Seven rising stars tipped to lead sixth generation of China's leaders
They were born in the 1960s, grew up in a time of economic change and could finally deliver on reform, writes Keith Zhai
As China prepares to usher in a new leadership this autumn, eyes are not only on Hu Jintao's likely successors - Xi Jinping and the other so-called fifth generation Communist Party leaders - but the chosen few expected to come to power a decade from now.
Already, observers have widely identified seven up-and-coming party officials tipped to be among those presented to the Great Hall of the People when the sixth generation takes the helm after the 20th national party congress in 2022.
These rising stars, who include Hu Chunhua , the party chief of Inner Mongolia , and Sun Zhengcai , party chief in Jilin province, are largely unknown outside their relatively small spheres of influence. But that will change as fourth-generation party leaders use the coming reshuffle to position them for future advancement.
The seven have different backgrounds, but they share much in common. All were children in the 1960s, amid the fear and chaos of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, and came of age amid the optimism of the boom times created by second-generation leader Deng Xiaoping's "opening up" in the late 1970s.
They were among the first to seek higher education after the Cultural Revolution subsided and the universities reopened. All seven hold master's degrees from top mainland universities. Where many of their predecessors, such as Hu and Xi, were trained as engineers, the sixth-generation prospects include a lawyer, an economist and an agronomist.
Four of the seven have come up through the Communist Youth League, a key base of support and a talent training ground for Hu Jintao.
While they did not travel abroad for education - as is now common for young Chinese - the sixth generation has had more exposure to Western ideas than their predecessors and are more comfortable with the capitalistic practices once shunned by party doctrine.
"Those born in the '60s have a broader and deeper knowledge base," said Professor Wang Yukai , of the Chinese Academy of Governance. "It shows the trend. China changed from being ruled by revolutionaries to scientists and now the social scientists.
"The younger generation has brought innovative ideas and energy to the party, which could also enhance the governance of the party," Wang said, adding that movers and shakers of the sixth generation seem more liberal and open to new ideas.
As such, some analysts feel the sixth generation could be the one that finally delivers the political reform that Hu and leaders of the fourth generation have only spoken about in abstract terms.
Others, such as Professor Wu Hui, of the Central Party School's party-building department, are not so sure. Wu said that changes from within were slow because the party is the ultimate authority.
"Many presidents in the US and European countries are also very young, but they don't make too many stupid mistakes because their society is supervised by law," he said. "But in China, the party is powerful but the law is weak and the party is superior to law."
Also, despite occasional talk about increasing the diversity of party leadership, the top sixth-generation prospects are all men, meaning that if other contenders don't emerge, Beijing will be ruled exclusively by men for another 20 years.
Aside from Hu Chunhua and Sun, the sixth generation's cast of rising stars includes: Lu Hao , the youth league's first secretary; Fujian Governor Su Shulin; Hebei Governor Zhang Qingwei ; Xinjiang party chairman Nur Bekri; and Hunan party boss Zhou Qiang.
In appearance, the seven look much like their party predecessors: dark suits and jet-black pompadours. They are nonetheless part of a wave of younger, better educated cadres getting leadership posts as the central government seeks to bolster its reserves of candidates for higher office.
Some 29 per cent of the roughly 400 people who sit on the party's provincial standing committees were born in the 1960s, according to figures reported by state media in July. That is more than three times the number selected from that decade five years ago, a greater increase than one would expect due to age alone.
Of the group, 37 are women, four more than five years ago.
Unlike those who reached adulthood during the Cultural Revolution, few children born in the 1960s were "sent down" to work in factories and farms. Still, many felt the effects of Mao's movement, suffering through purges, famine and other manifestations of the chairman's personality cult.
They were among those best positioned to profit when Deng's policies suddenly brought business back to life, relaxed social control and opened the country to foreigners and foreign investment.
Liu Junsheng, a professor of public administration at the China University of Political Science and Law, who has spent the last decade researching the 1960s generation, described its members as "more familiar with economic development theory than communist theory".
"The 1960s generation has very little understanding of the party's revolutionary tradition, as they haven't been through that era," Liu said. "Instead they grew up in the era of change."
Liu's research into the latest party personnel figures released in July show they are, as a rule, highly educated. All of the more than 170 ministry-level officials born in the 1960s have university degrees. Nearly 90 per cent have master's degrees.
The seven rising stars have been selected in part because the praise they receive in the state-run media suggests they have support for future appointments. The official press routinely describes them as down-to-earth, honest, diligent and frugal.
But analysts are quick to point out that the entire 1960s generation of party officials has come up through a time of seemingly omnipresent corruption as powerful cadres sought a larger share of the country's rapidly growing wealth.
Party disciplinary authorities reported penalising 136,670 officials for corruption last year - up from 106,626 people in 2009. Analysts said most party officials have been involved in some level of corruption in the past 30 years.
"It's a problem for the entire generation," Liu said. "It's a generation of people who were born in the years of famine in the 1960s and lost their soul during the gold rush in the 1980s. They don't have a belief in anything but money."
One political strength for four of the rising stars is their ties to the Communist Youth League. Lu, Hu Chunhua and Zhou have each served terms as the group's first secretary. Nur Bekri led Xinjiang University's youth league early in his career.
In the youth league, young officials quickly gain knowledge about internal party decision-making and work closely with powerful officials, such as former youth league leader Hu Jintao. Such ties have led mainlanders to describe such league alumni as the tuanpai, or "league faction".
Promoting officials from the youth league could also be a positive for citizens who want cleaner public officials. Since league positions have little real power, the group is believed to have less corruption within its ranks.
But having a top leadership made up largely of the tuanpai also has drawbacks, analysts say. Youth league jobs are generally not demanding, meaning its officials receive few of the tests and challenges that might best prepare them for high-level posts.
The rush of ambitious young officials looking to use the youth league as a political stepping stone also risks undercutting its purpose to maintain a connection between the party and the people. And too many promotions for tuanpai could hurt morale among officials excluded from the club.
"To work in the youth league is a safe job, and one can easily obtain a high ranking at a relatively young age," Wu said. "Their easy promotions could damage the enthusiasm of non- tuanpai officials."
It will be at least a decade before China learns the full potential of the sixth generation and whether they envision the sort of change the country wants.
One analyst cautioned that a lot could happen in the next 10 years to change the cast of rising stars, as their fortunes rise and fall.
The first clues may come in the years after the 18th party congress, when the first members of the sixth generation receive some of the country's toughest jobs.
"I'm not sure if the '60s generation will push the envelope on political reforms," Liu said. "In China, a leader can only make reform happen by sacrificing himself. But if he could actually make it, he would become a hero."