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Cheng Li, Ph.D.
Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Professor of Government, Hamilton College
In his seven-decade-long academic career, the great British historian, Joseph Needham, tried to explain what Sinologists later called “the Needham Paradox.” It was a paradox that, while traditional China had many talented people and was advanced in science, the country declined during the middle part of the last millennium. According to Needham, a primary reason for the decline of China was that the country “lost its edge” by suppressing technicians and merchants “whose power posed a threat to the Emperor.” The conditions in China that Needham described have changed profoundly since the mid-1990s. This is particularly evident in the recently held 16th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The nine members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in the country, are all engineers by training. Furthermore, the Party Congress has codified in the CCP constitution what is already true in practice—enthusiastically recruiting merchants, known as “entrepreneurs” by the Chinese, or “capitalists” to western reporters. Do the new leadership and the new constitution that was amended in the 16th Party Congress mean the end of the “Needham Paradox?” Will Chinese economic and political development, as a result of this historical change, be particularly dynamic in the future? To a certain extent, China has already reemerged as an economic powerhouse in
today’s world. On the political front, this Party Congress marked a shift of power to the socalled “fourth generation” of Chinese leaders (the first three generations were represented by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin, respectively). The fourth generation of leaders led by Hu Jintao has not only held almost all top ministerial and provincial leadership posts, but has also occupied over 80 percent of the seats on the 16th Central Committee. It was the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that a power transition took place in an orderly, peaceful and institutionalized way. It is too early, however, to determine the true significance of China’s ongoing transformation and the 16th Party Congress. China’s twists and turns in the past century, as well as the rollercoaster ride of Sino-U.S. relations during the past few years, have taught us to be cautious. Even today, China remains a paradox in many important ways.
The Paradox of China and its Political Succession
Present-day China is indeed a dialectic of hope and fear—a paradox of promises and pitfalls. While that has always been true to some degree, the broad scale of contrasting scenarios is remarkable. On the positive side, there has been a triumphant mood in the country over the past two years. Beijing’s successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics, Shanghai’s equally
successful bid to host the 2010 World Expo, the Chinese soccer team’s qualifying for its firstever World Cup Games (although it did not score), and China’s accession to the WTO have all brought pride, optimism and a sense of fulfillment to the Chinese people. Never since the Opium Wars has the Chinese nation spoken more loudly and clearly about its courage, commitment and confidence in integrating with the outside world than today. On the negative side, enormous economic disparity has become, in my view, the most daunting problem the country now faces. During the past two decades, China has changed from one of the most equitable countries in the world in terms of income distribution to one of the least equitable. In addition, rampant official corruption; an unprecedented, high unemployment rate; growing rural discontent, especially in the wake of China’s entry into the WTO; environmental degradation; and frequently occurring industrial incidents (the so-called tofu projects that are as breakable as bean curd, as Premier Zhu Rongji has characterized them); all seem to suggest that the Chinese regime is sitting atop a volcano of mass social disturbance. China’s political succession and leadership change have also been filled with paradoxes. Jockeying for power among various factions has been fervent and protracted, but the power struggle has not led to a systemic crisis as was true during the reigns of Mao and Deng. While nepotism and favoritism in elite recruitment have become prevalent, educational credentials and technical expertise have, at the same time, become prerequisites. Regional representation has gained importance in the selection of Central Committee members, but leaders who come from coastal regions dominate the new Politburo, especially its Standing Committee. Regulations such as term limits and an age requirement for retirement have been implemented at various levels of the Chinese leadership, but these regulations and norms do not appear to restrain the power of Jiang Zemin, the 76-year-old “new paramount” leader. While
the military’s influence on political succession has declined during the past decade, the Central Military Commission (CMC) is still very powerful. Although Hu Jintao did succeed Jiang as general secretary of the Party, Jiang’s decision to retain his chairmanship of the CMC and to appoint many of his cronies to the new Politburo Standing Committee apparently made this transition of power incomplete. Not surprisingly, these contradictory scenes in China and these paradoxical phenomena in Chinese elite politics have created much confusion and uncertainty. Unfortunately, there are more myths and speculations than thoughtful analysis and well-grounded assessment among China scholars. Most China watchers have been obsessed with the issue of Jiang Zemin’s retirement. While the issue of Jiang’s role after the 16th Party Congress is important, many students of Chinese politics have failed to understand the institutional restraints that individual leaders, including Jiang himself, have to confront. Some speculate about the power struggle among rising political stars without paying much attention to the political forces and regional interests that these new leaders represent. Others assume that the future will emulate the recent past with Jiang playing the same behind-the-scenes role that Deng did, and that the fourth generation leaders will continue the policies of their predecessors. Jiang’s political manipulation and his seeming “political triumphs” in the Party Congress might, in fact, have revealed his own weaknesses and insecurities. It is revealing that the delegates gave Hu Jintao the highest number of votes (only one of the 2,132 delegates did not vote for him), while by contrast, Jiang’s body guard, You Xigui, received the lowest vote in the election of alternates; his former personal secretary Huang Liman received the third lowest vote; and his confidant, Minister of Education Chen Zhili, failed to obtain a seat on the Politburo. Though Hu Jintao is surrounded by Jiang’s protégés on the Standing Committee, these protégés are also vulnerable because of the political favoritism through which they
obtained their seats. Some may soon climb on Hu’s bandwagon. It is also too simplistic to assume that the new leaders will merely follow Jiang’s policies. Of course, China will not take a dramatic turn as the new leaders assume power. In fact, members of the fourth generation have already participated in the policy-making process and many have served as chief advisers to Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji. Yet, the history of the PRC indicates that each generation of leaders has its own mandate and its own policy priorities. New leaders often strive to fix the problems of their predecessors. This raises some important questions: How will the fourth generation leaders regard Jiang’s legacy—the accomplishments achieved and the problems that have arisen in both domestic and foreign policy? How capable as a team will the fourth generation leaders be in overcoming the pitfalls of the Jiang era and in carrying out their own mandate? What, then, is the mandate of the fourth generation? The answers to these questions lie in an analysis of the characteristics of the fourth generation of leaders.
Characteristics of the Fourth Generation of Leaders
Each generation has distinctive characteristics fostered by the socio-political environment during its formative years. Consequently, generational cohorts often share collective behavioral attributes. In the PRC, the concept of generations—or more precisely, political elite generations—has also been based on the distinctive past experiences of elites. The first three elite generations in the PRC have been identified as: the “Long March generation,” the “AntiJapanese War generation,” and the “Socialist Transformation generation.” China’s fourth generation of leaders is comprised of those who had their formative years during the Cultural Revolution (CR). Now they are in their late 40s and 50s. Most of them were at various levels in their education (elementary school, high school or college) or had just grad-
uated from college in 1966 when the CR began. While there is a 15-year span between the oldest and youngest, all members of this generation acquired their first political experiences during the course of the CR. The Cultural Revolution, arguably the most extraordinary event in contemporary China, and the dramatic changes that occurred thereafter, had an ever-lasting impact on the collective characteristics of this generation. As a result, the fourth generation of leaders is probably the least ideological, most capable, most diverse, and most concerned with coalition building of all elite generations in the history of the CCP. These generalizations constitute four main characteristics of the fourth generation leaders. First, the new leaders are less dogmatic and more open-minded than their predecessors were. This is because most of them were Mao’s “Red Guards,” the most active participants in the CR. They grew up in a political environment characterized by idealism, moralism, and radicalism. They were taught to sacrifice themselves for socialism and revolution. But as time passed, their faith was eroded, their devotion was betrayed, their dream was shattered, their education was lost, and their careers were interrupted. They had firsthand knowledge of the human catastrophes caused by the Communist ideology. Compared to their predecessors, fourth generation leaders are far more interested in discussing issues than defending “isms.” Similar to the leadership of post-Communist Russia, China’s new generation of leaders may lack a shared commitment to the existing political system. Second, the new leaders are more capable than their predecessors were. This is largely because of the hardships they endured at a young age. A majority of the fourth generation leaders, though almost all attended college, had work experience as farmers and workers. For example, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao (who will likely succeed Zhu Rongji as premier next March), both spent over a decade in Gansu, one of the poorest provinces in the country. Many ministers and governors in the fourth
generation were “sent-down youths” who worked as farmers in the early 1970s. Enormous physical hardship and an ever-changing political environment nurtured within them valuable traits such as adaptability, endurance, grassroots consciousness and political sophistication. The new leaders have a deep understanding of the “real China,” and its severe problems. As a result, they are probably more innovative in dealing with these problems. For example, Zeng Qinghong, a new member of the Politburo Standing Committee, is often identified as Jiang Zemin’s “brain.” As Jiang’s chief strategist, Zeng helped orchestrate many important political moves and policy initiatives. A large number of prominent leaders of the fourth generation have served as provincial chiefs. The first and foremost responsibility of a provincial chief is usually to foster economic development in the province in which he or she serves. At the 16th Party Congress, provincial leaders obtained the largest representation on both the Politburo and the Central Committee. All four provincial Party secretaries who served on the 15th Politburo were promoted to serve on the 16th Politburo Standing Committee. Within the new 24-member Politburo, twenty (83.3 percent) have served as top provincial leaders, and ten (41.7 percent) held provincial leadership posts when they were selected. At present, eight Politburo members (33.3 percent) remain as provincial Party secretaries. The provinces that these leaders have governed are large socioeconomic entities. It is often said that a province is to China what a country is to Europe. China’s provincial chiefs, like top leaders in European nations, have constantly been concerned about regional economic development and have coped with daunting challenges such as unemployment, political stability and social welfare needs in their jurisdictions. For China’s future national leaders, provincial administration provides an ideal training ground. Third, the new leaders are more diverse than their predecessors were in terms of political solidarity. Although fourth generation leaders
share similar memories of the Cultural Revolution, they often have a wide spectrum of political affiliations and class backgrounds. Some were on opposite sides during the Cultural Revolution. This is evident by the three different periods during which they joined the CCP, since the criteria for political recruitment during these periods were profoundly different. This is in sharp contrast to the previous generations of leaders, who usually shared strong bonding experiences such as the Long March and the Anti-Japanese War. Another important indication of the diversity of the new leaders is reflected in the difference in their educational and occupational backgrounds. Although technocrats have dominated the top leadership, there are more economists, financial experts and lawyers on the 16th Central Committee than any previous one. For example, Xi Jinping (Party secretary of Zhejiang), Li Keqiang (governor of Henan), Cao Jianming (vice president of Supreme Court), Zhan Xuan (president of Higher People’s Court), Yin Yicui (deputy Party secretary of Shanghai), and Yuan Chunqing (deputy Party secretary of Shaanxi) all received law degrees. They were all born in the 1950s, and all serve on the 16th Central Committee. Engineers, economists, financial experts and lawyers are all professional experts, but variations in their expertise will likely lead to differences in their political perspectives and policy choices. The diversification of leaders in terms of professional backgrounds is partially related to the dissimilar sources of elite recruitment. There are now more diversified channels through which new leaders can advance their political careers. Political networks such as the “Shanghai gang,” the “princelings” (taizidang), “the Qinghua clique,” the “fellow provincials” (tongxiang), the “Chinese Communist Youth League officials” (tuanpai), and the “personal secretary clusters” (mishuqun) have served as important sources of elite recruitment among the fourth generation leaders. In addition, some new political groups, for example,
“entrepreneurs from stock-holding firms and joint ventures” (hezi qiyejia) and “the returnees from study overseas” (haiguipai), have also emerged as distinct elite groups within the central leadership. The growing diversification of political networks may contribute to the dispersion of power and highlight the need for sharing power. The most important intra-generational tension within the new leadership may be geographical. In fact, conflicts of interest between region-based factions during this time of political succession are more transparent than ever before. This is exemplified by the contrasts between Hu Jintao and Zeng Qinghong, the two most powerful figures in the post-Jiang era. Hu and Zeng represent two different sociopolitical groups and geographical regions. These differences are reflected in their distinct personal careers and political associations. Hu Jintao comes from a non-official family background. His political association was largely with the Chinese Communist Youth League. Hu has spent most of his adult life in some of the poorest provinces in China’s inland region, including 14 years in Gansu, three years in Guizhou, and four years in Tibet. It might not be merely a coincidence that in the months prior to the 16th Party Congress, Hu frequently visited inland provinces such as Yunnan, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Qinghai, and Sichuan. In contrast, Zeng is a princeling with strong family ties. He is known for his political association with the “Shanghai gang.” Zeng has thus far spent almost his entire career in coastal regions such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong. This explains why, in recent years, he has attempted to form a political coalition primarily among those who live in the coastal region. Many provincial leaders in coastal provinces are princelings, for example, Governor of Liaoing, Bo Xilai; Party Secretary of Zhejiang, Xi Jinping; Party Secretary of Hebei, Bai Keming; and Party Secretary of Hainan, Wang Qishan. Zeng has also deliberately associated himself with returnees of study overseas, a main source of the future fifth gen-
eration of leaders. A large number of returnees, who do not necessarily come from Shanghai, have chosen to settle in Shanghai and other parts of coastal China. The tension and difference between Hu and Zeng, or what we may call “inland Hu” versus “coastal Zeng,” are obvious, but they may not lead to a vicious power struggle. This is because they share a need for cooperation. Hu has a majority of votes in the 16th Central Committee, but his inland officials have less experience or expertise in foreign trade, finance, technological development and largescale urban construction than their counterparts in coastal regions. As for Zeng, he has a majority of the votes in the Politburo and has been able to control economic and human resources. But if he does not demonstrate willingness to share power and resources, the potential backlash against him, the Shanghai Gang and the rich coastal region will be overwhelming. The dynamic interaction between Hu and Zeng is related to the fourth main characteristics of the new leaders: they are more aware of the need for coalition-building than their predecessors were. This is mainly due to the shift of the criteria for elite recruitment from revolutionary credentials to administrative skills. This explains why the top leaders of the fourth generation are all capable administrators and political tacticians. Wen Jiabao, for example, worked as a chief-of-staff for three bosses (Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and Jiang Zemin), two of whom were purged. He not only survived but also further advanced his career. Wen’s caliber as a superb administrator explains his legendary survival and success. All these characteristics of new leaders will shape their policies, both domestic and international. The fact that both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao were able to advance their careers from within China’s poorest region indicates they will be more sensitive to the needs and concerns of inland provinces. The Jiang era has been known for the growing economic disparity. Jiang has allocated too much economic
resource to Shanghai and other coastal cities while many inland cities have lagged far behind. Consequently, the issue of economic growth and social justice has reemerged. It is not difficult to imagine that the “Hu administration” will make a greater effort to reallocate resources from the coast to the inland in order to reduce regional economic disparity. The establishment of a social safety net, the stimulation of demand in the domestic market, and the development of an infrastructure in China’s inland region will be important agenda items for the fourth generation of leaders. The anticipated effort of the new leaders to achieve a balance between economic development and social justice is rational and timely. The mandate of the fourth generation is likely to accelerate political reforms. This is not because the new leaders are motivated by democratic ideals or ideas, but because they realize that their mission is to prevent the CCP’s sudden fall from power, which has occurred in many Communist or Leninist one-party regimes during the past decade. To a certain extent, China has experienced some important political developments during the Jiang era, for example, the emergence of NGOs, the rapid development of the legal profession, the growing concern about human rights, the commercialization of media, the diversification of sources of information, and local elections. All of the developments mentioned above— plus Jiang’s “three represents,” which broaden the CCP’s power base by recruiting entrepreneurs—have paved the way for further political transformation of the country. It is too early to assess how far and how fast the new leadership’s political reform will progress. To a certain extent, China’s political reform depends on a political environment, both domestic and international, that is conducive to bold political experimentation. Based on political discourse, initiatives, and signals articulated by new leaders and members of their think tanks, we may anticipate political reforms in the following five areas:
1. The so-called “intra-Party democracy” (dangnei minzhu), including elections in all levels of leadership, will be more effectively institutionalized. It will gradually make factional politics more transparent and legitimate. 2. A division among the functions of decisionmaking, policy implementation, and supervision will be better defined. Major policy decisions will be subjected to approval by a more collective leadership. 3. Provincial governments will have more say in the decision-making process in both the Party Congress and the National People’s Congress. 4. A consolidation of the legal system will take place, since some new leaders have been trained in law and the social sciences. 5. The new leaders will pursue structural change to better define the relationship among the State, the Party and the military. They may establish a national security council, a new state institution that will be above the Party and the military. The fact that none of the top leaders in the fourth generation has military background will lead them to consolidate civilian command over the military. These five aspects of political reform may not be seen as important in the eyes of some China watchers because none of these changes will lead to a multiparty system of democracy. Indeed, China does not seem ready for a multiparty political system. It is unlikely that any organized opposition will emerge to compete with the CCP in the near future. Yet, the legitimacy and transparency of factional politics within the CCP may turn out to be an important step toward a far-reaching transformation of China’s political system. New Chinese leaders’ inclination to pursue political reforms is not only driven by domestic pressure, but also by foreign policy concerns. The fourth generation of leaders will not change China’s foreign policy in terms of substance, but will make a great effort to change China’s image
in international affairs. Taiwan leader, Chen Shui-bian, often argues that a democratic Taiwan will not have any common ground with an authoritarian China. The new generation of leaders in China may well play the card of political reform on the mainland in order to lure the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese. Any major political move toward a more liberal and democratic China will have a strong impact on crossstrait relations. A factor that will contribute to the image change of China’s foreign policy is the growing number of western-trained leaders in China’s foreign policy circle. Many vice minister-level positions are held by western-trained leaders. They will be more visible in the years to come. Since these Chinese leaders attended the same schools as their counterparts in Taiwan and the United States, it will be difficult for them to criticize each other in ideological terms. It will be interesting to see the impact of this change on public opinion toward China. Top leaders in the fourth generation have little experience in foreign affairs. In fact, none of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee has a previous career in foreign services or foreign policy. Their primary agenda will be domestic economic growth, political institution building and social stability. Yet, this does not mean that they are ill-informed about the outside world. Many of them previously served as top leaders in China’s coastal cities and provinces such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang—some of the most cosmopolitan areas in the world. They have been deeply concerned with foreign policy issues, especially China’s economic integration with the global economy in an ever-changing environment. These new Chinese leaders are cynical about the moral superiority of the West, resentful of Western arrogance, and doubtful about the complete adoption of a Western political system in China. Yet, they will not refuse to learn from the West, including Western political ideas and governmental structures. They are interested in having a dialogue with the West. Even during
crises such as the tragic incidents in Belgrade and the EP-3 incident, they understood the need for cooperation rather than confrontation. What has emerged from the recent incidents should not be apprehension over how quickly and unpredictably Sino-U.S. relations may change, but rather how rationally and capably the top leaders, on both sides, are able to respond to crises.
Implications for the United States Interests
What are the implications of new Chinese leaders and the political trends in China for the United States? One can argue that these political developments in China, especially the ongoing peaceful transition of power to the fourth generation, converge with the interests of the United States. The United States does not want to see the reemergence of a paramount authoritarian Chinese leader or the rise of a strong Chinese military regime. Chinese history shows that a radical and xenophobic foreign policy often required a charismatic (and paranoid) leader. None of top leaders of the fourth generation seems to have such characteristics. China’s new leaders are, of course, not a monolithic group. There have been and will continue to be important variations among them. But, it is important that we do not identify these leaders using stereotypes such as conservatives and liberals, hardliners and softliners, pro-West and anti-West, pro-globalization and anti-globalization. The tension of these Chinese leaders has more to do with their conflicting interests, determined by their generational differences, factions, regions, and social strata, than their differences in ideologies. These leaders generally have valid concerns. The United States’ leaders should attempt to meet with, and continue dialogue with, various groups in the Chinese leadership. The United States leaders should explain more fully U.S. interests, values and principals. It would be ineffective, with possible unintended consequences, if the United States should support one group and oppose another.
Because of the collective characteristics of the fourth generation leaders, they will likely run the country for ten years or beyond. The fifth generation of leaders, which will include more Western-trained returnees, may take a long time to move to a more centrist position in Chinese politics. Therefore, it will be a mistake for the United States to place hope solely on the fifth generation, and thus lose the great opportunity to work with the fourth generation in various arenas that are important to both countries. The fourth generation leaders are capable people, but it remains to be seen whether they are capable enough to handle the daunting challenges that China faces today. One can argue that some cleavages within the fourth generation of leaders, especially the lack of consensus on major social and economic policies, are so fundamental that compromise will become very difficult, if not impossible. On the international front, while the September 11th terrorist attacks reduced tensions in U.S.-China relations, China has been surrounded by an extremely unstable and increasingly unpredictable external environment. Besides, the issue of Taiwan and other problems in U.S.China relations, though no longer imminent, still exist. Therefore, the United States should also be prepared for a scenario that may be unpleasant for both China and the rest of the world, including the United States. New technocratic leaders in China are not democrats, but they do not have an ideology
fundamentally hostile to American values. The Chinese leadership will become increasingly diversified. More lawyers, entrepreneurs, public intellectuals, and social advocates will permeate the upper tiers of power and participate in the political process and discourse. China's road to a more open and liberal state will not be smooth. But its ongoing effort to achieve political institutionalization and a more collective leadership will most likely proceed in that direction. The United States should welcome this development, because global peace and prosperity in the 21st century requires a stable, cooperative, and responsible China.
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