| RIGHT UJUMCHIN, China
RIGHT UJUMCHIN, China Oct 9 On the remote
grasslands of northeastern China, a politician little known in
the West has made a name for himself as a rising leader. Hu
Chunhua is already talked of by some as a future president.
"I know that in Mongolia they're saying he could become
China's president one day," former wrestler Biligungtumar, 43,
told Reuters in remote Inner Mongolia, referring to the
independent country, which neighbours the Chinese region.
"He's our star," the towering ethnic Mongol athlete said.
His comments leave government officials around him aghast at
the mention of the taboo topic of elite politics and of the
possible career track of the man known as "Little Hu" because he
has the same family name as President Hu Jintao. They are not
The small town of Right Ujumchin and Biligungtumar's yurt --
a traditional felted tent -- couldn't seem further from Beijing.
But Hu Chunhua, Inner Mongolia's Communist Party boss and an
ally of Hu Jintao, is seen as destined for bigger things.
Ahead of China's once-in-a-decade leadership change in
November, Hu Chunhua is expected to get a new and more senior
role, possibly as party chief of Chongqing, the former power
base of disgraced politician Bo Xilai.
Still, Hu remains something of an enigma, even in China. He
has given few clues about his deeper policy beliefs. One of the
best known things about him is that he doesn't appear to dye his
hair jet black like many Chinese politicians.
"It's not that clear," said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinese
politics at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington,
speaking of Hu's policy beliefs. "That's also the criticism from
many other people."
Hu is emblematic of a younger cohort of officials of humbler
backgrounds that stand apart from the refined, urban backgrounds
of the likes of leader-in-waiting, Vice President Xi Jinping, Bo
and other so-called "princelings" - the descendents of former
senior revolutionary leaders.
This new generation has shown a keener sense of the
inequalities facing China, from environmental devastation to the
rich-poor divide, factors that will shape the future of China
and which Hu has experienced first hand.
Hu has overseen rapid growth in Inner Mongolia while dealing
with ethnic Mongol unrest without resorting to the heavy-handed
violence often turned on protesters in China. He spent two
decades in Tibet, where he came under the wing of Hu Jintao.
His next role is likely to be very different .
Sources close to the leadership have told Reuters that Hu,
49, is frontrunner to be appointed party chief in the sprawling
southwestern city of Chongqing. There has also been speculation
he could be sent instead to Shanghai.
If he goes to Chongqing, he would have to deal with the
legacy of the man at the centre of China's biggest political
scandal in decades.
The party has accused Bo of abuse of power, corruption and
hampering the murder investigation of a British businessman
because his wife was the suspect. She has since been jailed.
Bo's expulsion from the party drew an outcry from his
leftist supporters and highlighted the deep rifts his
prosecution could inflame.
Even after his fall, Bo is remembered fondly by many
residents of Chongqing for his public housing and infrastructure
projects, efforts to boost growth and beautify a city once
better known for its smog and dilapidation.
"I find it hard to believe that the people could like anyone
as much as we liked Bo Xilai," said art gallery curator Jiang
Wenlu, echoing the views of many in Chongqing for whom Hu
Chunhua is an unknown entity.
LOW KEY AND SELF EFFACING
If Hu ends up as party boss in Chongqing, he will present a
different style of politician to Bo, a contrast seen in March at
press conferences on the sidelines of China's annual meeting of
The dapper Bo, once considered a top contender for
leadership himself, batted away questions from reporters about
his personal life, deriding his foes as the political storm
around him was gathering.
Some days earlier, Hu Chunhua came across as low key and
self effacing, in line with an image of someone who shuns the
limelight and shows absolute fealty to the ideals of a loyal,
humble Communist Party member.
He refused to answer questions about his possible rise to
the top -- or any personal questions for that matter -- focusing
instead on grassroots economic issues.
"Although our economy has grown fast over the past decade,
there are still lots of problems, and there exists a great gap
between us and coastal regions," he said, reeling off numbers on
poverty relief without referring to notes.
"So Inner Mongolia still has to maintain a certain rate of
speedy growth. If we don't grow faster than the national average
then we will have no way of narrowing that development gap."
Those comments provide a clue to what marks out princelings
like Xi, and to a lesser extent Bo, from those with more modest
roots like Hu.
Rana Mitter, a Chinese politics professor at Oxford
University, said the differences in economic viewpoints of the
two groups could best be viewed as those who focus on the cities
and want to put the foot on the economic pedal, and those who
are more worried about rural areas and income inequality.
"In that sense, having someone like Hu and broadly speaking
the people who associate with interior China, (means) that voice
will be important within the leadership," he said.
Hu has been Inner Mongolia Communist Party boss since late
2009, appointed at the age of 46.
As China's largest coal producer, Inner Mongolia has posted
rapid economic growth, but the wealth has been unevenly
distributed and open-cast mining has left scars on the
Last year, some of the Mongol people who make up around
one-fifth of its 25 million population protested against the
destruction of grazing lands by mining.
Hu reacted not with the harshness often used in the other
restive ethnic regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, but by proffering
"We were impressed," said teacher Qing Liang, recalling Hu's
visit last year to the Mongol-medium high school in Right
Ujumchin, to discuss the protests.
"He very patiently answered all the questions and promised
he would personally address the worries expressed," said Qing,
an ethnic Mongol.
"He was very open and relaxed. He explained why development
is important but also that development needs to be balanced and
people's legitimate interests be protected," he told Reuters on
a government-supervised trip to the region.
Hu moved quickly to arrest the drivers of a coal truck which
killed a Mongol herder, whose death was a catalyst for the
unrest. He also closed coal mines deemed responsible for the
wild west feel of parts of Inner Mongolia.
There is little overt sign of those protests today in Right
Ujumchin. Government officials proudly point out new schools and
Still, the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights
Information Centre says it continues to get reports of protests,
especially over the illegal expropriation of land for mining.
"Coal mines are a big problem and herders and their animals
keep being killed by trucks," said Enghebatu Togochog, a
spokesman for the group. "Things are worsening and there is no
NO HAIR DYE
Hu has been well prepared for the problems confronting
Chinese away from the prosperous coast, having grown up in
poverty as a child in the mountains of Hubei province in central
According to an account published in the official Hubei
Daily in 2006, Hu had to walk kilometres to school every day in
straw sandals, very different from the princelings who mostly
went to top schools in Beijing and other big cities.
On acceptance into the elite Peking University, he earned
money during the summer helping build a hydropower plant, the
"The hardships of life gave rise to Hu Chunhua's tenacious
will, and nurtured his unswerving determination to fight," the
Hu graduated in 1983 and joined the Communist Youth League,
a training ground for young and promising officials where Hu
Jintao also served.
Hu Chunhua was immediately sent to restless Tibet, where he
stayed f or some two decades, learning to speak Tibetan, rare for
a Han Chinese official. While there, he met and apparently
impressed Hu Jintao, Tibet's party chief from 1988-1992.
"When Hu Jintao was there he discovered Hu Chunhua, he found
this person very capable. He personally placed Hu Chunhua around
him during his time in Tibet," said Bo Zhiyue, an expert on
China's elite politics at Singapore's East Asian Institute.
"After he left for Beijing he managed to make Hu Chunhua a
deputy secretary of the Youth League in Tibet. That was a clear
sign that Hu Chunhua was being groomed by Hu Jintao starting
some 20 years ago."
Despite having a reputation as more of a moderate and a
reformer, Hu Chunhua re-jailed Inner Mongolia's most notable
Mongol dissident, Hada, almost as soon as he completed a 15-year
sentence for separatism in late 2010.
People who have met him describe Hu as relaxed, easy-going
and spontaneous, unlike other stiffer party leaders.
"One of the first things you notice about him is that he
does not dye his hair," said a China-based Western diplomat,
referring to how most top officials dye their hair black in a
sign of vigour.
Hu came to Inner Mongolia following a brief stint in Hebei,
the arid province which surrounds Beijing, where he was rapidly
moved after a scandal over tainted milk in which at least six
children died and thousands of others were sickened.
Whether Hu will be able to escape the shadow of his patron
Hu Jintao is debatable.
"In Chinese politics it's very hard to say someone is his
own person until they take over in power," said Bo, the
Hu will likely keep a relatively low profile once he is
promoted, Bo added.
"He will do a lot of work but without showing off for the
next five to 10 years, and then if he becomes top leader we'll
have to see if he has his own ideas about China or if he follows
the ideas of others around him."