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 (胡春華) 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, said in remote Inner Mongolia, referring to the independent country, which neighbors 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 (胡錦濤). They are not related.
The small town of Right Ujumchin and Biligungtumar’s yurt — a traditional felted tent — could not seem further from Beijing.
However, Hu Chunhua, Inner Mongolia’s Communist Party boss and an ally of Hu Jintao, is seen by many 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 (薄熙來).
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 does not appear to dye his hair like many Chinese politicians.
“It’s not that clear,” said Cheng Li (李成), an expert on Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, speaking of Hu’s policy beliefs.
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 (習近平), 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 also 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 said 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 center of China’s biggest political scandal in decades.
The party has accused Bo of abuse of power, corruption and of hampering the investigation into the murder 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.