Hu Chunhua raised political eyebrows 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 - the tainted milk formula furore; and Mongolian protests over a hit-and-run - that would have cost many top politicians their jobs.
All eyes on Hu Chunhua as he takes over as Guangdong party chief
All eyes are on Hu Chunhua as he takes on challenge of leading mainland's economic powerhouse
New Guangdong Communist Party chief Hu Chunhua is filling some big shoes, with his predecessor, Wang Yang, one of the most high-profile and outspoken politicians on the mainland.
As the new head of the mainland's economic powerhouse, 49-year-old Hu will find his capabilities tested. If he passes that test, he could be rewarded with elevation to the Communist Party's supreme Politburo Standing Committee in five years.
After his appointment was announced on Tuesday, Hu said he would treasure the opportunity to serve the Guangdong people, try his best to learn and strive to be honest and clean.
"As Guangdong provincial party secretary, taking over the baton of Guangdong's development, I feel a heavy burden and responsibility has been laid upon me," Hu said.
The province had been the frontier of reform and had played a significant historical role in China's development, he added. "I'm confident of excelling in my role in Guangdong, with the backing of the central leadership and solid foundation laid by my predecessors," Hu said.
Hu is also known as "Little Hu" after following in the footsteps of President Hu Jintao by building his political career through the Communist Party Youth League and time spent in Tibet. He was named a member of the 25-strong Politburo at the Communist Party's national congress last month.
Hu Chunhua has vowed to maintain Guangdong's spirit of reform, something emphasised in new party general secretary Xi Jinping's recent southern tour, and strengthen cross-border collaboration with Hong Kong and Macau.
Praising the solid foundation laid by Wang, Hu said he hoped Wang would continue to watch over Guangdong's development. Wang is expected to become a vice-premier in March.
Wang who wore a Sun Yat-sen suit as he said farewell to Guangdong - as he had done when he took office five years ago - said he had tried hard to become a "Guangdong local".
"If you all think I have truly fitted into Guangdong, please let me become a Guangdong local," he said. "I might be saying goodbye to comrades but my feelings for Guangdong and the comrades will be with me for the rest of my life, no matter where I go."
Hu has spent most of his career - close to two decades - in Tibet, along with spells in Hebei and Inner Mongolia and with the Communist Youth League in Beijing. Before being appointed Guangdong's party secretary he held the same post in Inner Mongolia.
After all that time in relative backwaters, how he handles Guangdong's economic difficulties and social tensions will be closely watched.
Liu Kaiming, director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a labour rights NGO in Shenzhen, said Hu lacked the track record of outstanding political achievements necessary to impress Guangdong officials.
"After spending extensive time in remote inland areas, Hu might find it hard to fit in at first in Guangdong, especially when dealing with vested interests," Liu said. "I'm not very sure about officials from remote regions because they often appear very conservative and arrogant, but Hu might be different because he's young.
"If he can demonstrate the courage of an ambitious, young politician in dealing with the province's well-established civil society organisations and outspoken press, then he will fare very well in Guangdong."
Guangdong's economic success over the past two decades laid a solid foundation for the mainland's economic miracle. The province is still the biggest contributor to the mainland's tax revenue but has also become a hotbed of complicated social problems.
With the mainland's highest concentration of migrant workers, an outspoken media and residents who are relatively aware of their rights, Guangdong has hit international headlines in the past for strikes, migrant-worker protests and peasant revolts. Wang, eight years older than Hu, managed to turn a number of those crises into political capital by quelling unrest with concessions and negotiations, earning a reputation as a liberal reformist in the process.
Dr Peng Peng, a researcher with the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences, said Hu would have to hunker down after arriving in Guangdong because it was unlike any other mainland region.
"The press here is outspoken and the public can often complain directly to leaders," Peng said. "In order to do a good job in Guangdong, Hu needs to be even more open-minded than Wang Yang.
"Wang Yang laid a solid foundation. Hu is much younger than Wang. I'm guessing Hu is more likely to flow with the open atmosphere in Guangdong."
Guangdong's domestic product grew by 47 per cent to 5.3 trillion yuan [HK$6.53 trillion] in Wang's first four years in office to 2011, but the province's economy is now undergoing a critical transformation that could make or break the future of the Pearl River Delta.
Wang has been criticised for failing to deliver on his plan to restructure the economy. Characterised by the phrase "empty the cage and let the right birds in", it was supposed to rid the delta of heavily polluting, labour-intensive and low-skilled industries, replacing them with new growth engines that were hi-tech and environmentally friendly.
But the province's export-dependent economy has been battered by the global financial crisis, the European debt crisis and economic stagnation in the United States, dealing a blow to hopes of transformation. Guangdong's economic growth slowed to an annual rate of 7.9 per cent in the first three quarters of this year, one of its weakest performances in a decade. Moreover, Jiangsu looks likely to supplant Guangdong as the mainland's most productive province next year.
Professor Yuan Weishi, a Guangzhou-based historian, says Hu's lack of experience in the province is not such a great concern and that "anyone arriving in a new position is bound to face new challenges".
He described Hu as a righteous, down-to-earth and honest politician, with clean hands and an open mind. "He is young, very humble and careful. These advantages will work in his favour to help him to fit into Guangdong," Yuan said.
He said he was not expecting any major policy shift, with Hu still bound by the national development blueprint. "Wang Yang is very serious about his reform work and Hu is also a keen supporter for reform," Yuan said. "He is also open-minded and likes to get feedback as well as criticism; it will take him no time to get a handle on Guangdong."
Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based commentator, said part of the reason that Wang missed out on a place on the Politburo Standing Committee was because his reformist image was not well received by party conservatives.
"This is a lesson to be learned by Hu too: that it might not be a good idea to carry an ultra-reformist name card," Zhang said. "It is very hard to say if he's going to follow Wang Yang's style after what happened to Wang. Hu didn't deploy an iron-fisted approach to handle unrest in Inner Mongolia's so it is fair to expect that he probably won't break Guangdong's existing pattern."
Peng said Hu "won't make any significant breakthrough, but he probably won't drive Guangdong backwards either".