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Hu Chunhua has a chance at Chinese premiership and why it will have implications for India

Hu’s prominent role in Communist Youth League puts him squarely against the type of personalities and friends Xi has promoted.

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The winners and losers of Chinese politics were picked recently and the conclusion of the Beidaihe conclave has brought out rumours about who is getting promoted.

We can only speculate about what happened at the Beidaihe conclave this year. The next rung of top leadership was potentially selected and approved even before the conclave began.

“There are no formal agendas or schedules, and the leaders just come for a break,” said a Chinese party official to the South China Morning Post on the condition of anonymity.

The waning importance of the Beidaihe conclave can be attributed to Xi’s political management.

Over the last two decades, the promotion of the party leaders could be predicted by analysing the work experience and age of the candidate. But the 19th Party Congress and President Xi Jinping’s rise have rendered that formula unreliable. Potential candidates have received fat promotions for their unwavering loyalty to Xi.

“Xi has made important tweaks to selecting the delegates and the pool of senior leaders. These changes overturn earlier conventions designed to foster greater transparency and open competition in favour of Xi’s,” wrote Christopher K. Johnson.

Xi has upended the unsaid ‘norms’ that have governed promotions to the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) by not identifying his successor or the next premier during the last Party Congress in 2017 and instead promoting his allies by flouting those ‘norms.’

Two speculations are making the rounds. First is that the PBSC could be expanded to nine members from the current seven positions, and the other being that PBSC could shrink to five core members – by slightly adjusting the positions. The size of PBSC was shrunk from nine to seven in 2012 during the 18th Party Congress. In 2002, the PBSC was expanded to nine when China faced a complex domestic and international environment.

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The one aiming premiership

One name for promotion is on the top of many China watchers’ list – Hu Chunhua. Hu is likely to be the pick for the premiership to replace Li Keqiang. Hu is considered an efficient administrator by many.

Hu is from the rival faction, which is often called the “league faction” because many members of this group started their political careers in the Communist Youth League (CYL).

An unsaid consensus has emerged over the years that divides power between the general secretary and the premier. The CCP general secretaries – currently President Xi – have come from the elitist coalition and the league faction’s premiers, sometimes called tuanpai. ‘Elitist coalition’ is a group of princelings or children of party elites who took over top power ranks – Xi is one of them.

If Hu succeeds in taking over premiership from Le Keqiang that would mean the bargaining of power, which has maintained a balance of power at the top of the party, is still functioning. And, if, a different candidate becomes the premier, who is close to Xi, that would hint that Xi has broken that consensus and further consolidated control on power by appointing someone he prefers.

Xi has in the past targeted CYL to reduce the group’s influence on elite Chinese politics.

Hu Chunhua graduated from Peking University in 1983 and began working in the Organization Department of the Tibet Autonomous Region Committee of the CYL right after.

Hu’s ascent will have some implications for India. Hu has worked in Tibet for most of his life.

Thereafter, Hu steadily rose to the party ranks in Tibet. Between 2003-5, Hu served as the Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Hu has been closely affiliated with the CYL throughout his career and served as First Secretary of the Secretariat of the Communist Youth League Central Committee between 2006-8. Hu’s prominent role in CYL puts him squarely against the type of personalities and friends Xi has promoted under him.

On 27 July, Hu Chunhua wrote an article titled “Guided by General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important exposition on the ‘three rural’ work, strive to create a new situation of comprehensively promoting rural revitalization” in which he mentioned Xi’s name over 50 times.

Hu Chunhua has played a prominent role in the bilateral ties with India. In 2016, visiting President Pranab Mukherjee met Hu Chunhua who was at the time Party Secretary of Guangdong.

Hu has played a pivotal role in Xi’s poverty alleviation and agricultural modernisation programme. Despite leaving Tibet back in 2006, Hu has continued to maintain his association with Tibet.

“In Tibet, Hu learned about the employment and income of people who had risen out of poverty, agricultural development with local features, rural infrastructure construction and public services in the region,” Xinhua reported about Hu’s inspection tour to Tibet in July of this year.

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The other contenders

The other person who is likely to be promoted and inducted into the Standing Committee is Chen Miner, currently serving as Party Secretary of Chongqing.

Chen has served in prominent positions such as Governor and Party Secretary of Guizhou province. A speculation making the rounds is that Chen could take up Wang Huning’s current position as Central Secretariat if the latter vacates. Chen has been described as Xi’s protégé since his time as the director of the propaganda department in Zhejiang, where Xi was the Party Secretary between 2002-2007. Chen is said to have assisted Xi in his rise during his time in Zhejiang by preparing his weekly columns for the party newspaper Zhejiang Daily.

Chen has a deep interest in propaganda and party’s political theory, which makes him an ideal candidate to replace Wang Huning.

Another candidate with potential for promotion is Li Xi, who could be inducted into the PBSC.

Currently, Li heads the rich province of Guangdong as the Party Secretary. Li started his career in the Gansu province’s Propaganda Department after graduating in Chinese Language and Literature from Northwest Normal University.

Li’s career is an example of the personalities promoted under Xi. Li cemented his destiny of entering national politics during his time in Shanghai and as a member of the Shaanxi clique. Li developed ties with Xi in the mid-1980s when Xi was serving as the personal assistant to Li Ziqi, who was Party Secretary of Gansu at the time. Chinese state media have written extensively about Li’s relationship with Xi, and his promotion over the recent years points towards an upcoming promotion for the former.

Li could be promoted as first vice premier of the State Council or to the Central Secretariat secretary seat currently held by Wang Huning. Adding to the confusion about the top leadership positions is the fate of Wang Huning and Zhao Leji, both Xi allies and below the retirement age. Chen Min’er and Li Xi could either replace Wang Huning and Zhao Leji or all four leaders become part of the expanded PBSC.

Other candidates currently in the Politburo likely to be promoted are Li Qiang, Party Secretary of Shanghai, and Ding Xuexiang. Despite the mismanagement of the Covid-19 response in Shanghai, Li Qiang, a Xi ally, has managed to avoid any disciplinary action that is likely to be promoted.

Ding Xuexiang, who assisted Xi as his secretary in Shanghai back in 2006-7, currently serves as Director of the General Office.

Besides Hu Chunhua, who isn’t a clear Xi ally, all the others who will be potentially promoted are close allies of Xi. This fall, Chinese politics will be further fashioned into Xi’s image.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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