“He was parachuted into Hebei province, staying there only a year and a half to get his credentials and then moving on,” said Li Datong, who worked under Little Hu at the Communist Youth League during the 1980s and 1990s as an editor of its newspaper. “It’s those kinds of assignments along the way that made it obvious he was being groomed by the top level.”
Hu escaped relatively unscathed from a 2008 scandal in Hebei over contaminated milk. But he has encountered more controversy during his posting in Inner Mongolia. Ethnic tensions resulted in large demonstrations last year amid complaints that Han Chinese were reaping huge profits from environmentally damaging mining operations while much-poorer Mongolians did not benefit.
Setting himself apart
While the traditional government reflex is to respond to such protests by cracking down, Hu Chunhua deployed a more subtle mixture of appeasement and force. He severely tightened security, but he also visited the area of unrest and closed some coal mines at the heart of the controversy.
Asked after the recent party congress meeting about this mixture of hard and soft, Hu scoffed at such characterizations.
“The media tends to try to label us officials,” he said. “But we will act tough when it is needed and shift to soft when it is needed.”
Even in the way he answered questions from reporters — allowing a free-for-all and often replying off the cuff — Hu distinguished himself from most party officials at the congress, who gave stiff, bland responses to questions that were often screened or scripted.
His hair also set him apart — unusual for its grayness amid a sea of dyed jet-black pompadours, the tradition among China’s party officials.
Despite his meteoric rise, Little Hu’s trajectory is not assured. A lot will depend on how much power the elder Hu retains once he retires from the presidency in March. Some speculate that Hu Jintao will become a more forceful player in personnel decisions after his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, dies. Some say he may find himself struggling against other party elders as well as Xi, all eager to advance their proteges.
But throughout the past week, even as the party prepared to unveil its new leaders, it was obvious that the jockeying and positioning for the next round had already begun.
When asked about the rumors surrounding his political future, Little Hu was wry, diplomatic and tight-lipped.
“I’d like to express my thanks to the attention the media has paid to me, but right now I am still working in Inner Mongolia, so I will only answer questions related to Inner Mongolia.”
Wang Juan contributed to this report.