“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 represent 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 was gathering around him.
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 his 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 Chunhua.
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 Chunhua 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 experienced rapid economic growth, but 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 Chunhua 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 (秦亮), recalling Hu Chunhua’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 said on a government-supervised trip to the region.
Hu Chunhua 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.