By Benjamin Kang Lim and Ben Blanchard
(Reuters) – Chinese President Hu Jintao is maneuvering to promote one of his closest allies to the Communist Party’s inner sanctum, two independent sources said, in a bid to retain clout and preserve his legacy after retiring as party chief.
Hu Chunhua, party boss of the northern region of Inner Mongolia, is a rising political star of the party’s next generation of senior leaders. He is seen as a reformer and a close ally of Hu Jintao, although the two are not related.
Under the constitution, the president, 69, has to stand down early next year in a once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
“Hu Jintao regards Hu Chunhua highly and is determined to promote him,” a source with ties to the leadership said.
He wants “Little Hu”, as the younger man is popularly known in China, to be either catapulted straight into the party’s supreme-decision making body – the Politburo Standing Committee – or at least promoted to the prestigious post of party chief in Shanghai, China’s fast-growing financial capital.
“It’s a political tradition in China to ensure that unfinished work and wishes will be carried out,” said a Chinese political analyst, referring to the practice of retiring leaders promoting allies to ensure their influence remains.
“After leaving the (political) stage, the retiring leader hopes that the show will go on,” added the analyst, who asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivity of discussing elite politics.
It will also help ensure there is no political retribution carried out against Hu Jintao or his family by other factions who will remain in power once he is gone, the analyst said.
Hu Jintao is widely expected to hand the top job in the party to Vice President Xi Jinping and look to promote other allies to important roles. He has been pushing to shrink the standing committee to seven from the current nine members to retain influence. Sources have said membership could be increased to 11.
A new leadership line-up, including the new standing committee, is expected to be announced at a party congress, to be held in October at the earliest. The new lineup will formally take over the reins of power in March.
“Hu Chunhua is a dark horse,” a second source with ties to the top leadership told Reuters, referring to his chances of joining the standing committee.
What happens to Hu Chunhua will hinge on horse-trading between Hu Jintao and other senior figures, including former president Jiang Zemin, in the run-up to the leadership change at the party’s 18th congress later this year, the sources said.
These and other potential promotions are at the heart of the Communist Party’s secretive deliberations ahead of the congress. There are signs the deliberations have moved to the seaside resort of Beidaihe, a traditional summer retreat 160 miles from Beijing.
“This is to solicit opinions but it won’t reach any final decisions on the new collective leadership. It’s too early for that,” said a source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, due to potential repercussions for discussing elite politics.
If elevated, Hu Chunhua, 49, would be the youngest member of the standing committee and as an ally of an outgoing president would be seen as someone destined for bigger things, possibly the party leadership.
He gained some international exposure earlier this year, when he accompanied Xi on a trip to the United States, along with a smattering of other provincial leaders.
President Hu became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in 1992 and he became China’s leader a decade later.
If Hu Chunhua does not make it, he is the front-runner to become party boss of Shanghai and a member of the party’s elite Politburo, a bigger grouping of top leaders, sources said.
Shanghai, alongside major cities Beijing, Tianjin and Chongqing, enjoy a higher political status, giving their party bosses greater clout.
The Politburo has 24 members after the ousting of Bo Xilai, the charismatic but controversial party boss of the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing. He fell from power after his police chief sought asylum at a nearby U.S. consulate and his wife was named as a suspect in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. She will be tried this week.
Other candidates in the running to succeed Yu Zhengsheng as Shanghai party boss are China’s Commerce Minister Chen Deming, incumbent mayor Han Zheng, who survived a corruption scandal that ensnared his former boss, and the party’s top researcher Wang Huning, the sources said.
Yu is also a candidate to be promoted to the standing committee, the sources said.
Hu Chunhua could also become party boss of Beijing, replacing Guo Jinlong. Sources said Guo could lose his job after a bungled rescue response following floods in which 79 died.
After graduating from the elite Peking University, Hu Chunhua cut his teeth in the Communist Youth League — President Hu’s power base. Almost immediately, he was posted to restive Tibet.
Hu Jintao was Tibet party boss for four years until 1992 and like the president, Hu Chunhua has made a name for himself serving in difficult locations.
In total, he spent 23 years in Tibet, overlapping for some of that period with Hu Jintao.
“Little Hu” was named the Youth League’s chief in 2006. He served as governor and eventually party boss of the northern province of Hebei before moving to Inner Mongolia in 2009.
“What is special about Hu Chunhua is that he volunteered to go to Tibet after graduating from Peking University with top honors,” said Kou Chien-wen, an expert on the Youth League and director of the East Asian Institute of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.
“He speaks fluent Tibetan which is rare among Han Chinese cadres in Tibet,” Kou said. “It’s difficult to tell whether he is liberal or conservative, but he is very close to Hu Jintao.”
Hu Chunhua won plaudits from the government, diplomats and analysts say, after successfully dealing with rare protests by ethnic Mongols last year in Inner Mongolia, who took to the streets angered by the destruction of traditional grazing land by coal miners and a lack of respect for their culture.
“In the development process, it is necessary that safeguarding the interests of the masses must be the fundamental starting point,” Hu told some of the students who had organized the demonstrations, a rare and brave move by a senior leader.
“If people’s interests are not protected properly, then development cannot be sustainable,” Hu said, the official Inner Mongolia Daily.
However, he has also shown a tougher side, locking up China’s most famous Mongol dissident, Hada, shortly after his 2010 release from a 15-year jail term for separatism. Hada’s wife and son are also believed to be in prison.
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Neil Fullick)