There is little overt sign of those protests today in Right Ujumchin. Government officials proudly point out new schools and hospitals.
Still, the US-based Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center 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 Chunhua 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 Chunhua had to walk several kilometers 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 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 said.
Hu Chunhua 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 to 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 (薄智躍), 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,” he said.
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 Chunhua 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 as a sign of vigor.
Hu Chunhua 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 became sick.
Whether he 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,” Bo Zhiyue said.
Hu Chunhua will likely keep a relatively low profile once he is promoted, he 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,” he said.