The best career move by rising political star Chen Min’er
may well have been his efforts 15 years ago to promote another phenom— Xi Jinping.
With Mr. Xi now starting a second five-year term as China’s top leader—and with the question looming of whether he will step down in 2022—Mr. Chen is poised to enter the upper ranks as a potential handpicked successor to his mentor.
has enjoyed a helicopter ride to the top,” said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It’s a signal that he’s certainly one of the favourites of Xi Jinping.
No Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s has picked his own successor. But Mr. Xi has shown impatience with such conventions.
In his first five years he commandeered decision-making, and the Communist Party Congress now under way is expected to grant him more authority for his next five.
After that, Mr. Xi faces retirement conventions intended to avoid the infighting and bloodshed that tore at the party during the later years of Mao Zedong —who ruled until he died—and after his passing.
Some party insiders say Mr. Xi wants to explore a leadership structure that echoes Russia’s under President Vladimir Putin. When Mr. Putin stepped aside as president after two terms in 2008 he left a trusted ally, Dmitry Medvedev, in his place. Back in the presidency since 2012, Mr. Putin has broad executive authority and could serve until 2024.
Mr. Xi, 64 years old, is keeping his options open, said ? Steve Tsang, director of the School of Oriental and African Studies China
Institute at the University of London. “I think it depends in five years’ time how powerful he has become,” said Mr. Tsang. “He may continue to rule. But if he thinks there is a need to formally stand down, he could hand over the presidency to one of his trusted younger colleagues.”
The most likely candidate, Mr. Tsang said, appears to be Mr. Chen.
When Mr. Xi governed the wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang in the 2000s, Mr. Chen, as propaganda director, was there to burnish his image.
After Mr. Xi became Communist Party general secretary five years ago, Mr. Chen’s career took off. He was appointed governor of impoverished Guizhou and then, in July, to head the megacity of Chongqing.
When the Party Congress ends this week, Mr. Chen, 57 years old, is expected to be named to the 25-member Politburo because of his role as party secretary of Chongqing.
He could also vault directly into the leadership’s inner sanctum—the Politburo Standing Committee—which could place him in pole position to succeed Mr. Xi, especially if other members of the new standing committee are too old to be considered leaders-in-waiting under the party’s recent retirement norms.
Mr. Chen has avoided the subject in recent meetings with foreign dignitaries and journalists, instead praising Mr. Xi’s leadership and policies. At a news conference Thursday at the party congress, Mr. Chen declined to take questions from foreign media. The Chinese media who were called upon didn’t ask about his promotion prospects.
Other potential successors include Hu Chunhua, the 54-year-old party secretary of prosperous Guangdong province, whose grooming began under Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao.
Mr. Chen joined the party and began a career in Zhejiang province’s propaganda agencies in the 1980s, when China
was opening up after years of isolation and testing free-market reforms.
A year after Beijing cracked down on the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, Mr. Chen wrote an article denouncing liberal Chinese journalists for fomenting unrest and forgetting their mission to serve the party.
“If the mouth ignores the brain, it will get sick. And if the mouth is sick, it will affect the whole body,” he wrote.
By the time Mr. Xi became party secretary of Zhejiang in 2002, Mr. Chen was directing all media in the province. As propaganda director, he oversaw publication of regular columns attributed to Mr. Xi in the Zhejiang Daily, the province’s major newspaper.
A book compiled from those columns was published in 2007, the year Mr. Xi entered the top leadership, giving nationwide exposure to his views on governance and society.
In 2012, Mr. Chen’s transfer to the hilly backwater of Guizhou put him on the front lines of one of Mr. Xi’s priorities—ridding China
of poverty. With cheap land, a cool climate and deep subsidies, Mr. Chen set about nurturing a data industry.
He secured prominent investors: Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , Foxconn Technology Group., Qualcomm Inc. and in a coup this year, Apple Inc.
Guizhou’s low-cost base and other incentives helped, but so did the fact that Mr. Chen was seen as a rising political star, executives at several companies said.
were certainly a consideration,” said a Foxconn executive, about the company’s Guizhou investment. Foxconn chairman “ Terry Gou is very sensitive to that.”
Jeremy Page and Xiao Xiao in Beijing contributed to this article
The Wall Street Journal