Book Reviews

The Fourth Generation

China’s New Leaders: the New Generation by Cheng Li, Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, 2001, 256 pages. ISBN 0847694976 (paperback). Cost: US$22.95.

Reviewed by Greg Moore

Cheng Li’s new book is a welcome addition to the literature on Chinese politics and its new generation of leaders, for it will undoubtedly be a member of this new cohort of leaders who will take the mantle from President Jiang Zemin when he steps down in the fall of 2002 at the 16th Party Congress. The book takes an elite-based, generational approach to understanding China’s political scene, because for Cheng, change in China has traditionally come with the passing and ascendancy of generations to and from power. The cover of his book is illustrative of his approach. From top to bottom are photos of generations one through four—Mao Zedong at the top, followed by second generation leaders Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, then the third generation’s Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and Li Peng, followed by the fourth generation’s Hu Jintao, Zeng Qinghong, Wen Jiabo, and Li Changchun. Cheng sees the last four as the top contenders for major leadership roles in the coming decades, and Hu Jintao as the most likely candidate to succeed Jiang Zemin.

Generally born between 1941 and 1956, the fourth generation is characterized as having particular traits which make it distinct from the previous three, and which, Cheng argues, make it likely to lead differently. First, it is a generation of technocrats like the third (most are engineers), though many members were trained in the West rather than in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Cheng maintains that technocrats tend to see the advance of science and technology as all-important, defining progress in these terms, and makes an interesting argument that engineers are likely to run a country in a very different way than would, say, lawyers. The number of university graduates in this new generation of leaders is much higher than in the previous three (rising from 23 percent to 92 percent among Politburo members between 1978 and 1998). As in previous generations, most are males, but the number of female members of the top leadership pool Cheng sampled was higher than in previous years. China also has a disproportionate number of top leaders from a handful of top universities, indicating that networks (guanxi) are still an important factor in Chinese politics.

The single most important characteristic of the fourth generation of Chinese leaders, according to Cheng Li, is that they are all survivors of the Cultural Revolution (CR). Most were “sent down” to the countryside for up to ten years to “learn from the peasants.” This generation “benefited from neither Maoist revolution nor Dengist reform,” as its members were too young to become leaders under Mao and were exploited as Red Guards during the CR. By missing ten years of education while most schools were closed during the CR, most were cheated out of progress made during the Dengist economic reforms, making them the most likely candidates for xia gang (unemployment) in recent years (p. 179).

According to Cheng, what this fourth generation learned from the CR was to distrust ideology and idealism, to be skeptical about both centrally-planned and market-driven economies for many missed out on the fruits of both. They also learned to be independent thinkers, since they’d been disappointed so many times by “orthodoxy,” and to better understand and sympathize with the poor in the countryside. Having seen the chaos of the CR, they have concluded that social stability is the key ingredient for growth and prosperity (p. 181-191).

Cheng’s conclusion is that China’s fourth generation of leaders “will rely more on power sharing, negotiation, consultation, and consensus building than their predecessors” (p. 235). This is because of the fourth generation’s lack of the “legendary backgrounds” of their predecessors, which afforded them mythical legitimacy and a lack of political solidarity (presumably because of the lack of an ideological orthodoxy). It is also due to reform-era developments that inhibit leaders from amassing power and influence as in the past, the growing importance of public opinion, and the simultaneity of ideology’s decline and pragmatism’s rise.

Cheng also makes the case that the fourth generation will likely move China toward a more representative and democratic political system. He correctly notes that there is an increasing awareness among the leadership that greater political reform is needed, evidenced by China’s overtures toward building a rule of law. China has now, and is currently training, far more lawyers than ever in its history,[1] and its legislature is setting new records every year for the number of new laws passed. As technocrats rather than ideologues, the fourth generation is more likely to employ “rational” methods to solve China’s social, political, economic and legal problems, which Cheng believes can only come about by greater reliance on think tanks, consultative bodies and pluralistic processes. Another promising factor mentioned by Cheng is that nepotism has come under increasing attack, which means political players will have to survive more on “what they know” than “who they know.”

Yet there is one important factor that Cheng Li has left out—one of the strongest reasons to believe he is right about a trend toward political reform despite things such as the continuing crackdown on the Falungong. The Chinese government has in recent years been gradually introducing grassroots level democracy in China’s villages, including village elections, which has been monitored by Western observers under the auspices of the Carter Center, including Stanford’s Larry Diamond. Professor Diamond, an expert on democratic transitions, had this to say about his experiences in Jilin Province in March, 1998.

What we have seen here shows that China is in the process of changing politically, and village elections are an important part of that….We have only seen a few examples, nevertheless what we have seen is significant and I think more Americans should be aware of the fact that there are the beginnings of a democratic process at the village level in China.[2]

A great deal of additional research corroborates Diamond’s statement. Moreover, the Carter Center has also reached an agreement with China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs on a project that includes “exchanges and visits for training in election management procedures and work with the ministry to develop civic education programmes in China.” Included in this are plans for Chinese delegates to observe primary elections in the US state of Georgia.[3] All of this bodes well for Cheng’s notion that political reform is likely to expand in China.

Overall I liked the book, although it is quite academic. It fills an important gap in the English language literature on the new generation of leadership rising through the ranks of the Chinese government. For anyone interested in attempting to gauge China’s political trajectory and succession politics over the course of the next few years, this book will prove a handy tool. One pointed criticism of the book might be that its strength is also its weakness. By focusing on a generational theory of politics in China, it doesn’t account for the potential of dissident groups in China (e.g., the Falungong), or factors “outside” of China (e.g., Taiwan), to rock the Chinese ship of state, bringing changes in the political landscape that might look very different than the picture Cheng Li has so skillfully painted. Yet I must say that barring any of these more unpredictable events, I find Cheng Li’s account a compelling one.


  1. ^ In the early 1980s China had 3000 lawyers, whereas in 2001 it had 150,000 (Cheng, p. 238). 
  2. ^ As quoted in an interview in Liang, Chao, “Election Process Still Improving, US Visitors Say,” China Daily, Thursday, March 12, 1998, p. 3, China’s daily, official English-language newspaper. 
  3. ^ Liang, Chao, “China, US Agree on Grassroots Election Data Bank,” China Daily, Monday, March 16, 1998, p. 3.
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Greg Moore

Greg Moore is a doctoral candidate and assistant director of the Center for China-United States Cooperation at the University of Denver. He has taught and studied in China for four and a half years.View Full Bio