SUN WUKONG
New stars in China's firmament
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - China has given a strong signal as to who are the rising stars to watch as possible future leaders of the world's biggest nation with the promotion of two young cadres to key provincial posts.

In an apparent move to prepare for a smooth succession of power in 2012 and beyond, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced a major reshuffle of regional leaders last week.

Hu Chunhua, promoted to party secretary in Inner Mongolia, and Sun Zhengcai, the agriculture minister who takes the top job in northeastern Jilin province, are both 46 and were barely teenagers when Deng Xiaoping, who envisaged an unbroken "chain" of leaders to ensure the CCP's long-lasting rule, became paramount leader in 1978.

Political observes believe Hu's star shines brightest, and the former governor of northern Hebei province has the best chance of being groomed to follow in the footsteps of vice president Xi Jinping, the most likely successor to President Hu Jintao, who must step down in 2012. Hu Chunhua (no relation to the president) would then become the sixth-generation leader in a line stretching from Mao Zedong, through Deng and Jiang Zemin, to the current supreme leader and his successor.

Hu Chunhua has won the tacit backing of the president through his work in the regions - the more remote and underdeveloped the better - experience which the president insists cadres must gain to stand a chance of promotion to the power center. A young official appointed to head a remote province is worthy watching.

"It is like in a horse race; one must be given the opportunity to run in the first place," a political observer in Beijing says.

After graduating from Peking University, where he majored in Chinese language and literature, in 1983, Hu Chunhua volunteered to work in Tibet, where he served under Hu Jintao as deputy secretary of the Tibetan Communist Youth League. In late 2006, having worked there for 23 years, he was promoted from deputy party chief of Tibet to first secretary of the Chinese Youth League, a post Hu Jintao held from 1984-85. Hu Chunhua was named governor of Hebei in 2008.

If Hu Chunhua could be said to be a protege of Hu Jintao, then Sun Zhengcai is a protege of Jia Qinglin, a close ally of former leader Jiang Zemin. Sun earned his PhD in agriculture from Beijing Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences in the late 1980s. He later headed a county in the Beijing municipality and became party chief of the capital's Shunyi District in 2002. Jia, as Beijing municipal party chief from 1996 to 2003, "discovered" and promoted Sun.

While last week's reshuffle makes Hu and Sun the youngest provincial party chiefs in several decades, all five newly appointed are under the age 60. Hu and Sun's promotions, however, mark the rise of the "60s-generation" in the communist officialdom, which in itself is a remarkable change in, if not an end to, the tradition of "old-man politics".

The direct cause of this round of regional reshuffle is the retirements of Chu Bo in Mongolia, Zhang Wenyue in Liaoning, and Xu Guangchun in Henan, all three reaching the compulsory retirement age of 65 set by the CCP for ministerial and provincial officials.

Analysts believe this is just the start of a nationwide reshuffle to pave way for a smooth power transfer in the CCP 18th Congress scheduled in 2012 when President Hu, Premier Wen Jiabao and other senior leaders are set to step down.

A game of musical chairs will be played at the 18th party congress that could push the young Hu and Sun to the center of power. Given the compulsory retirement age of 70 for a politburo member, at least three more of the nine members on the Standing Committee of the politburo will have to resign: Wu Bangguo (chairman of the National People's Congress), Jia Qinglin (chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) and Zhou Yongkang (in charge of the country's law enforcement).

Li Changchun (in charge of propaganda and ideological affairs) and He Guoqiang (overseeing organization and personnel affairs) will be 68 and 69 respectively. Whether they can remain in power for another five-year term remains problematic.

The only two politburo standing committee members who will stay for sure are Xi Jinping, the 56-year-old vice president tipped to succeed Hu Jintao, and Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who, now aged 55, is set to replace Wen Jiabao in 2012. Many analysts believe they still need to make more effort to prove their worthiness in the runup to the congress if they are not to be challenged.

Of the 16 ordinary politburo members, at least four will have to retire because of their age: Wang Gang (vice chairman of CPPCC), Wang Zhaoguo (vice chairman of NPC and president of All-China Federation of Trade Unions), Liu Qi (Beijing municipal party secretary) and General Guo Boxiong (vice chairman of the Central Military Commission). Vice Premier Hui Liangyu and Xinjiang party secretary Wang Lequan will be 68 and is also likely to go.

All these vacancies will need to be filled. The promotion of existing politburo members to the standing committee will make room for officials with experience of heading provinces to be elevated to the power base of China.

Some of the existing politburo members, such as Li Yuanchao (director of the CCP's Central Organization Department), Wang Qishan (vice premier), Wang Yang (Guangdong provincial party secretary) and Bo Xilai (Chongqing municipal party secretary), are likely to be promoted into the politburo standing committee. In turn, some officials with experience in heading a province will be promoted into the politburo - the very power center of China.

From the viewpoint that politics is the art of the balance of power, Sun's promotion could be seen as a balance to the rise of Hu Chunhua. Sun, an agriculture experts and scholarly official like Premier Wen Jiabao, may therefore have an opportunity to one day be premier to Hu Chunhua's party chief.

There are too many variables in Chinese politics for this constellation of rising stars to be fixed, and the three years until the next party congress will present plenty of time for new alignments to emerge. Or, to use the analogy favored by Deng, it cannot be said that the "chain of succession'' is firmly bonded.