LIUPANSHUI (Guizhou) (NYTIMES) - Guizhou is one of China's poorest provinces, yet its villages of rice paddies, buffaloes and mud-brick homes have long been a proving ground for rising stars in the Chinese Communist Party.
The former president, Mr Hu Jintao, once ran this mountainous southwestern province as did a powerful lieutenant to President Xi Jinping.
Now, the party has tapped another leader in Guizhou for promotion into its top tiers, making him a potential candidate to one day succeed Mr Xi.
The official, Mr Chen Min'er, 56, a former Chinese literature student and propaganda worker, is nearly certain to enter the Politburo at a party congress next month (October), putting him in the running for an even more powerful role in the future.
Several other Chinese leaders in their 50s are poised for promotion as well, and analysts are watching to see if any will be anointed with a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's highest rung of power.
That would fit with recent party tradition, but some insiders believe Mr Xi may delay designating a successor, setting up a leadership contest in which he will decide the victor.
Mr Chen is "clearly being fast-tracked, and I think he will end up on the Standing Committee someday", said Chinese elite politics expert Christopher Johnson at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I'm doubtful it will happen now, but Xi Jinping could force his elevation as a declaration of his leadership supremacy."
In the jockeying for advancement, Mr Chen starts with several advantages. He is one of Mr Xi's proteges, having spent much of his career in Zhejiang, a wealthier province in eastern China, while Mr Xi was the party chief there.
This summer, Mr Chen was handed a high-profile assignment as party secretary of Chongqing, a vast municipality of 30 million where he can showcase his political skills.
And in between, he spent 5.5 years governing the 36 million people of Guizhou, including most recently two years as party secretary, the most powerful job in a province.
A stint in a poor, heavily rural province like Guizhou is important for Mr Chen's prospects. The future of China's 590 million rural dwellers is an increasingly pressing issue for the government, and his time in Guizhou gives him the gritty, grass-roots experience expected of an aspiring national leader.
"Guizhou is a very good province for hopefuls to stay there for several years," said Chinese politics scholar Ding Xueliang at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "You go to one of the poorest, most difficult places and take up the burden of changing it. That will earn you additional credit to rise higher."
Political scientist Bruce Dickson, a political scientist at the George Washington University, said party officials are often groomed for higher posts by spending time in a less developed area. "There is wide recognition that inequality is rising, and improving living standards in rural areas is one way to show the Chinese Communist Party is trying to narrow the gap," he said.
Economic conditions in Guizhou have been improving, and rural life here is better than a decade ago. But persistent poverty in its mountain villages has been a blot on Mr Xi's promise to end rural poverty by 2020. Mr Chen took up the challenge with an acolyte's zeal.
"Meeting the targets on poverty eradication on schedule is a tough battle that Guizhou must not lose," Mr Chen said in March, in one of many rousing speeches on the subject. "If we lose, we'll break our word and lose the goodwill of the public."
Mr Chen's anti-poverty campaign applied policies sure to appeal to Mr Xi's belief that the Communist Party can be an overseer of economic change, marshalling investment and resources for the national good.
Since the late leader Deng Xiaoping and his allies broke up Mao Zedong's rural communes in the early 1980s, Chinese farmers have mostly tilled small plots of land under long-term leases from village governments. But fewer and fewer young people see a future in agriculture, which offers lower, less steady pay than factories or menial jobs in towns and cities.
"In recent years earnings from farming were low, everyone let land go fallow," said Mr Tao Yongpan, an official at Mount Niangniang, a cluster of villages in the Liupanshui area of western Guizhou that served as an inspiration for policies promoted by Chen. "Soil erosion was serious and farmland was left idle. Rural production was on the slide."
Some economists have urged the Chinese government to privatise farmland, arguing that would encourage better land use and unleash market forces to lift productivity.
But the party has been reluctant to shed its ideological commitment to collective ownership - in effect state control - of farmland. Officials and some experts also worry that privatising the land would make farmers more vulnerable to exploitation and create kindling for social unrest.
In Guizhou, Mr Chen instead promoted a solution that has gained favour under Mr Xi: merging small family fields into cooperatives that pool villagers' land, money and labour. Other provinces and politicians have for years experimented with this approach, which is meant to boost production through economies of scale. But Mr Chen pushed it hard and gave it his own twist.
Rural families became shareholders in the cooperatives, paying in by handing over some or all of their leased land. The cooperatives then used the larger acreage to produce commercial crops such as tea and walnuts, paying villagers a share of returns and sometimes wages for farm work. Often, local companies also invested in these enlarged farms, bringing finance and management experience, but also taking profits.
"Before, the land was all fragmented," said Mr Huang Zhineng, a manager at Mount Niangniang. "With unified management, the same land can lift incomes. It's a great model for poverty eradication."
It is a policy that also fits into Mr Xi's vision of entrenching the party's hold on power and restoring a spirit of socialist collectivism that harkens back to leader Mao's era.
Mr Xi started his career as an official in a rural commune under Mr Mao and spent three years as a deputy party chief in a rural county in northern China. In Zhejiang province, Mr Xi promoted a cooperative scheme similar to Mr Chen's.
Among the other Chinese officials expected to be promoted this autumn are Mr Cai Qi, the party secretary of Beijing; Mr Chen Quanguo, the secretary of Xinjiang, a tense region in the west; and perhaps Mr Hu Chunhua, the secretary of Guangdong province in the south, who was singled out for praise by Mr Xi in April.
But that same month, Mr Xi also said he would participate in the upcoming leadership congress as a delegate from Guizhou, although he has no career links there. Officials in Guizhou celebrated the striking gesture of support for Mr Chen.
In villages in Guizhou, though, residents are waiting to see if Mr Chen's policies can bring lasting profits. Many welcomed the changes. Others were wary.
"It's a good way forward for us," said farmer Qiu Shuixian from Zhongxin Village in the Liupanshui area, where one cooperative has pooled land to grow red rice, a local specialty, and another newer cooperative produces fruit, walnuts, flowers and honey.
"There's no profit in farming the land ourselves,"the farmer said.
But others said it was risky to devote so much land to crops like walnuts or red rice, which might fail in bad years or not find buyers. Some said they felt pressured to sign over farmland to the cooperative. One resident recalled Mr Mao's time, when peasants were forced into huge communes that failed and resulted in mass starvation.
"I didn't want to hand it over," Mr Chen Wenzheng, 64, said of his family's plot. "I wanted to grow some for myself as insurance. But then everyone handed theirs over, so what can you do?"
Mr Luo Xiaopeng, a retired rural policy official who has long worked in anti-poverty projects in Guizhou, said Mr Chen's policies were designed to show quick results but could backfire. For example, farmers could be cajoled into risky, expensive ventures that take their land and fail after a few years.
"I don't think this is getting a grip of the fundamental problems in the Chinese countryside," he said.
But Mr Chen will not be around to see the long-term effect of his efforts. He has moved onto his next test.
As the new party secretary in Chongqing, he has a tricky assignment.
His predecessor, Mr Sun Zhengcai, was also seen as a contender for the senior leadership. Then the party abruptly removed him from office and put him under investigation in July.
Bo Xilai, another party secretary of Chongqing seeking promotion, fell in scandal in 2012. He is now in prison.