For the past week, the focus in China has been on the country’s outgoing leaders and their replacements, who were announced Thursday in a once-a-decade transition.
But those looking further down the line have been studying a subset of attendees — the likely successors to this year’s new leaders.
Just as Vice President Xi Jinping, 59, was named at the just-ended Communist Party congress to replace President Hu Jintao, someone in the next generation of officials will probably replace Xi 10 years from now. And leading the pack, according to some party insiders and experts, is a man widely known as “Little Hu.”
The party chief of Inner Mongolia, Hu Chunhua, acquired the nickname Xiao Hu (shee-ow hoo) years ago, when it became clear that he had been singled out by Hu Jintao as a rising star and was being groomed for the higher echelons of power.
Another frequently mentioned standout in the next generation is Sun Zhengcai, party chief in the northeastern province of Jilin. On Thursday, Hu and Sun, both 49, were promoted to the Politburo, making them the youngest members of that body and propelling them into contention for one of China’s top leadership positions in coming years. Little Hu is rumored to be transferring soon to lead the important province of Guangdong, which would position him well for the future.
Many experts point out that such speculation is premature, given the unpredictable power of competing factions within the party, the secretive nature of such internal decisions and the many years remaining before any selection is made.
But that has not dissuaded the Chinese media. During a rare party congress meeting that was open to journalists, camera crews crowded into a small room Nov. 9 to capture footage of Little Hu chairing a relatively inconsequential session.
When he got up suddenly, the media scrum dashed to follow him out the door, afraid it might lose its prey. The stampede stopped only when guards and officials pushed the journalists back in place.
“Please, everyone, he’s just going to the bathroom!” one official shouted in exasperation. “He’ll be back, I promise.”
The two Hus are not related by blood, but they share strikingly similar backgrounds, career paths, early achievements and strong pragmatic streaks — reasons the elder Hu may have identified the younger Hu more than two decades ago and begun moving him up the ranks.
“How do you describe Hu Chunhua? You look at Hu Jintao and imagine him a little younger,” said Cheng Li, a China politics expert at the Brookings Institution. “He’s an exact copy.”
Both built their careers from humble beginnings — in sharp contrast with many current officials who were born into prominent Communist families, including China’s new leader, Xi. Both were shaped by long stints in Tibet and a network of allies they cultivated while at the Communist Youth League.
Like Hu Jintao, who is renowned for a photographic memory, Little Hu distinguished himself early in academics. He began college at the unusually young age of 16, becoming the first from his home town of Wufeng to be admitted to the prestigious Peking University.
After graduation, he turned down a job in Beijing and chose to work in the rougher, more challenging region of Tibet. He became fluent in the Tibetan language and culture, and met and worked with Hu Jintao, who became Tibet’s party secretary in 1988.
As a young official, Little Hu moved through a series of important jobs, including governor of Hebei province.
“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.
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.