prospects to the renminbi exchange rate.
The one-hour-long press conference was held at the end of a two-day summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum. It was the first time that Hu had been present at APEC meetings.
In dealing with the SARS crisis, Hu said the new leadership had worked in solidarity, mobilized people across the country, adopted firm and resolute measures and finally brought the epidemic under control.
"The Chinese people, in the face of this epidemic, were really acting as one person," Hu said. "I felt very happy when the World Health Organization announced it would remove Beijing from the list of cities with recent local transmissions."
He said the country needs to strengthen healthcare in particular and improve its contingency planning mechanisms.
"We believe disasters are our best teachers. I hope we have emerged from this disaster wiser and we have learned more," Hu said.
On the issue of the renminbi, Hu said China is studying how to gradually make it freely convertible under the capital account - which covers capital flows - and to effectively ward off risk.
The renminbi has already become convertible under the current account, which mainly covers trade.
On political reforms, Hu said China will move ahead with them, but cautiously, as it balances the economic and social needs of its 1.3 billion people.
At a recent top-level meeting, Party leaders reaffirmed their commitment to political reforms, Hu said, adding that China's form of socialism required "coordinated" progress on the economic and social front.
"We will push ahead with political reform unswervingly, actively and cautiously," he said.
The Communist Party of China closed its plenum last week with the broad promises that have characterized the new generation of leaders: pushing ahead with market reforms, elevating living standards and creating jobs.
Answering a Hong Kong reporter's question on whether China's first astronaut Yang Liwei will be able to visit the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the near future, Hu said he had received an invitation from Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. "We are making positive efforts in relation to the planned visit," he said.
He also revealed that he met Lee Yuan-tseh, Taiwan's APEC delegate, during the annual meeting.
"Lee came over to express congratulations on the successful launch of our manned space mission during the break of the meeting," Hu said.
"And I told him it was a matter of pride for the entire Chinese people, Taiwan compatriots included."
(China Daily October 22, 2003)