Guangdong has not been very welcoming to Hu Chunhua, who took over as provincial party chief at the end of last year.
A Politburo member and Hu Jintao Protégé, "Little Hu"—as Hu Chunhua is often referred to— is seen as a top contender to succeed Xi Jinping as general secretary of the Communist Party and president of the China at the 20th Party Congress in 2022. Having previously been provincial chief of the rural inland province of Inner Mongolia, Little Hu's performance in China’s most economically dynamic province will be crucial if he hopes to continue climbing up the Party ladder.
So far things have not gone smoothly. Just two weeks after Little Hu arrived in Guangdong a week-long standoff broke out between propaganda officials and the staff of the popular liberal newspaper, Southern Weekly, after the provincial propaganda chief altered the message of its New Year’s editorial without seeking approval from the editorial team.
More recently, the province was beset by a two week standoff between villagers and local and county officials in the village of Shangpu, Jiexi County over a corrupt land grab by the village party boss.
Neither of these incidents can be directly blamed on Little Hu of course. Still, that both of these stories received extensive domestic and international attention—fueling resentment throughout China and casting the country in a negative light abroad— could not have made senior CCP leaders in Beijing all too happy.
Furthermore, although the high-profile media coverage was perhaps inevitable in the Southern Weekly case, 80,000 to 100,000 “mass incidents” take place across China annually according to some estimates, and almost none receive the kind of media attention that Shangpu did. It seems unlikely that Shangpu would have proved to be a rare exception had it not dragged on for two weeks.
Indeed, although details remain murky, these incidents are potentially useful for the insight they can provide into Little Hu’s governing style. In neither of these two cases did it appear to be all that impressive.
For much of the Southern Weekly standoff it was unclear whether Little Hu was actively involved in the negotiations with the newspaper’s staff members at all. Around the time that a tentative deal was reached however, media stories began appearing that reported that Hu had intervened with a soft touch and quickly reached an agreement with the Southern Weekly staff members, and they soon returned to work.
Specifically, it was reported that Hu had ended the crisis by promising that none of the staff members would face retribution for striking, censorship of the newspaper would be loosened slightly, and the two main targets of the journalists and editors’ anger—the provincial propaganda chief and in house censor at the paper— would be dismissed once enough time had passed to allow Hu to claim that he wasn't caving to the protestors’ demands in firing or demoting the individuals.
At the time Hu’s reported intervention was widely praised. If the details of the deal were reported accurately, however, Hu has backtracked on the terms of agreement. For instance, while the in-house censor at Southern Weekly, Huang Can, did indeed take a brief leave of absence from the paper in January, by February he had been reinstated to his old position.
Meanwhile, Tuo Zhen, the provincial propaganda chief that has reportedly drastically strengthened media censorship in Guangdong since arriving from Beijing in May 2012, hasn’t been removed from his post either. Nor does censorship appear to have been scaled back much since then; indeed, the Guangdong Propaganda Department issued strict and detailed guidelines on how the Provincial People’s Congress should be covered by local media (basically, it shouldn’t be, they should rely on the news wires).
Thus, at best Hu’s handling of the situation can be said to have succeeded in the immediate term by ending impasse while leaving the underlying issues that caused it unresolved. Furthermore, his apparent failure to make good on his promises to Southern Weekly staff members will almost certainly make resolving any future incidents all the more difficult.
Far less is known about the more recent two-week standoff between local authorities and villagers in Shangpu. Initial reports suggest, however, that the local and potentially provincial authorities’ response oscillated between insufficient repression and insufficient concessions, causing the incident to drag on for two weeks and overlap with the National People’s Congress annual session.
This bodes poorly for Little Hu regardless if he was directly involved or not. Either Hu personally helped devise the poorly thought scheme or he failed to restrain subordinates from botching it. Whatever the case, Little Hu failed to prevent these incidents from spiraling out of control, and he is likely to come under closer scrutiny from the central party leadership in Beijing as a result.
That being said, these incidents in no way doom Hu’s future prospects in the Communist Party in the same way that stalled economic growth might. Still, if President Xi Jinping is like his predecessors his early tenure will be characterized attempts to shore up his power base. This usually includes, among other things, diminishing predecessors’ ability to exercise influence through well-placed political allies, which former President Hu Jintao has in spades.
It's not clear if Xi Jinping will seek to diminish Hu Jintao's influence by targeting his allies and protégés. Ling Jihua's fate certainly suggests he might, whereas his decision to make Li Yuanchao vice president suggests he may not be all that concerned about the former president's protégés after all.
Still, if Xi does move against the Hu Jintao-led Communist Youth League faction, Little Hu will want to avoid giving Xi any ammunition to target him directly.
Zachary Keck is assistant editor of The Diplomat. He is on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.