BEIJING With his easy laugh, undyed hair and casual style, Hu Chunhua is not one of your average Chinese leaders, who are better known for their rigid and dull uniformity.
Stepping out this week at China's annual meeting of parliament, Inner Mongolia Communist Party boss Hu is one of the country's rising political stars, and like other senior leaders mixing with the media this past week he has been forthcoming about challenges facing his region.
Just don't expect Hu or others like him to offer any insights on how their careers might play out.
"Everyone is paying rather a lot of attention to this," Hu told reporters, cracking a sly smile when asked about his prospects for advancement.
"I will say this: I am currently the Party Secretary of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. So I have to concentrate on doing my job well here," said Hu, a relatively sprightly 48.
Hu is part of the so-called "sixth generation" of potential national leaders born in the 1960s, after the generations headed by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and, if this year's leadership transition goes as expected, Xi Jinping.
Other contenders for top office at the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing late this year were equally coy about their political futures. Their fates will be decided behind closed doors by top leaders, and in Party politics misstep can be as important as achievements.
"For myself, speaking from my heart, I've never associated myself with anything specific about the 18th Congress", Bo Xilai, the ambitious party boss of Chongqing, told a throng of reporters.
Bo, 62 and a member of the "fifth generation", has been attending the parliamentary meeting under a cloud since the apparent defection attempt in February by a senior aide.
He was characteristically oblique about his career prospects.
" To greet the 18th Congress, Chongqing is now striving do well in all aspects of its work, and I think that's the most practical thing, and other matters aren't for us to consider."
Still, the rare interactions between these senior officials and the media at parliament over the past few years have provided a glimpse of the personalities and styles of those who could one day craft policy in the world's most populous nation.
Zhou Qiang, the 51-year-old Party chief in the southern province of Hunan, has defined his term in office with a pledge to build the rule of law.
Zhou drew a veiled distinction between the way things work in his province and the campaigns led by Bo, whose crackdown on the mafia in Chongqing with mass arrests and executions has left China's reform-minded lawyers aghast.
"We want to legally fight against all crimes, including mafia-style crimes," Zhou said, stressing the word 'legally'. "Hunan's social controls have been stable, and the people's satisfaction with security has been rising as has their feeling of safety."
Economic issues have been at the front of worries of Guangdong's Party boss Wang Yang, who has said his southern export powerhouse faces great pressures, including high inflation and rising labour and raw materials costs.
Wang is seen as a frontrunner for promotion to the elite nine-member Politburo Standing Committee with the current generation of leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, due to step down next year.
A main obstacle to China's economic reforms comes from within the government itself, Wang said, playing up his hands-off governance model ahead of that leadership transition.
Wang's less-is-more governing philosophy is a key element of what some analysts have called the "Guangdong model" for China's future development, which contrasts with the more state-driven model championed by his chief political rival, Chongqing's Bo.
Some speculate Inner Mongolia's Hu, one of China's youngest top politicians, is a candidate for the wider Politburo. Hu deflected any questions on his possible rise, and instead settled on an issue that concerned him most: tackling poverty.
While coal-rich Inner Mongolia has boomed in recent years on the back of China's bounding economy, income inequality has also surged, fueling widespread public discontent there, as well as in much of the rest of the country.
"Our per capita GDP will likely rise to more than $10,000 this year or next. How can it be justified then that we will still have a large population of poor people? We hope to resolve this within five or 10 years."
(Additional reporting by Gabriel Wildau, Lucy Hornby and Chris Buckley; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Sanjeev Miglani)
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