18th Party Congress

'Young gun' Lu Hao on the rise through Party ranks

Lu Hao, one of the youngest heads of the Communist Youth League, was seen as having something special even as a high school student

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 2:54pm

China is often thought of as a nation of older leaders. But no one has defied that description quite like Lu Hao .

He was just 18 when, on a spring day in Xian in 1985, he became the youngest Communist Party member in Shaanxi since the Cultural Revolution and the only high school student in the Communist Youth League of China (CYL) Shaanxi committee. As a high school teacher recalled to mainland media in 2008: "The boy had something special."

In many stages of his career he has often been the youngest person ever to hold a particular post. He was, for example, the youngest head of a state-owned factory, and then the youngest vice-major of Beijing since the party took power in 1949.

Today, at 45 and one of the youngest heads of the CYL - a training ground for party and government officials with nearly 80 million members - it is widely expected that he will be an upcoming figure of the nation's sixth generation of leadership.

While Lu has been praised for his work ethic, hard work alone is no guarantee of success in politics. A triumphant career can largely depend on the people one meets along the way.

Lu rose through the party ranks while completing a degree in economics, then a master's degree, at Peking University under Professor Li Yining , one of the mainland's pioneers of market reform and the teacher of first-ranked Vice-Premier Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao , the head of the party's Organisation Department.

Lu was Li Yining's favourite student. A report in Southern Weekly in 2010 said that the professor insisted on Lu being editor of his biography despite his busy schedule, because, Li said: "Lu is strong both theoretically and practically."

In 1989, Lu was pursuing his master's degree but was not caught up in the political drama at Tiananmen Square, like many of his fellow students. He became a high-level official at a Beijing-based woollen factory, and made his name in 1998 when he became the youngest director of a state-owned factory. That same year, Lu was invited to a meeting with premier Zhu Rongji and Jia Qinglin , the party secretary of Beijing who became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.

Mainland media praised Lu for his aggressive reforms, saying that the factory was reborn under his management. Song Jinshan , who worked in the purchasing department directly under Lu in the 1990s, remembered Lu as an intelligent and easy-going leader who brought "new thoughts" to the company.

But a retiree, who claimed he worked in the factory's central office in the 1990s, called Lu's reforms "vanity projects".

"Lu didn't manage the factory well. The factory wasn't profitable but it became a showcase for higher leaders, so it only looked good on the surface," the retiree said. The factory's performance slumped after Lu left in 1999 and closed in 2006.

But fate continued to favour Lu. Under Jia's mentorship, Lu became one of Beijing's rising political stars. In 1999, at 32, he became the youngest director of Zhongguancun Science Park, one of the capital's major technology hubs. In 2003, he was named vice-major of Beijing - again the youngest.

Unlike most mainland officials, Lu enjoys making unscripted public speeches. During his first tour to Hong Kong as vice-major, in 2004, he was praised by mainland media for an informative and convincing speech. His speech also impressed Fred Hu, then managing director of Greater China for Goldman Sachs, who was later quoted by 21st Century Business Herald as saying that "Beijing is a vibrant city. We could tell this from its dynamic young leader, Lu".

The only speed bump in Lu's political career so far was in 2006. Rumours started in July that year that Beijing's Municipal Bureau of Grain had bought 292,000 tonnes of rice during the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in April 2003 as reserves, then sold it early in 2006 in the capital's food markets under the instruction of then vice-mayor Lu.

Economist Larry Lang Xianping wrote an article accusing Lu of being incompetent and criticising administrative corruption by local governments.

"Distributing old rice is almost like spreading poison in public food," Lang wrote in a Yazhou Zhoukan article in August 2006. An investigation was launched and eventually a state-owned grain company was found guilty despite authorities providing few details of the case. A source close to the case said at the time that "no information would be disclosed due to the seniority of the officials involved".

Just when many thought the scandal would tarnish Lu's career, he was promoted again. In June 2008, in the Great Hall of the People, he told thousands of people that the CYL was moving ahead to a new era.

"The league should teach youth about the notion of socialism with Chinese characteristics," Lu said precisely, looking straight into the crowd. By then he was a chubby middle-aged man dressed in an impeccable dark suit.

The CYL 16th national congress lasted only four days, the shortest ever. Mainland media praised Lu for the new look he had given to the CYL.

At a national meeting in January 2009, before Lunar New Year, Lu warned that local CYL organisations would not be coming to Beijing for the customary annual work review. He said everyone knew the real meaning of "work review" just before the Lunar New Year, referring to the lavishness of such events.

"We should cut out unnecessary banquets," he said. The Lunar New Year holidays, where gift-giving is traditional not only among family members but also between business contacts, offers ideal cover for bribery, as many incidents of corruption on the mainland occur during these holidays. Mainland media said Lu's words reflected his determination to battle corruption, which has undermined the nation's reform agenda for decades.

As one of the youngest political forces on the mainland, Lu's influence and reach cannot be questioned - as long as his luck holds up.