With the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress roughly half a year away, in which one or more “heirs apparent” are expected to start their ascent to the pinnacle of the nation’s ruling class, a guessing game is heating up again as to exactly who will be the future successor to General Secretary-cum-President Xi Jinping. The latter’s remaining term in office will be just five years at the time of the November plenum.
Though rumour has it that, having amassed all the powers and prerogatives, Xi is mulling over extending his tenure beyond the 10-year term limit — imposed by the late party patriarch Deng Xiaoping and observed by Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao — sooner or later Xi will still have to anoint a future leader by elevating his person of choice to the top party caucus, the Politburo Standing Committee.
In this series, we examine the personal history and the way to power of a few serious contenders in the party’s version of the Game of Thrones.
Hu Chunhua (胡春華) may still not be a familiar name to some expat observers. But at home, his seat in the Politburo as well as his stewardship of Guangdong — an economic dynamo whose GDP would rank 15th worldwide if it was an independent economy, almost on par with that of Spain, South Korea or Russia — mean Hu is a frontrunner to secure a higher post when a new standing committee of the Politburo is formed this fall.
Hu, 54, was promoted to be a non-standing member of the Politburo and Guangdong party chief in 2012, after rotating among various positions in Tibet, Hebei and Inner Mongolia.
The fact that he was put in charge of Guangdong five years ago already signified his promising career prospects: all Guangdong party chiefs since the early 1990s were appointed to national or senior party capacities at party plenums immediately after their tenures in the southern province, a place seen as a “launch pad” for cadres aspiring to rise up the party hierarchy.
Of Hu’s three predecessors since 2000s, Li Changchun became a Politburo standing member and the party’s fifth-ranking leader, Zhang Dejiang is the incumbent Politburo standing member and chairman of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, and Wang Yang is now a deputy premier.
Little Hu Jintao
Hu’s other advantage that has made him head and shoulders above his rivals is that he is a favorite protégé of his elder, heavyweight backer, former General Secretary and President Hu Jintao. The close ties, some mainland reporters even call it “bromance”, dates back to their time in Tibet three decades ago.
When the elder Hu became party chief of the tumultuous autonomous region in 1988, the younger Hu had already been there for a few years, having voluntarily requested to be posted to the frigid, poverty-stricken plateau after graduating as a valedictorian from the prestigious Peking University.
Hu Chunhua’s credentials and rise from humble origin — born to a poor family in the central rural province of Hubei and entered PKU as a child prodigy — well impressed the new Tibet party chief. The Chinese ideology of a shared kinship between people who have the same surname scored some extra points for the younger Hu in front of his boss as well, although the two Hus are not related.
This was how Hu Chunhua earned the moniker “Little Hu Jintao”.
Having spent almost 20 years in Tibet with his last position being deputy party chief, Hu Chunhua returned to Beijing in 2006 and became the first secretary of the Communist Youth League, the party’s youth wing which was once led by his supervisor Hu Jintao.
Hu Chunhua’s meteoric rise in ranks continued: he was made the governor of Hebei in 2008, one of China’s youngest provincial governors back then, yet before long, he was hit by his first setback in his career: a disastrous mining accident and the heavy casualties stained his image as a cadre of the people.
Then an even bigger national scandal struck: the melamine tainted infant formula mainly produced by the Hebei-based market leader Sanlu Group resulted in an estimated 300,000 undernourished infants with kidney malfunction nationwide, triggering a huge commotion when the nation was about to host its much-ballyhooed Olympic Games that summer.
Hebei cadres were accused of trying to cover up the food safety incident and Hu himself underwent some rare media grilling with incensed parents questioning his negligence and inaction even if he was unaware of the well-orchestrated cover-up in the first place.
A slew of low to middle-level officials were sacked, charged and jailed in the aftermath, but the embattled Hu still managed to survive the scandal largely unscathed. A year later, he was transferred to Inner Mongolia, an economic backwater, as the region’s party chief. During his three-year stint there, Hu quashed several unrests by ethnic Mongolian herders.
From Guangdong to the top
In his new capacity of Guangdong party boss, Hu became one of the youngest newly installed Politburo non-standing members at the 18th party congress five years ago, and observers began to take notice of him as one of the possible candidates to take up the party baton from Xi.
Guangdong, China’s largest provincial economy, continues to thrive under Hu’s watch, where he has waged a graft-busting purge while keeping the wheel of business turning. Its GDP rose 7.5 percent to almost 8 trillion yuan (US$1.16 trillion) in 2016.
Hu’s war against corruption squared well with Xi’s nationwide drive, when Guangdong netted the highest number of corrupt “tigers” as well as “flies”, including the party chief of the provincial capital, Guangzhou.
Still, Hu came under the spotlight again last year when a renewed uprising broke out in Wukan, a small village in eastern Guangdong that once made global headlines in 2011 for a massive protest over illegal land grabs that led to a subsequent siege by riot police.
A hitherto obscure village chief who spearheaded the Wukan protest won in a local election there in 2012, seen as an unprecedented concession by Beijing. Yet he was hijacked last September and resurfaced in a forced TV confession of taking bribes when he was planning to reclaim the confiscated land. The arrest soon ignited a new wave of clamor from villagers.
Hu reportedly ordered a clampdown to signal his resolve to the top leadership, fearing any sign of leniency towards the peasants would affect his chances of further promotion.
A dozen leading protesters were sentenced to heavy custodial terms by a local court at the end of last year.
Still, Hu got a high-profile namecheck from Xi as the supreme leader gave a thumbs-up to Hu’s work this April, commending Guangdong’s achievements in the past five years as a role model to other provinces and regions. Xi rarely gives such public praise to regional chiefs and the move has augured well for further promotions to Hu, who has in turn lost no time setting the province’s propaganda apparatus in motion to echo back his debt of gratitude.
This happened not too long after Hu Jintao made a rare public appearance, after his 2012 retirement, in Guangzhou with the younger Hu during the Chinese New Year break this January, which itself was a heartening endorsement from an oldtime supervisor when all factions rev up the scramble for power in the run-up to the party plenum.
Analysts say Hu, now a high flyer, is set to be elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee to take part in top level decision-making, to pave the way for his rise to the top brass when Xi steps down in a few years’ time. The prerequisite notwithstanding is that Xi won’t extend his own tenure beyond 2022, which in turn is an uncertainty to everyone else other than Xi himself in a one man rule.