HONG KONG – Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua was once overlooked for promotion by President Xi Jinping, but through deft maneuvering and intra-Communist Party alliance-building, the 57-year-old is fast emerging as the paramount leader’s most likely eventual successor.

His emergence comes at a time when many question if Xi’s eight-year rule as Communist Party General Secretary-cum-President is as unassailable as it seemed just six months ago, before the global pandemic hit China’s turbocharged economic growth, tensions with the United States hit a fever pitch and Yangtze River floods deluged several key southern provinces.  

By any measure, 2020 has stress-tested Xi’s rule as never before, to the extent that some observers and analysts have sharpened their focus on who might be next in line. Such succession speculation is rising as anti-Xi sentiment reportedly quietly simmers under the veneer of deference inside the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  

Those signs have been vague but increasingly frequent. Ren Zhiqiang, the former chief of a state-owned realty developer and a plainspoken CCP critic, jabbed Xi for his two-week seclusion inside Zhongnanhai in February as the coronavirus ripped through the central city of Wuhan, the global pandemic’s initial epicenter.

Then came Premier Li Keqiang’s seeming rebuttal of Xi’s no-one-left-behind victory claim as he promoted his poverty alleviation drive. Li told a televised press conference after the National People’s Congress annual session in May that no less than 600 million Chinese were still eking out a living with a meager income of less than 1,000 yuan per month (US$143).

Succession speculation centers on Li, who must retire from politics in nearly two years as per the Party’s ten-year term limit for the premier. While widely seen as a figurehead overshadowed by Xi’s more dominant style, Li now seems keen to leave his mark by anointing his preferred successor.

Enter Hu Chunhua, one of Li’s four deputies who has emerged more prominently on the political scene this summer after receiving more state media coverage in the past three months than he arguably received over the previous three years.

In China’s tightly steered and censored state media, Party leaders decide who does and doesn’t receive fawning news coverage.    

China’s Vice Premier Hu Chunhua gestures during a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, April 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jason Lee

Premier Li has reputedly insisted that his successor must come from among senior members of the State Council, which he heads. 

Last month, Li made Hu the top convener of a high-powered working group on domestic and international trade promotion and development, gently easing out Deputy Premier Liu He – Xi’s most trusted lieutenant and China’s lead negotiator in trade talks with the US – in the process.  

The high-profile position has thrust the low-key and some say inscrutable Hu into the national spotlight as observers look for signs of a potential changing of the guard at the State Council and possibly even in a post-Xi era.  

In China’s CCP-dominated context, accounts of Hu’s meritocratic rise read like a rags-to-riches tale. Hu hails from a humble upcountry village. As a student in central Hubei province, he was identified early on as a child prodigy. In 1979, he enrolled at the prestigious Peking University (PKU) at the tender age of 15.

Hu is said to have actively avoided reporters keen to profile him as the nation’s youngest college student at the time. His rural roots, moreover, made him an outcast among Party princelings and other urban elites at the top-flight university.

Rather than taking a CCP position he was offered in Beijing after graduating valedictorian in 1983, Hu voluntarily requested to be posted in the poverty-stricken reaches of Tibet.

His modest, self-effacing style has arguably served him well amid recent fierce intra-Party wrangling that has seen many top cadres unceremoniously fall to corruption and negligence allegations as Xi has consolidated power among his own tight inner circle.

Only now has Hu assumed a more active and prominent role, witnessed in recent state reports that show him accompanying Li on official duties and occasions, including a recent high-profile nationwide inspection tour. 

Hu Chunhua (2nd-R) and Li Keqiang (C) in a file photo. Image: Chinanews

The official Xinhua News Agency reported that Hu had visited – both with Li and on his own – half of China’s provinces and autonomous regions reaching across the country from Xinjiang to Heilongjiang since April.

Along the way, he gave several speeches on issues well outside his official purview, including on finance, free trade and foreign investment. In July, Xinhua dispatched more reports about Hu’s whistle-stop national tour than on public functions presided over by Xi or Li. 

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily, owned by Malaysian business magnate Tiong Hiew King known for his close ties with Beijing, became the first mainstream media outlet to speculate on Hu succeeding Li as the next national premier.

China’s premier, usually the No. 2 ranking Party cadre and national leader only after the president, heads the central government and supervises all ministers and chiefs of ministerial-level bodies. Before Xi took a greater hands-on approach than recent predecessors, the premier also ran the government’s day-to-day affairs.  

Chen Pokong, a New York-based current affairs columnist who once taught at the Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University before joining China’s student movement in 1989, told Asia Times that Xi has likely been slighted behind closed doors by intra-Party rivals over his handling of Covid-19 and falling out with the US.

He believes that Li’s elevation of Hu as his most likely successor was a “well-calculated one” while Xi was confronted by multiple crises. At the same time, Chen stressed that despite persistent rumors about long-standing, slow-burn tensions between Xi and Li, the decision to make Hu a frontrunner for Li’s post almost certainly has Xi’s approval.  

“After three years working as Li’s deputy since the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Hu must be the premier’s pick to succeed him. And Hu must have also secured Xi’s approval before the state media gave him more exposure and air time about his high-profile inspection tour around the nation,” Chen said. 

“Hu is in charge of agriculture, jobs market and poverty alleviation. His performance when tackling a number of thorny issues like food security and job creation when the Chinese economy wobbles may have finally won Xi’s recognition,” he said.

That, Chen ventures, represents a shift after Xi reputedly failed to back Hu’s bid to become a standing member of the powerful Politburo at the high-stakes 19th Party Congress in 2017. At the time, speculation ran rife that Hu was overlooked for promotion mainly because he was not part of Xi’s clique, though he also notably then lacked in rank and seniority.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping voting on a proposal to draft a security law on Hong Kong during the closing session of the National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, May 28, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

Hu, to be sure, is making no pretensions of challenging Xi, arguably China’s most powerful leader since Communist Party founder Mao Zedong despite apparent indications of unease about his leadership style within the Party.

In a signal of allegiance, Hu in June symbolically visited the village of Liangjiahe on the Loess Plateau in the agrarian province of Shaanxi, where Xi spent six years as a teenager working the fields between 1969 and 1975 as part of Mao’s Down to the Countryside Movement, a Cultural Revolution-inspired campaign that sent urban youth to learn about the rural countryside. 

While visiting Liangjiahe, Hu hunched down to crawl into a makeshift bedroom in a silt cave once used by Xi and said the top leader’s fortitude should be a source of motivation for all Party cadres, according to a Xinhua report. 

Wu Qiang, a former senior political science lecturer at Tsinghua University, said it was logical for Li to promote a State Council subordinate to continue his own policy initiatives and that Hu would also be acceptable to Xi since he has so overtly displayed loyalty to him. 

“There’s just a one-line job description for the new premier under Xi: follow orders and don’t talk too much. And the low-key Hu is a safe candidate,” said Wu. 

“[Hu] should remain low key as before but I won’t be surprised if he, after becoming the premier, is given an even bigger role to play,” said a professor at PKU’s School of Governance who requested anonymity.

“Hu is almost assured a seat in the Politburo Standing Committee at the 20th Party Congress in 2022. Xi will need new standing [Politburo] members to conciliate party elders, like his own predecessor Hu Jintao, to silence his critics and to meet people’s expectations,” he said.

“By that time, even though Xi can continue his rule, he will have to admit some new faces into the top decision-making Party caucus to show that the Party still has some tacit succession planning,” the professor added.

“Even though Xi has long amassed all the powers and prerogatives, one should not forget the two rules – age and seniority – that still govern how the slots inside the party’s inner sanctum are allocated.”

Hu Chunhua, then Secretary of the Guangdong provincial committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), attends a panel discussion on the government work report in Beijing, China, 6 March 2017. Photo: AFP

At 57, Hu is the youngest among Li’s four deputies but he will be the most senior non-standing member of the Politburo in 2022, after holding the rank for a decade. As such, time is on his side as per the Party’s promotion and retirement protocols.

Age and seniority have decided who gets promoted and who must retire since party patriarch Deng Xiaoping decided they were the fairest criteria to resolve dissension among party factions over senior appointments.

Indeed, Xi largely played by Deng’s rules during the 2017 Party Congress when selecting Politburo standing members.

But with Hu’s star now clearly on the ascent, some observers and analysts even see him as a potential candidate for one day succeeding Xi, though the president has maneuvered to change regulations that will allow him to attenuate his rule beyond the traditional 10-year term limits observed by his two predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

Hu Chunhua’s promotion appears to have heavyweight Party elder backing. Wu, the former lecturer at Tsinghua University, notes former president Hu Jintao’s widely suspected support for Hu, as both kickstarted their political careers in the Communist Youth League, the Party’s youth wing.

The elder Hu was also the younger Hu’s supervisor when both worked in Tibet in the 1980s, when the latter reportedly became one of the former’s favorite protégés. 

His meteoric rise up the ranks commenced after leaving Tibet. As a peripatetic official, Hu rotated among positions in Beijing, Hebei, Inner Mongolia and Guangdong, mostly winning plaudits as a capable administrator along the way.

Hu Chunhung as a college student at Peking University in a file photo.

His five-year stint as Party chief of Guangdong arguably solidified his promotion prospects, as the southern province is widely seen as a launchpad for cadres who aspire to ascend to the top of the Party’s hierarchy.

Hu’s stewardship of Guangdong burnished his economic management credentials as China’s largest provincial economy prospered during his 2012-17 tenure. At the same time, Hu demonstrated a tough streak also favored in Beijing by harshly putting down a rural uprising over official land-grabbing.

At the same time, observers say he demonstrated a deft, if not politically savvy, touch. Most notably, Hu is said to have ensured that Xi’s mother, Qi Xin, a 94-year-old dowager living in Shenzhen, was looked well after throughout his Guangdong tenure.

That’s not to say there haven’t been bumps along Hu’s way to the top. Hu was governor of Hebei when it became embroiled as the epicenter of the melamine-tainted infant formula scandal. The controversy made global headlines amid reports 300,000 babies suffered from related malnutrition and kidney disease, and cast a cloud over the country on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

His Hebei cadres were widely accused of initially trying to cover up the scandal, but Hu faced rare media grillings as incensed parents of sickened children accused him of negligence and inaction, even though his proponents say he was likely unaware of the dubious practice until it erupted.

Now, Hu’s proven ability to navigate and survive such a high-level controversy is another feather in his cap, particularly in increasingly volatile and tumultuous times both at home and abroad.

“Sooner or later, Xi will still have to anoint a future leader by elevating his person of choice to be a Politburo standing member. And Hu stands a decent chance of emerging from the power shakeout,” said the PKU scholar, noting Hu’s top-level Party patrons and public deference to Xi. 

“Of course, that depends very much on how long Xi is planning to stay in power beyond 2022,” the scholar said, predicting that Xi would likely step down when he is 74 in 2027. “A lot can happen during that period and again the best strategy for Hu is to keep his head down, hide his light under a bushel and stay loyal to Xi while waiting him out.”