China's Leadership Transition

Scandals haven't slowed potential Politburo member Hu Chunhua

Hu Chunhua's ascent from the Communist Youth League has been fast, with both the tainted milk flap and Mongolian unrest bouncing off of him

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 2:36pm

Hu Chunhua raised the eyebrows of many political observers with how quickly he rose from a staff position with the Communist Youth League in Tibet to become party chief of Inner Mongolia . He now stands a chance of entering the Politburo, after surviving two major scandals that would have cost many top politicians their jobs.

Hu, 49, who was once described by state media as unknown to mainlanders, shares a similar background with President Hu Jintao , earning him the nickname of Little Hu Jintao. The two have spent long stints in Tibet and have a shared base in the youth league.

The older Hu was the region's party chief from 1988 to 1992, while Hu Chunhua worked in the remote autonomous region on and off for nearly 20 years after 1983 - becoming its first deputy party secretary in 2006.

The mutual rapport was so strong that the older Hu was recently reported to have manoeuvred to promote his star protégé into the party's top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee. However, other senior party figures opposed the idea, Reuters reported last month, adding that the younger Hu was instead likely to become the new party chief of Chongqing , one of the country's biggest but also most testing political assignments.

But most analysts agreed that the younger Hu at the very least stood a good chance of ascending to the powerful Politburo.

Upon graduating from the prestigious Peking University with a degree in Chinese language in 1983, Hu decided against remaining in the capital. He turned down job offers in Beijing, and chose to work in Tibet.

"The areas where minority people reside are the places where we can develop our skills to the fullest," he said at a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in 1983 before leaving for Tibet.

"China is a country of many ethnic groups. The modernisation of Han nationality does not equal the modernisation of all ethnic groups, neither does it mean that the whole of China is modernised."

Hu began his career as a cadre in the organisation department of the regional youth league, then rose to deputy secretary in 1987 at 24, making him the youngest deputy director in the country.

He returned to Beijing in 1997 to serve in the secretariat of the youth league and as a vice chairman of the All-China Youth Federation. In 2001, Hu left again for Tibet for five years, taking up the post of deputy party secretary and executive vice-chairman and head of the region's party school.

His time in Tibet earned him praise by state media, which often described him as a person who could "eat bitterness". State media reports said Hu played a significant role in developing the Tibetan economy, curbing the separatist movement and developing infrastructure.

The "bitterness" cited by state media was in reference to Hu's tough work ethic. He rarely took vacations to visit his home in Hubei province . Even when he did in 1991, his holiday was cut short because of an emergency. State media celebrated Hu's ability to speak Tibetan fluently and mingle with the Tibetan populations with ease. Hu's tenure in the region appears to have earned him the attention of the older Hu.

"His experience with ethnic minorities has really helped the younger Hu further advance his career. Having work experience in ethnic-minority regions is still considered special among mainland politicians," said political commentator Zhang Lifan, who was formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In 2006, Hu was appointed head of the national youth league. He was 43 at the time, making him one of the youngest senior officials at the ministerial level. Two years later, Hu was made governor of Hebei , the youngest provincial governor in the country.

Hu built up a reputation for working "around the clock", visiting Hebei's 11 prefecture-level cities within a few months.

His crisis-management abilities were tested when a milk scandal erupted in 2008. At least six infants died and 300,000 victims were left ill because of widespread melamine contamination in several brands of baby milk formula.

The chemical was added to make the products' protein content appear higher than it actually was.

Hu's political career survived, with public anger directed mostly at dairy-product firms and government departments.

"Hu was not targeted. The manufacturers bore most of the responsibility, and Hu managed to stay clear of the whole saga. It is probably because he has built good protection for himself, and he is shielded by the youth league faction or someone from higher up," Zhang said.

About one year after the scandal, Hu was transferred to Inner Mongolia, where he was made the regional people's congress chairman in January 2010.

Hu said the region would no longer strive to be ranked first in gross-domestic-product growth, but would instead focus on sustainable development, amid concerns rapid growth widened the wealth gap. Tensions between Han people and Mongolians have simmered, with some of the latter complaining they had not benefited equally from the economic boom.

In May 2011, Mongolian students protested following the hit-and-run killing of a herder by a Han truck driver. It was the first major protest reported in the region in more than 20 years.

Hu was untarnished by the incident and launched a policy of appeasement combined with force, making a visit to Xilinhot , where the herder was killed, and tightening security across the region.

"Please be assured, teachers and students, the suspects will be punished severely," he said.

Zhang said: "Hu handled the protests in a moderate manner, and demonstrated he can properly manage crises."

Despite the successes, Hu has maintained a low profile. An article by Xinhua in 2006 described Hu as unknown to most people.

He seldom makes public appearances to advance his political agenda. He only answered four of 20 questions posed to him in a press conference held on the sideline of the National People's Congress in March, refusing to comment on his personal ambitions or whether he had a Weibo account.

However, following the dismissal of Bo Xilai as Chongqing party chief, Hu immediately toed the party line and showed his loyalty to Hu Jintao by stressing party members should be resolute in following the decisions of the party authorities.