RIGHT UJUMCHIN, China (Reuters) - On the remote grasslands of north-eastern 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 related.
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.
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 parliament.
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 landscape.
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 talks.
“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 hospitals.
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 improvement.”
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 China.
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 paper said.
“The hardships of life gave rise to Hu Chunhua’s tenacious will, and nurtured his unswerving determination to fight,” the biography noted.
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 for 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 Singapore-based academic.
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.”
Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Neil Fullick