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‘Little Hu’ eyed for the next wave of Chinese leaders

BEIJING — For the past week, the focus in China has been on the country’s outgoing leaders and their replacements, who were announced Thursday in a once-a-decade transition.But those looking further down the line have been studying a subset of attendees — the likely successors to this year’s successors.

Just as Vice President Xi Jinping, 59, was named at the just-ended Communist Party Congress to replace President Hu Jintao, someone in the next generation of officials will likely replace Xi 10 years from now. And leading the pack, according to some party insiders and experts, is a man widely known as “Little Hu.”

The current party chief of Inner Mongolia, Hu Chunhua, acquired the nickname Xiao Hu (shee-ow hoo) years ago, when it became clear that he had been singled out by Hu Jintao as a rising star and was being groomed for the higher echelons of power.

Another frequently mentioned standout in the next generation is Sun Zhengcai, who is now party chief in the northeastern province of Jilin. On Thursday, Hu and Sun, both 49, were promoted to the Politburo, making them the youngest members of that body and propelling them into contention for one of China’s top leadership positions in coming years. Little Hu is also rumored to be transferring soon to lead the important province of Guangdong, which would position him well for the future.

Many experts point out that such speculation is premature, given the unpredictable power of competing factions within the party, the secretive nature of such internal decisions and the many years remaining before any selection is made.

But that has not dissuaded the Chinese press. During a rare congress meeting that was opened to the media, camera crews crowded into a small room on Nov. 9 to capture footage of Little Hu chairing a relatively inconsequential session.

When he got up suddenly, the media scrum dashed to follow him out the door, afraid they might lose their prey. The stampede stopped only when guards and officials pushed the journalists back in place.

“Please everyone, he’s just going to the bathroom,” one official shouted in exasperation. “He’ll be back, I promise.”

‘He’s an exact copy’

The two Hus are not related by blood, but they share strikingly similar backgrounds, career paths, early achievements and strong pragmatic streaks — reasons the elder Hu may have identified the younger Hu more than two decades ago and begun moving him up the ranks.

“How do you describe Hu Chunhua? You look at Hu Jintao and imagine him a little younger,” said Cheng Li, a China politics expert at the Brookings Institution. “He’s an exact copy.”

Both built their careers from humble beginnings — a sharp contrast to many current officials, including China’s new leader Xi, who were born into prominent Communist families. Both were shaped by long stints in Tibet and a network of allies they cultivated while at the Communist Youth League.

Like Hu Jintao, who is renowned for a photographic memory, Little Hu distinguished himself early in academics. He began college at the unusually young age of 16, becoming the first from his home town of Wu Feng to be admitted to the prestigious Peking University.

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