On Tuesday Xinhua News Agency announced that Hu Chunhua was being appointed as party secretary of Guangdong Province in the southeastern part of the country. While the announced was not surprising — it has been rumored since before the 18th Party Congress — it is notable for what it implies about CCP politics.
Hu Chunhua’s promotion is in essence one Hu Jintao protégé replacing another — former Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang. Hu Chunhua is a man to watch, already seen as a favored contender for elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) in five or ten years, and his elevation is confirmation that his mentor did not come out of the recent leadership transition empty-handed.
Hu's move to Guangdong of course means that Guangdong's previous party chief, Wang Yang, is between jobs. Wang is also a favorite of Hu Jintao and erstwhile favorite for the Standing Committee. It seems that he will be heading to Beijing to join the central government — while his new position has not been announced, Hu Chunhua referred to a Central appointment for Wang in his first speech as Guangdong party chief: “Let us hope that Wang Yang will continue to concern himself with Guangdong's development in his new post with the Central Leadership.”
Hu himself is almost certainly being groomed for the presidency by his older namesake. Already a member of the Politburo at the age of 49, he will be at the right age to assume the office at the end of Xi's term in 2022. If the current trend (based on three examples, it is not much of a trend) of the presidency alternating between factions continues, he appears to be the most logical choice.
“Little” Hu Chunhua — he is not related to the outgoing president but his CV reads like a Xerox copy of Hu Jintao's — is thought to have reformist sympathies. After graduating from Peking University in 1983, Little Hu took the unusual step of volunteering to work for the Communist Youth League (CYL) in Tibet. He would spend the next two decades in the autonomous region — even becoming fluent in the local language — ultimately rising to the position of first vice-party secretary in 2005.
It was during his time in Tibet that he met and worked under Hu Jintao, who served as party secretary of Tibet from 1988 until he was called back to Beijing in 1992 to become the youngest member of the Politburo Standing Committee. And just as Hu Jintao’s deft handling of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is said to have won him Deng Xiaoping’s favor, many believe it was Hu Chunhua’s performance in Tibet that endeared him to Hu Jintao.
Whatever the reason, it was clear that Little Hu had President Hu’s support when he was appointed as Governor of Hebei Province in 2008, after having served as first secretary of the CYL Central Committee. Further cementing the view that he had strong backing from President Hu was Little Hu’s quick reappointment to party chief of Inner Mongolia in 2009 at a time when many of his colleagues in Hebei Province were coming under fire from the Party and the public because of the province’s role in the infamous tainted milk scandal. Hu remained party chief of Inner Mongolia until his most recent appointment this week.
A Guangdong posting will give “Little Hu” a chance to burnish his reformist credentials, like Wang Yang before him. If Xi follows through on his talk of reform, that may prove to be a valuable skill. Guangdong is China's most liberal province and frequently given to experimentation — if Xi is looking for models for national reform the leader of Guangdong may get some chances to influence the direction of national policy with some inventive provincial initiatives, such as Wang Yang's much-ballyhooed “Wukan model.”
This trend should also give us some pause before rooting for Wang or Hu as reformers — neither of their records shows particularly bold action before traveling to Guangdong, so to some extent Wang's liberal policies in the southern province may simply reflect institutional momentum. In fact, besides his time in Tibet, Little Hu initiated a harsh crackdown at the first signs of protests in Inner Mongolia in the spring of 2011. Some felt Hu had overreacted but he did not shirk from his decision, recently telling the Financial Times, “When we deal with mass incidents, there is no question we will take compulsory measures . . . We will be tough when we need to be tough, and we will be soft when we need to be soft.”
To my mind, the most interesting thing we've learned from this is that Hu Jintao still seems to consider Guangdong a good launching pad for Standing Committee campaigns, despite Wang Yang's falling short in the last round of changes. This is quite a change from Hu Jintao's younger days — he made his name by handling troublesome provinces with ethnic minority populations like Gansu and Tibet — and perhaps brings the Communist Youth League faction's style closer to that of its rivals, both of whose presidents have done their final provincial posting in the wealthy export center of Shanghai.
In any case, Little Hu’s appointment is indicative of a larger trend of Hu Jintao protégés moving up the Party Hierarchy ahead of the 19th Party Congress in 2017, where five of the seven PBSC members are expected to step down as a result of mandatory retirement ages. In fact, according to the South China Morning Post, of the five provincial party posts announced on Tuesday, four of the individuals are closely tied to the Communist Youth League, Hu Jintao’s powerbase.