19th Party Congress: Contrasting styles of China's sixth generation leaders Chen Min'er and Hu Chunhua

Chongqing party chief Chen Min'er (left) and Secretary of the Guangdong provincial Party committee Hu Chunhua.
Chongqing party chief Chen Min'er (left) and Secretary of the Guangdong provincial Party committee Hu Chunhua.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING - One local party chief gave a ringing speech at the start and was in control throughout; another kept quiet most of the time.

The appearances of Chongqing party chief Chen Min'er and his Guangdong counterpart Hu Chunhua at their respective delegation meetings on Thursday (Oct 19) showed the difference between one whose star has never shone brighter and another whose star may have dimmed.

At Guangdong's delegation meeting at the Great Hall of the People, which was open to the media, Mr Hu was hardly heard throughout the three-hour session.

While the province-level meetings are usually led by the party secretary, Mr Hu let his vice-secretary Ma Xingrui do most of the talking, fielding only a single question on grassroots reform during the question-and-answer session.

Mr Hu, at 54 the youngest in the 25-member politburo, had long been tipped as a potential successor to President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang, with many observers certain he would enter the apex Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) at this party congress.

This is in keeping with party norms that saw "fifth generation" high-fliers Mr Xi and Mr Li elevated to the PSC in 2007, giving them five years' experience before assuming the two top positions.

But the unexpected purge in July (17) of former Chongqing party boss Sun Zhengcai has thrown that into uncertainty. Both he and Mr Hu were seen as the front-runners among the so-called sixth generation leaders born in the 1960s and expected to enter the PSC after they were promoted to the Politburo in 2012.

 
 

In contrast with Mr Hu, Mr Chen, 57, an ally of Mr Xi who had replaced Mr Sun as Chongqing party secretary, was a picture of serenity at the Chongqing session Thursday afternoon. He kicked things off with a 12-minute speech that included a full-throated endorsement of Mr Xi's work report.

"With comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Party's Central Committee, we have achieved historic achievements and a historic transformation," he said.

A relaxed Mr Chen was in-charge throughout the two-and-a-half hour session, even playing timekeeper when he reminded a speaker who had overrun to conclude "so we have more time for questions".

Mr Chen, former Guizhou party secretary, is already virtually certain of being promoted to the politburo, by virtue of being party boss of megalopolis Chongqing. But there is a chance that Mr Chen, whose relationship with Mr Xi goes back at least 15 years to when they worked together in Zhejiang province, might vault straight into the PSC, possibly as first secretary of the Party Secretariat.

Mr Chen took two questions from local reporters, including one about how Chongqing would learn from the damage wrought by Mr Sun. "Sun Zhengcai's serious violation of discipline has harmed our party's image, and damaged the stable development of Chongqing," he said, adding the next step is to "resolutely eliminate" his bad influence.

Mr Sun, seen as an ally of former President Jiang Zemin, was rumoured to have been purged for failing to profess full loyalty to Mr Xi. In comparison, Mr Hu, nicknamed "Little Hu" after his mentor, former President Hu Jintao, has taken steps to show support for Mr Xi. The Guangdong party boss pledged loyalty in May to Mr Xi in a speech, affirming him as the party's "core" leader.

A month before that (April), Mr Xi offered "full approval" of the Guangdong government's work since the last party congress in 2012, in what was seen as an indirect endorsement of Mr Hu.