When US diplomats in China scanned the political landscape this year for officials on a fast track to the Communist Party's top ranks, one name jumped out: Hu Chunhua.
So in June, the US ambassador, Gary F Locke, travelled to Inner Mongolia, the coal-rich region of grasslands
and boom cities, where Hu is party chief. At a banquet in Hohhot, the regional capital, Hu proudly opened a bottle of local liquor, and Locke joined in a toast.
Hu's rising star got brighter this month when he was named one of 15 new members on the party's 25-seat Politburo. Political analysts say he could be on track to ascend to the Politburo's elite standing committee at the next party congress, in 2017. That would put him in the running for the top party job - and the mantle of leader of China - when Xi Jinping, the new party chief, steps down after his expected two five-year terms.
Hu is the most prominent of a clutch of political stars known as China's "sixth generation." They were handpicked by party leaders and elders years ago to succeed Xi's fifth generation (the first generation was that of Mao Zedong). Now, those politicians are being slotted into some of the most important posts across China.
Political insiders say Hu will probably be sent soon to Guangdong, a coastal province that is central to China's export economy. His closest rival, Sun Zhengcai, whom Locke also met this year, was posted this month to Chongqing, the booming southwest municipality of 31 million once run by Bo Xilai, the disgraced party aristocrat.
If Hu and Sun both make it onto the standing committee in 2017, they would be in position to vie for the top two party posts in 2022, which would confer on them the state titles of president or premier.
Even as prominent voices across China are calling for greater political openness and a more democratic selection process, the promotions suggest that party leaders want to institutionalise the path to power.