China in Transition

Higher Expectations for the Fifth, Rather than Fourth, Generation of Leaders

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

At the recent 16th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, many party leaders of the "third generation" including President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongji stepped down, handing the reins of power to a new leadership centered around General Secretary Hu Jintao of the "fourth generation." The focus of attention in the latest personnel changes was the so-called changing of the guard in both the Politburo, which leads the country, and the Central Committee. However, when we consider the fact that the nine new members of the Politburo's Standing Committee - just like their seven predecessors elected five years ago - belong to the "old generation," graduating from university before the Cultural Revolution and serving as bureaucrats who held various important party and government posts, we cannot expect them to implement drastic reforms.

Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party's "first generation," was a revolutionary who won the support of farmers and wrested power from the Kuomintang, thereby ending years of civil strife and division to unify China. Although the Mao government failed to establish a viable economy, Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the "second generation," succeeded in putting China on the path of prosperity through his open market reforms. What these two leaders have in common is that they were both true politicians who had a vision and pressed forward with reforms without fearing the risks.

In contrast, the leaders of the "third generation," such as Jiang Zemin, are mostly technocrats who studied science and engineering at school. They are the survivors of a selection process under which a handful of elite who swore loyalty to the Communist Party were assessed based on a demerit system. As bureaucrats, they were evaluated on how they carried out the tasks assigned to them with the least number of mistakes, not on whether they achieved stunning results by taking risks. As a result, it was the people with the fewest foes, not those with the greatest ability and popularity, who were chosen as leaders. In this regard, the members of the party leadership are far from fulfilling the image of what true politicians should be. In addition, the backgrounds of the leaders are very similar, and it is impossible for them to represent the interests of the majority of Chinese society, which has been diversifying into several strata. Furthermore, because these leaders have all been schooled in science and engineering, they have been unsuccessful in mapping out effective measures to tackle the wide range of political, economic and social problems confronting China from a broad perspective. At the Party Congress, most members of the "third generation" stepped down and the new "fourth generation" of leaders have come to the fore. However, the new generation has inherited all of the traits of the "third generation." A comparison between the old and new members of the Politburo Standing Committee, such as that between Jiang Zeming and Hu Jintao, shows that there is very little difference in their educational and professional backgrounds. Given the fact that Jiang Zemin will continue to be head of the Central Military Commission and that many of the new Standing Committee members are believed to be his proteges, we cannot but say that this changing of the guard was incomplete. As a matter of fact, Hu Jintao has already said at a news conference upon assuming his new post that he will carry on the policies of the Jiang Zemin leadership. As this shows, what was realized during the Congress was just a rejuvenation of the party leaders, not a generation change in the true sense of the word.

The newly elected leaders of the Politburo Standing Committee are all highly regarded as men who excel in handling practical business affairs, but what China really needs now, at a time when it must press forward with further reforms, are reformist politicians. Fortunately, many people of the "fifth generation" who are below 50 including some entrepreneurs, have been elected to the Central Committee. These people went to university in the years after the Cultural Revolution, passing the very competitive national university entrance examination that was restored in 1977. Many of them have also studied in Western countries such as the United States. If such people are chosen to lead the country at the 17th Congress to be held five years from now, then we will probably see real reforms in China, including democratization on the political front. In this regard, I am looking forward to the personnel changes that will take place five years down the road.

November 22, 2002

November 22, 2002