THE CRITICAL PROMOTIONS for China’s next generation of leaders are still a year away when five of the seven Politburo Standing Committee members reach mandatory retirement age, but the jockeying for position will be continuing at the party plenum now being held.
One of the front-runners to be the country’s next president, Hu Chunhua (left), is taking a leaf out of the incumbent Xi Jinping’s playbook for how to become China’s top leader. Hu has been talked of for several years as a likely successor to Xi, but the Guangdong Party boss is maintaining an ultra-low profile, just as Xi did as he eased ahead of the early front-runner to succeed President Hu Jintao, the now prime minister Li Keqiang.
In many ways, Guangdong is the bellwether for China’s economic reform. Hu’s success — or otherwise — in restructuring the provincial economy and sustaining the economic parity of its capital, Guangzhou, with Beijing and Shanghai will be a litmus test of whether he could do the same with whole economy — and whether he could do so while maintaining social stability in a rich, coastal and relatively liberal province that looks more like tomorrow’s China than the under-developed tough-to-govern inland provinces that Hu has previously run.
Hu has pursued cautious economic reform in Guangdong since taking over at the end of 2012 from the sloganeering Wang Yang. He has promoted unglamorous small and medium-sized businesses but also been careful to align with the edicts of central leadership. Hu’s policies for the province have echoed Xi’s line about the “quality and efficiency” of economic growth and in setting lower growth targets. He has promoted the move up the value chain by Guangdong’s manufacturers and into services while moving labour intensive businesses into poor inland districts.
His predecessor Wang’s setbacks — he failed to get promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee at the November 2012 party congress at around the same time as the high-flying Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai was being brought low — will not have been lost on Hu. He has already survived two incidents that could easily have finished a political career.
He was governor of Hebei when the tainted baby formula scandal started there. In his next job, party chief in Inner Mongolia, violent protests broke out against the destruction of traditional Mongol grazing lands by Han-controlled mining interests. Hu cracked down on these and tripled per capita income in his five years but established a dubious record on environmentalism, a factor that now weighs more heavily in political calculations for promotion.
There is no doubt that Hu’s rise has been rapid. A staff position with the Communist Youth League (CYL) in Tibet in 1983 led to governor of Hebei province in 2008, party boss of Inner Mongolia by 2010 and then the same role in a high-profile province, Guangdong, in 2012 along with promotion to the Politburo. In 1996-99, Hu studied for a master’s degree in economics at the Central Party School, where officials marked out for future high office get sent.
Still in his early 50s he is young even by the standards of the prospective sixth generation of leaders. A career in the CYL, where he became a protege of Hu Jintao (no relation), is the bureaucrat’s rather than a princeling’s to power.
Hu has demonstrated both the caution and the orthodoxy of officialdom and his deeper policy beliefs remain somewhat obscure. Both in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, he took a hard line on security and in Guangdong, which has long had a more vibrant local press than most of the rest of China, he has been criticised for tightening censorship.
Hu has also cracked down on Guangdong’s drugs and sex industries and gone after officials who have done well enough out of their offices to be able to keep and support their families abroad. Hu has bought some 800 ‘luoguan’ to book, again moves in line with Xi’s anti-corruption drive.
Bo’s disgrace opened avenues for loyalists, down which Hu has advanced. Whether he completes the journey to the highest offices may turn on the influence that Hu Jintao can wield in the inevitable factional horse-trading. The corruption charges against another Hu Jintao protege, Wan Qingliang, the party boss of Guangzhou, may suggest Xi is constraining his predecessor, even if not as publicly as he is Hu Jintao’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
It will also depend on Hu’s own ability to keep his head down and out of trouble and Guangdong’s economy thriving.
A third factor, unknown at this point, is where Xi will come down. Will he consider Hu’s conservatism and reformist credentials suitable to carry on his policies? Will he back a fellow princeling or acknowledge that the presidency is due to return to Hu Jintao’s CYL faction?
Hu is regarded as a Hu Jintao version two and is familiarly known as ‘Little Hu’. Both men come from humble backgrounds. Hu was the son of a poor farmer in Hubei who made it to the elite Beijing University, where he took a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and history, by dint of outstanding exam scores. Both were student leaders in their university days, rose through the CYL and cut their political teeth in troublesome provinces with ethnic minority populations, Gansu and Tibet, in the elder Hu’s case, Tibet and Inner Mongolia in the younger Hu’s case. Unusually for a senior Han official, he speaks fluent Tibetan. He also doesn’t die his hair.
Politically, they a both low-key, consensual leaders who advocate policies of social justice and economic equality. Both of those may be in tune with the party’s needs in 2022 when Xi’s successor starts to take over, and some rough edges to China’s economic rebalancing will be in need of smoothing.