By Ben Blanchard
RIGHT UJUMCHIN, China, Oct 9 (Reuters) - On the remotegrasslands of northeastern China, a politician little known inthe West has made a name for himself as a rising leader. HuChunhua is already talked of by some as a future president.
"I know that in Mongolia they're saying he could becomeChina's president one day," former wrestler Biligungtumar, 43,told Reuters in remote Inner Mongolia, referring to theindependent country, which neighbours the Chinese region.
"He's our star," the towering ethnic Mongol athlete said.
His comments leave government officials around him aghast atthe mention of the taboo topic of elite politics and of thepossible career track of the man known as "Little Hu" because hehas the same family name as President Hu Jintao. They are notrelated.
The small town of Right Ujumchin and Biligungtumar's yurt --a traditional felted tent -- couldn't seem further from Beijing.
But Hu Chunhua, Inner Mongolia's Communist Party boss and anally of Hu Jintao, is seen as destined for bigger things.
Ahead of China's once-in-a-decade leadership change inNovember, Hu Chunhua is expected to get a new and more seniorrole, possibly as party chief of Chongqing, the former powerbase of disgraced politician Bo Xilai.
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Still, Hu remains something of an enigma, even in China. Hehas given few clues about his deeper policy beliefs. One of thebest known things about him is that he doesn't appear to dye hishair jet black like many Chinese politicians.
"It's not that clear," said Cheng Li, an expert on Chinesepolitics at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington,speaking of Hu's policy beliefs. "That's also the criticism frommany other people."
Hu is emblematic of a younger cohort of officials of humblerbackgrounds that stand apart from the refined, urban backgroundsof the likes of leader-in-waiting, Vice President Xi Jinping, Boand other so-called "princelings" - the descendents of formersenior revolutionary leaders.
This new generation has shown a keener sense of theinequalities facing China, from environmental devastation to therich-poor divide, factors that will shape the future of Chinaand which Hu has experienced first hand.
Hu has overseen rapid growth in Inner Mongolia while dealingwith ethnic Mongol unrest without resorting to the heavy-handedviolence often turned on protesters in China. He spent twodecades in Tibet, where he came under the wing of Hu Jintao.
His next role is likely to be very different .
Sources close to the leadership have told Reuters that Hu,49, is frontrunner to be appointed party chief in the sprawlingsouthwestern city of Chongqing. There has also been speculationhe could be sent instead to Shanghai.
If he goes to Chongqing, he would have to deal with thelegacy of the man at the centre of China's biggest politicalscandal in decades.
The party has accused Bo of abuse of power, corruption andhampering the murder investigation of a British businessmanbecause his wife was the suspect. She has since been jailed.
Bo's expulsion from the party drew an outcry from hisleftist supporters and highlighted the deep rifts hisprosecution could inflame.
Even after his fall, Bo is remembered fondly by manyresidents of Chongqing for his public housing and infrastructureprojects, efforts to boost growth and beautify a city oncebetter known for its smog and dilapidation.
"I find it hard to believe that the people could like anyoneas much as we liked Bo Xilai," said art gallery curator JiangWenlu, echoing the views of many in Chongqing for whom HuChunhua is an unknown entity.
LOW KEY AND SELF EFFACING
If Hu ends up as party boss in Chongqing, he will present adifferent style of politician to Bo, a contrast seen in March atpress conferences on the sidelines of China's annual meeting ofparliament.
The dapper Bo, once considered a top contender forleadership himself, batted away questions from reporters abouthis personal life, deriding his foes as the political stormaround him was gathering.
Some days earlier, Hu Chunhua came across as low key andself effacing, in line with an image of someone who shuns thelimelight and shows absolute fealty to the ideals of a loyal,humble Communist Party member.
He refused to answer questions about his possible rise tothe top -- or any personal questions for that matter -- focusinginstead on grassroots economic issues.
"Although our economy has grown fast over the past decade,there are still lots of problems, and there exists a great gapbetween us and coastal regions," he said, reeling off numbers onpoverty relief without referring to notes.
"So Inner Mongolia still has to maintain a certain rate ofspeedy growth. If we don't grow faster than the national averagethen we will have no way of narrowing that development gap."
Those comments provide a clue to what marks out princelingslike Xi, and to a lesser extent Bo, from those with more modestroots like Hu.
Rana Mitter, a Chinese politics professor at OxfordUniversity, said the differences in economic viewpoints of thetwo groups could best be viewed as those who focus on the citiesand want to put the foot on the economic pedal, and those whoare more worried about rural areas and income inequality.
"In that sense, having someone like Hu and broadly speakingthe people who associate with interior China, (means) that voicewill be important within the leadership," he said.
Hu has been Inner Mongolia Communist Party boss since late2009, appointed at the age of 46.
As China's largest coal producer, Inner Mongolia has postedrapid economic growth, but the wealth has been unevenlydistributed and open-cast mining has left scars on thelandscape.
Last year, some of the Mongol people who make up aroundone-fifth of its 25 million population protested against thedestruction of grazing lands by mining.
Hu reacted not with the harshness often used in the otherrestive ethnic regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, but by profferingtalks.
"We were impressed," said teacher Qing Liang, recalling Hu'svisit last year to the Mongol-medium high school in RightUjumchin, to discuss the protests.
"He very patiently answered all the questions and promisedhe would personally address the worries expressed," said Qing,an ethnic Mongol.
"He was very open and relaxed. He explained why developmentis important but also that development needs to be balanced andpeople's legitimate interests be protected," he told Reuters ona government-supervised trip to the region.
Hu moved quickly to arrest the drivers of a coal truck whichkilled a Mongol herder, whose death was a catalyst for theunrest. He also closed coal mines deemed responsible for thewild west feel of parts of Inner Mongolia.
There is little overt sign of those protests today in RightUjumchin. Government officials proudly point out new schools andhospitals.
Still, the U.S.-based Southern Mongolian Human RightsInformation Centre says it continues to get reports of protests,especially over the illegal expropriation of land for mining.
"Coal mines are a big problem and herders and their animalskeep being killed by trucks," said Enghebatu Togochog, aspokesman for the group. "Things are worsening and there is noimprovement."
NO HAIR DYE
Hu has been well prepared for the problems confrontingChinese away from the prosperous coast, having grown up inpoverty as a child in the mountains of Hubei province in centralChina.
According to an account published in the official HubeiDaily in 2006, Hu had to walk kilometres to school every day instraw sandals, very different from the princelings who mostlywent to top schools in Beijing and other big cities.
On acceptance into the elite Peking University, he earnedmoney during the summer helping build a hydropower plant, thepaper said.
"The hardships of life gave rise to Hu Chunhua's tenaciouswill, and nurtured his unswerving determination to fight," thebiography noted.
Hu graduated in 1983 and joined the Communist Youth League,a training ground for young and promising officials where HuJintao also served.
Hu Chunhua was immediately sent to restless Tibet, where hestayed f or some two decades, learning to speak Tibetan, rare fora Han Chinese official. While there, he met and apparentlyimpressed Hu Jintao, Tibet's party chief from 1988-1992.
"When Hu Jintao was there he discovered Hu Chunhua, he foundthis person very capable. He personally placed Hu Chunhua aroundhim during his time in Tibet," said Bo Zhiyue, an expert onChina's elite politics at Singapore's East Asian Institute.
"After he left for Beijing he managed to make Hu Chunhua adeputy secretary of the Youth League in Tibet. That was a clearsign that Hu Chunhua was being groomed by Hu Jintao startingsome 20 years ago."
Despite having a reputation as more of a moderate and areformer, Hu Chunhua re-jailed Inner Mongolia's most notableMongol dissident, Hada, almost as soon as he completed a 15-yearsentence for separatism in late 2010.
People who have met him describe Hu as relaxed, easy-goingand spontaneous, unlike other stiffer party leaders.
"One of the first things you notice about him is that hedoes not dye his hair," said a China-based Western diplomat,referring to how most top officials dye their hair black in asign of vigour.
Hu came to Inner Mongolia following a brief stint in Hebei,the arid province which surrounds Beijing, where he was rapidlymoved after a scandal over tainted milk in which at least sixchildren died and thousands of others were sickened.
Whether Hu will be able to escape the shadow of his patronHu Jintao is debatable.
"In Chinese politics it's very hard to say someone is hisown person until they take over in power," said Bo, theSingapore-based academic.
Hu will likely keep a relatively low profile once he ispromoted, Bo added.
"He will do a lot of work but without showing off for thenext five to 10 years, and then if he becomes top leader we'llhave to see if he has his own ideas about China or if he followsthe ideas of others around him."
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim and Sui-Lee Wee;Editing by Neil Fullick)
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Keywords: CHINA POLITICS/HUCHUNHUA