New Politburo Lineup Signals Rising Stars Who May Replace Xi

Communist Party Boss of Jilin Province Sun Zhengcai
Communist Party boss of Jilin province and former agriculture minister Sun Zhengcai was named to the 25-member Politburo today. Photographer: Feng Li/Getty Images

The makeup of China’s Politburo, with an official who once studied in the U.K. and a man nicknamed “Little Hu,” signals that the Communist Party may have begun grooming the leaders who will take over in a decade.

Sun Zhengcai, Communist Party boss of Jilin province and former agriculture minister, was named to the 25-member Politburo yesterday along with Hu Chunhua, the party secretary of Inner Mongolia. The two, who are both 49 years old, could succeed China’s new leaders in 2022, said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. They are the youngest members of the new Politburo by at least six years.

The two appointments bring to the fore candidates for the sixth generation of leaders since Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic in 1949. Many were children during the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which shaped current leaders’ emphasis on stability at all costs, and went to university as China embarked on reforms that spurred its rise to become the world’s second-biggest economy.

“Their mentality is quite different,” said Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. Hu, Sun and other younger party cadres were educated during China’s “best decade” of political opening, which ended with the government’s 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, Zheng said.

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If the two do assume top leadership posts 10 years from now, their advancement within the party’s top echelons may follow the path of Hu Jintao, whose grooming began when he was named to the Politburo’s Standing Committee at age 49 in 1992, said Bo Zhiyue, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute who has written a research paper on Hu Chunhua and Sun.

By contrast, Xi Jinping, who was named Communist Party general secretary yesterday, and Li Keqiang, who is forecast to take over from Premier Wen Jiabao in March, were elevated into the Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 without serving in the broader Politburo. Communist Party leaders may have decided the next generation will need more time to prepare, Bo said.

“I think this time around they are doing a better job of bringing younger people into the Politburo so they can start this grooming process,” Bo said in a phone interview. “In the case of Hu Jintao it was 10 years, but in the case of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang it was only five years. In Chinese politics five years seems a little bit rushed.”

Economic Growth

Hu and Sun started their careers as paramount leader Deng Xiaoping opened China to the rest of the world and set it down the path of economic growth. Hu, who is five months older than Sun, studied Chinese literature at Peking University, where many students who participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests got their education.

Sun spent a year studying in the U.K. and has an advanced degree in agriculture, according to Cheng Li, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. In 2002, Sun was named party secretary of Beijing’s Shunyi area, where many of the city’s international schools and western-style villas are located.

“Their most formative years were reform,” Bo said. “I think they are probably going to be more open-minded, more liberal minded, probably more international-oriented.”

While Hu and Sun’s presence on the Politburo indicates they’re rising stars, much may change in the next five years given the political jockeying that goes on behind the scenes in China, according to Zheng.

Likely Evolve

Ten of 22 respondents to a Bloomberg survey in September said the party will likely evolve in the next 10 years, with one predicting a split, as the country addresses growing concern over corruption, pollution and a widening wealth gap.

“Some meritocratic elements are there but it is very difficult to be a pure meritocracy because sometimes politics runs against that,” Zheng said.

Hunan province party boss Zhou Qiang, also tipped by Bo and City University of Hong Kong’s Cheng as an up-and-coming leader, didn’t make the 25-person Politburo. Zhou, 52, is forecast to be named president of the Supreme People’s Court, the South China Morning Post reported Nov. 11, citing four people it didn’t identify.

Hu and Sun have handled social unrest or scandal during their time in senior posts. Nicknamed “Little Hu” for his close ties to Hu Jintao, Hu Chunhua rose through the ranks in Tibet, becoming deputy party secretary before moving on to the top job in Inner Mongolia, which supplies most of China’s raw coal.

Street Protests

During his time there, ethnic Mongolians took to the streets in protest after a coal truck ran over a herdsman. Hu acknowledged “public anger,” and the government later announced measures to improve miner training. Police were also deployed across the province to quell the protests.

When China’s leaders decide to select a member of the sixth generation for the Politburo Standing Committee, “Hu Chunhua would be a prime candidate,” Brookings’s Li wrote in a paper on China’s future leaders.

In 2006, Sun became China’s youngest ministerial-level official at the time, when he was named agriculture minister. He oversaw the government response to a 2008 tainted-milk scandal in which at least six infants were killed and tens of thousands of people got sick. Sun said a “serious lack of regulation” was to blame for the contaminated milk and he oversaw a crackdown on lax production methods.

Educational Pedigree

The two men have strong educational pedigrees, making them better trained than Xi, Li and other members of the current generation of leaders, Cheng said.

A decision to move Hu and Sun from their current posts to larger and richer provinces, as happened with Xi, may be a sign that they are being groomed for the top positions, said Cheng.

“The later generations will have better qualifications,” Cheng said. “Given their age, they certainly have considerable grassroots experience, and have a lot of experience visiting foreign countries and receiving foreign delegations.”

— With assistance by Henry Sanderson

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