Supporting Article

Demystifying China’s New Leaders

Once again China is in the midst of political succession. A new generation of Chinese leaders, known as the “fourth generation,” is poised to take the helm of power in the country. Within a couple of years, members of this new generation will occupy some of the most important posts in the country such as secretary-general of the Party, president and premier of the PRC.

For China watchers, no issue has generated more anxiety and confusion than the question concerning the characteristics of Jiang Zemin’s successors. While there is little doubt that this generation will rule China for most of this decade and beyond, foreign observers’ knowledge of the political attitudes and policy orientation of new Chinese leaders is astonishingly limited. There are more myths, rumors and wishful thinking than thoughtful analysis and well-grounded assessment.

Two myths are prevalent among China watchers in the West. One is the perception that Chinese Communist leaders, including the members of the fourth generation, are ineffective, incompetent, politically-rigid and narrow-minded. According to this view, new leaders have come to power largely because of nepotism, and they are currently involved in a vicious power struggle, which may lead to a major internal crisis.

The second myth reasons that since some fourth generation leaders were trained in the West, especially in the United States, they may form a pro-American force in China’s policy-making circles. With the recent arrival of China’s new ambassador to the United States, Yang Jiechi, a man educated at the London School of Economics and with many years experience in Washington, there has been a surge of optimistic thinking in the West. According to this view, leaders in Taiwan and the United States anticipate dealing with new PRC leaders who share backgrounds similar to theirs. The hope is that distrust and misunderstanding will be replaced by mutual respect and cooperation in the relations across the Taiwan Strait—and across the Pacific Ocean.

Both myths—one based on ill-informed cynicism and the other on equally ill-informed optimism—are detrimental. If our perceptions of Chinese political succession are distorted, our assessment of China’s future will be too. The “coming of age” of the “fourth generation” cannot be truly understood until we demystify China’s new leaders.

Negative views of new Chinese leaders are not surprising—they reflect the demonization of China in the Western media after the Tiananmen incident. Yet ironically, under these “ineffective” and “incompetent” Chinese leaders, China has sustained remarkable economic growth and has maintained social stability, despite all the odds against the country.

Most Chinese leaders are quite competent. Collectively the fourth generation is arguably the least dogmatic and most capable among all political elite generations in PRC history. This can largely be attributed to the fact that this generation grew up during the Cultural Revolution—an era characterized by idealism, collectivism and radicalism. They were taught to sacrifice themselves for socialism. But as time passed, their faith was eroded and their dream was shattered.

In fact, members of this generation experienced ideological disillusionment twice. The first time was with Marx’s communism and Mao’s socialism. The second time was with Adam Smith’s “invisible hands.” In the early 1980s, many prominent members of the fourth generation were very enthusiastic about Western liberal economic theories. However, important events in the 1990s had a strong impact on them—for example, undesirable side effects resulting from China’s market reform; Russia’s shock therapy that led to only shock, but no therapy; and the East Asian financial crisis. Some have wondered if Adam Smith might have been as wrong as Karl Marx, although the consequences of their errors have been profoundly different. As a result, new leaders are far more interested in discussing issues than defending “isms.”

In many ways, fourth generation leaders are probably more capable than their predecessors in dealing with the tough issues that China faces. This is related to their experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Many, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, two front runners of the fourth generation, were sent to remote areas where they spent over a decade. Enormous physical hardship and an ever-changing political environment nurtured within them some valuable traits such as adaptability, endurance and political sophistication.

It is true that nepotism in various forms (such as school ties, blood ties and patron-client ties) has played a very important role in the recruitment of new Chinese leaders. But at the same time, there has been a strong effort by the political establishment to curtail such nepotism. In recent years, a number of institutional mechanisms have been adopted explicitly to prevent various forms of favoritism. These mechanisms include elections within the Party, term limits, age limits for retirement and regular reshuffling of both provincial and military leaders.

As a result of these institutional developments, no faction, no institution, no region and no individual can dominate power. Everyone has to compromise, and those who are skillful in coalition building are often favored. Of course, factional politics was, is, and will be a key part of the Chinese political process. But what is most evident in Chinese politics today is the broad shift from an all-powerful single leader, such as Mao or Deng, to a greater collective leadership, which is now characteristic of the Jiang era. The fourth generation will rely even more on power sharing, negotiation, consultation and consensus building if they wish to govern effectively. If the above analysis is valid, China’s political succession will not be as abrupt and violent as some China watchers predict.

As for the second and more optimistic myth, evidence thus far tends to dispel this perception. Some members in the fourth generation studied in the West, but their overall presence on both the national and provincial levels of leadership is still marginal. Although it is expected that more Western-trained Chinese leaders like Ambassador Yang will enter the top leadership, they will still be a minority in the foreseeable future and they will be especially cautious to avoid being seen as pro-West or pro-America.

Furthermore, those who studied in the West may not have a favorable view of the Western political and economic system. In recent years, the harshest condemnation against the U.S. policy toward China came from a few members of Chinese think tanks who recently received Ph.Ds in political science from American universities. The centuries-long victim mentality inflicted on the Chinese people by foreign powers remains strong among the new generation of leaders.

Because of recent troubling events (e.g. the U.S.-led effort to block Beijing’s bid to host the 2008 Olympics, the U.S. plan to include Taiwan in its Theatre Missile Defence program and the collision of airplanes near Hainan island), Chinese nationalism is rising. China’s new leaders are cynical about the moral superiority of the U.S., resentful of American arrogance, and doubtful about the total adoption of a Western economic and political system. Yet, even during crises, such as the tragic incident in Belgrade, they understand the need for cooperation instead of confrontation. Their policies toward the U.S. will be firm, but not aggressive. New Chinese leaders all see reunification with Taiwan as a matter of sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security.

In terms of China’s domestic politics, I believe that, because of their generational characteristics, the new leaders will accelerate China’s political reform, but modify the pace and emphasis of economic reforms. It is likely that they will consolidate China’s legal system; institutionalize the so-called “inner Party democracy;” and redefine the Chinese Communist Party to include more intellectuals, entrepreneurs and technical specialists. The new leaders will be more likely to rely on government policies to reduce growing disparities between coastal and inland regions, between urban and rural areas, between non-state and state-owned firms. The establishment of the social safety net will be a priority.

What are the implications of all these factors for the U.S.? What, if anything, can Americans do to affect the dynamics of China’s political development, including its leadership succession? How will the watching world and its various regions be affected by the US-China relationship? These are not easy questions. Our answers depend not only on our knowledge of China’s past, our understanding of its present and our assessment of its future, but also on our own worldviews.

Three words, however, come to mind: wisdom, patience and humility. Karl Rove, senior advisor to President Bush, recently used these words to describe the way in which the new administration should act. I believe that the exact same words—wisdom, patience and humility—are also essential to our policymakers in dealing with China’s political succession and the future of US-China relations.

We need wisdom at this crucial time in US-China relations as both sides struggle to find the right policies toward each other. It is naive to assume that new Chinese leaders, especially those who were trained in the West, will provide opportunities for the U.S. to remold China in the line of American interests. But it is even more dangerous to assume that a so-called “China threat” is imminent, and that a major conflict between China and the U.S. is inevitable. For China, a radical and xenophobic foreign policy probably requires a charismatic and xenophobic Chinese leader, but no such leader exists now nor in the foreseeable future.

We need patience if we really want China to move in the direction we prefer. At present, Chinese leaders face many perplexing economic and sociopolitical challenges at home and daunting policy choices abroad. China’s road to a more open and liberal state will not be smooth. Similarly, the progression of Sino-US relations has never been linear. Its twists and turns have taught us to be patient.

Finally, we need a sense of humility. Two realities should make our policy makers humble. First, U.S. influence over China’s domestic politics, including its political succession, is very limited. And second, global peace and prosperity in the 21st century requires a cooperative and responsible China. Our humility will lead us to seek a constructive relationship with China’s new leaders. Humility is always a sign of strength, not weakness.

China is undergoing rapid economic and socio-political changes. Greater changes seem inevitable as this more energetic, more committed and less dogmatic generation of leaders aggressively rises to power in this most populous country of the world.

Image credit: The People’s Republic by Ahmad Rafiuddin via Flickr.
Share to Social Media

Cheng Li

Cheng Li is professor of government at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. His new book, China’s Leaders: The New Generation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) discusses these issues in more detail.View Full Bio