He is well-known to most Chinese and to many educated Asians. But Hu Yaobang, the head of China's Communist Party, is not widely recognized in the region because he has long been in the shadow of his better known mentor, Deng Xiaoping, China's foremost leader, and because much of what he did remained out of the public eye until a few years ago.

Now in less than a week, Hu, a short man with an expansive style, has swept through Australia, captured this vast country in a public relations triumph and established himself as a statesman, at least with the Australians.

In his first trip to a western nation, Hu, the heir apparent to Deng, came across as "strong, outgoing and colorful," according to an adviser to Australia's Prime Minister Robert Hawke.

Another of China's top leaders, Premier Zhao Ziyang, made a successful trip to Australia in 1983. But Zhao came across to Australians as a slick, confident technocrat, one Australian said. Hu, from a poor peasant family, projected a common touch that pleased Australians, and, according to one who was in a meeting with Hu, the Chinese leader demolished "the old myth of the inscrutable Oriental," which lingers here despite Australia's close ties with China and Japan.

Hu has assumed enormous political importance on China's political scene. Deng is now 80 and Hu, at 69, is his chosen successor. What Hu, with his senior colleagues, decides in the next few years will determine whether the current pragmatic approach to economic reform and open-door foreign policy toward the West will continue.

Together with Premier Zhao, Hu is responsible for the day-to-day supervision of the Communist Party and government bureaucracies. But among many Chinese, Hu has yet to establish an image as a strong leader. Although Hu's quips and arm-waving may not play as well in Peking as they did here, overseas visits such as this one are likely to improve his image back home.

One of Hu's main tasks has been to rehabilitate victims of purges and revitalize a Communist Party that lost much of its prestige during the disastrous Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. He is one of the key leaders involved in recruiting younger people into the party and easing them into top positions in preparation for a special party conference on a leadership reshuffle scheduled for September.

Australian experts are aware of China's power struggle and Hu's need to consolidate his base. But as the considered successor, he has demonstrated staying power.

In 1983, Hu made a highly publicized trip to Japan, his first one outside the communist world. During that trip, however, Hu made it sound as though an exchange of top-level visits between China and the United States might be canceled but later had his comments corrected in the official Chinese press.

Before he left Peking for an eight-day visit to Australia and New Zealand, Hu's remarks about a U.S. port call to China again generated controversy when he told foreign journalists that the United States had agreed not to send nuclear-armed vessels. China since has stepped back from that position and issued a statement that conventionally powered vessels may call without mentioning whether the vessels would be armed with nuclear weapons.

In Australia, he was careful on sensitive issues. At a news conference, he told Australian reporters he was going to use the western term "no comment" when it came to some questions and did so three times.

He skillfully responded to a question about his personal suffering during the disastrous Cultural Revolution, when he spent 2 1/2 years being "reeducated" in a cattle stable, by commenting on the many other Chinese who, he said, suffered more than he did.

Then, chopping the air with his hands for emphasis, he stood up and said, "As far as the hundreds and thousands who suffered are concerned -- be they intellectuals, scholars or peasants -- they concluded that China should never again go through a Cultural Revolution."

China and Australia are about 2,400 miles apart. It is difficult to imagine two nations more different than China, with its more than 1 billion people, living under authoritarian rule and projecting a sometimes formidable, dragonlike image, and Australia, in the Pacific and so isolated from most of Asia, with its 15.5 million people conveying a benign image of kangaroos and koalas.

Hu, for a moment at least, made China more accessible and less mysterious to many Australians. One Australian who saw him said Hu looked a little like a koala.

One man who spent hours in meetings with Hu and Prime Minister Hawke said Hu impressed the Australians as a man who was constantly probing and questioning and "keenly interested in everything."

"He [Hu] was always putting his foot on the accelerator," the official said. "He was constantly saying, 'Let's get on with it; let's talk business.' "

One reason that Hu succeeded in Australia, however, was not so much a matter of his skill and lively personality as it was the effort made by the Australians.

Prime Minister Hawke spent 26 1/2 hours with Hu in meetings, dinners, receptions, and travel around the state of Western Australia.

The high point appeared to be the trip to Western Australia, when Hu, accompanied by Hawke, chatted with a young family at a mining town and discovered that some Australian workers make 50 times what Chinese workers make.

In Canberra, during a reception for Hu, prominent Australians loved it when, champagne glass in hand, the Chinese leader leaped in the air shouting "cheers." By the time the visit was over and Hu was off to the second stop on his trip, New Zealand, Hawke, in a talk with reporters, was calling the Chinese leader "my dear friend Hu Yaobang."

One official who worked on the Hu visit said there were several reasons for Australia's warm feelings toward China. First, Australian tourists have had good experiences in China. Australians also are developing a sense that both countries are part of the western Pacific, he said. And some Australians feel guilty about the way Australia showed hostility toward China for so long after the Chinese Communists came to power in 1949.

Australian leaders are aware that Hu has survived many purges and participated in some against his opponents. In the Chinese context, Hu has a reputation for being "liberal" on some issues. But he is no capitalist or democrat in the western sense and clearly believes in the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party.