China’s 20th Party Congress
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Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua has been called “Little Hu” because his career path resembles that of former Chinese president Hu Jintao. Photo: AP

China’s Hu Chunhua loses Politburo seat, raising doubts about political future

  • Former rising star who was expected to secure a Standing Committee seat now poised to lose vice-premier position in eyebrow-raising demotion
  • Move comes as a surprise as he is nine years shy of unofficial retirement age and has been a loyal enforcer of Xi Jinping’s poverty alleviation project
Once viewed as a top candidate for China’s uppermost echelon of leadership, Hu Chunhua exited the Politburo on Sunday, leaving lingering questions about his fate.
The members of the Politburo, China’s top decision-making body, were unveiled around noon on Sunday. President Xi Jinping remains firmly in charge, having secured a record-breaking third term as the paramount leader of China during the 20th party congress.

Not only did Hu fail to gain a spot on the Politburo’s seven-strong Standing Committee, he also lost his seat on the Politburo.

Hu is one of four vice-premiers of the State Council, China’s cabinet, but he will lose this position as Politburo membership is a precondition for the role.

He has retained his seat on the Central Committee, a senior political body with 205 full members.

Hu’s exit from the top has surprised many, as the 59-year-old is still nine years shy of the customary retirement age for his position. He has been a loyal enforcer of Xi’s grand poverty alleviation project and has promoted trade amid disruptions.

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said Hu’s career path appeared to be dimming and there was not much hope that the vice-premier could become premier in the future. He was previously considered one of the top contenders for the role.

“This feels like the end of his ascending career,” Wu said. “He will probably be given a post that is unimportant.”

This has happened to other Politburo members under Xi. During the 19th party congress, Zhang Chunxian and Liu Qibao lost their seats on the Politburo before being handed ceremonial jobs with China’s top legislature and political advisory body. Neither had reached retirement age and both kept their seats on the larger Central Committee.
Henry Gao, a Chinese law professor at Singapore Management University, said Hu’s demotion from the Politburo marked the beginning of “Xi’s reign”.
“This is the start of an era where even the party’s own political conventions on age and balance of different factions are discarded. There is now only one criterion for appointment to the top party decision-making body: loyalty to Xi,” Gao said.
Hu has been called “Little Hu” because his career path resembles that of former president Hu Jintao, having ascended to the highest ranks of power through the Communist Youth League.

Hu Jintao’s congress exit a break from the Communist Party script

After graduating from Peking University in 1983, Hu spent almost two decades in Tibet, starting as a cadre in the personnel department of Tibet’s regional youth league and rose to deputy secretary of the league at only 24.

After a four-year stint in Beijing, Hu returned to Tibet, taking up the post of executive vice-chairman and head of the region’s party school.

Hu, a native of central China’s Hubei province, comes from a modest family background.

For more than 20 years, his political star rose as he remained unscarred by one crisis after another.

In 2008, Hu became governor of Hebei province, where he had to contain the damage from a tainted milk scandal that affected 300,000 infants during a sensitive time as the Beijing Summer Olympics put the country in the global spotlight.

A year later, Hu was appointed regional party secretary of Inner Mongolia, where he prioritised poverty alleviation and natural resource development, contributing to explosive GDP growth in the region.

In 2011, Hu also contained major social unrest in the region as ethnic Mongolians protested against government attempts to exploit natural resources and the death of a Mongolian herder who was hit by a truck. It was the region’s first major social unrest in more than two decades. Hu deployed security forces across Inner Mongolia to ease the tensions and talked with protesters, promising to compensate local herders.

In 2012, Hu was granted a seat on the Politburo and became the youngest party secretary in the history of Guangdong province.

Guangdong has the biggest economy of any province in China and has long been a stepping stone for higher office. Since 1998, all Guangdong party chiefs have ended up in top jobs on the Politburo Standing Committee, with Hu now the only exception.

No obvious successor to Xi Jinping in China’s new leadership team

Wu described Hu’s approach as “hard line” and somewhat similar to Xi’s.

While the Politburo and its seven-member Standing Committee handle the most important decisions in China, little is known about how those members are selected, and the process has become more opaque over the past 15 years.

Limited details of the process are provided to the public. The selections are based on nominations made during small meetings, mostly involving Xi, before the national congress.

The party has said the selection process is meant to prevent vote-rigging by senior officials.

Additional reporting by Xinlu Liang