Hu Chunhua

Hu Chunhua: Heading to the top via Guangdong?

Hu Chunhua has made a low-profile start to his career as province's party boss as he plots tricky path to becoming a sixth-generation state leader

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 March, 2013, 5:22am

New Guangdong party chief Hu Chunhua, who marks 100 days in the job today, has taken an ultra-low-profile approach to getting to grips with the complicated province.

Instead of sloganeering, Hu has addressed Guangdong's declining economic performance with concrete policies, eager to prove he could be leadership material while avoiding too much attention.

Zhu Jianguo, an independent political commentator based in Shenzhen, said: "Hu is relatively stronger than [predecessor] Wang Yang as he responds to issues with actions instead of the fancy catchphrases that Wang was known for.

"All of Wang's talk of mind-liberalisation when he first took office was mostly gibberish.

"He is more practical than Wang Yang. Instead of getting rid of small and medium-sized enterprises from Guangdong, Hu has adopted a more nurturing approach to moderate economic restructuring."

Hu, who turns 50 next month, knows the next few years could make or break his political career.

As one of the youngest provincial party chiefs, Hu has already been tipped to become heir-apparent to President Xi Jinping by some China watchers.

But analysts say this has put him in "the worst possible place".

Professor Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said Hu was in a very exposed position and would become the focus of attacks.

"As many have learned in the past in Chinese politics, being the heir apparent too soon is never good," Brown said.

"People talked in 2000 of Li Keqiang being Hu Jintao's replacement because of his youth and the positions he had been given, but it didn't end up that way."

Brown said Hu Chunhua will want to slowly bed himself into his new post in Guangdong because he has nothing to gain from "grandstanding" and leaving himself even more exposed to criticism.

Professor Steve Tsang Yui-sang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, in the UK, said keeping a low profile was one way to avoid making mistakes in the Chinese bureaucracy.

"Hu has much to lose by attracting too much attention to himself," Tsang said.

The setbacks in the political fortunes of Wang and disgraced former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai should have taught Hu the importance of subtlety and of following the direction set by the central leadership.

Wang failed to gain a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee at November's party congress, while Bo is facing corruption charges.

Hu's clearest political gesture since taking over in Guangdong has probably been his following of Xi's lead in emphasising the "quality and efficiency" of economic growth and in setting a lower growth target for the province.

In his quest to become one of the party's sixth-generation leaders, Hu has much to prove.

And the most obvious indicator of his capabilities is likely to be his success in rejuvenating Guangdong's battered economy.

Long an export hub, Guangdong has been hard hit by the global economic slowdown.

Increasing land and labour costs have seen manufacturers switch to inland provinces or move overseas.

In an effort to restructure the local economy, Guangdong has been introducing high-end manufacturing and service operations to the affluent Pearl River Delta region.

At the same time, it has been shifting labour-intensive businesses to poorer areas in the province.

Tsang said Hu had been cautious in revealing himself, but that economic reform and economic growth were still the main measures of success or failure for China's leaders.

"His further promotion will depend more on his performance than factional ties," Tsang said.

Brown said Hu would need to produce good gross domestic product growth because he was unproven as leader of a developed, wealthy province.

Before Guangdong, his experience was in remote Tibet and Inner Mongoli.

"So he has to prove in Guangdong that he really is leadership material for the [Politburo] Standing Committee, and he has to do this in the next three to four years before the decisions are made about new entries to the standing committee in 2017," Brown said.

In January, Hu emphasised the need to maintain Guangdong's lead in the mainland's economic output rankings over Jiangsu .

He also warned cadres to stay alert and be prepared as the economic status of Guangzhou, Guangdong's provincial capital, was under threat.

Not only was the gap with Beijing and Shanghai widening, he said, but Guangzhou was also facing competition from the port city of Tianjin in the north.

"Last year, Tianjin's total economic output was only 60 billion yuan (HK$74 billion) less than Guangzhou's, and if looking at other indicators, Guangzhou is already falling behind," the Nanfang Daily quoted him as saying.

He ordered local officials to push ahead with infrastructure projects, something that has worried environmentalists given his past record.

As party chief of Inner Mongolia for five years before moving to Guangdong, Hu increased economic growth, almost tripling the autonomous region's per capita gross domestic product to more than US$10,000.

But Professor Niu Haipeng , of Renmin University, was quoted recently as saying that Hu Chunhua had established a worrying environmental record in the process, with growth achieved at the cost of environmental degradation and public health.

The complicated economic picture in Guangdong, including lacklustre exports and glaring regional differences, is not the only challenge facing Hu in the province, known for its vibrant civil society and relatively outspoken media.

Although some praised Hu for his handling of the Southern Weekly censorship row in January - averting an all-out confrontation when staff threatened to strike - others criticised him for allowing the province's traditional press freedom to be eroded.

"Hu kept a low profile, avoiding clashing with propaganda officials to protect his career, but he also failed to defend press freedom in Guangdong," Zhu said.

The Southern Weekly, known for its hard-hitting, investigative stories, has often been the target of clampdowns before, but previous provincial party secretaries cut it some slack.

"Xie Fei (Guangdong party boss from 1991 to 1998) was known for fighting Beijing and standing up for the paper, even during a foreign trip," Zhu said.

And even Li Changchun , the conservative propaganda tsar who recently stepped down, had not targeted the Southern Weekly during his time as Guangdong party boss from 1998 to 2002, Zhu added.

"To preserve himself, Hu failed to protect the paper," Zhu said. "In this regard, he is not well perceived by cultural critics in Guangdong."

Dr Russell Leigh Moses, dean of the Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies, said Hu's handling of the Southern Weekly incident was "emblematic of this early tendency to allow others to take the lead on major policy matters".

"We do not know if Hu is a reformer or not," Moses said.

"He may well be a quiet but patient and robust conservative, someone who could well think that experimentation in a place as complex as Guangdong is simply not healthy for the place or for his career."

While it might still be too early to judge, Hu has yet to exhibit any sign that he is a risk-taker or someone likely to nurture creative reforms and the blossoming of press freedom.

"I think we will see a super-cautious low profile Hu for the next year, following central edicts, trying to attack corruption, being the most faithful of the faithful," Brown said.

"After that, maybe we will see more of how he really ticks."