18th Party Congress

High hopes for reform from new generation of leaders in China

The incoming leadership experienced the Cultural Revolution and the 'liberal' 1980s, but commercial interests may be an obstacle to change

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2012, 10:14am

High hopes have been placed on the country's so-called fifth generation leaders, set to be handed the keys to power at the 18th Communist Party Congress next month.

The Chinese say that a person must first know a bitter taste before they understand sweet, and no generation in modern China knows this better than this group, now aged in their 50s and 60s. Many were just teenagers during the brutal chaos of the Cultural Revolution, who were Red Guards and later became "sent-down youth" packed off to the countryside to live in poverty and "learn from the peasants".

Nearly all went on to experience the heady, intellectual spring at Chinese universities in the 1970s and 1980s. Tiananmen was a watershed - for some it meant jail and exile, while others survived to ascend the ranks of the party bureaucracy to witness, and enjoy the fruits of modernisation. Given their background, it's not surprising that many Chinese regard the incoming leadership as the brightest to date - compassionate yet practical, visionary yet resilient.

Take, for example, Li Keqiang , most likely to be the next premier. He was remembered by contemporaries at Peking University as a quick-witted and outspoken law student who excelled in debates amid the liberal campus atmosphere at the time. "He was sharp, passionate and an independent thinker," recalled Dr Wang Juntao, a fellow student who nominated him to the post of student federation chairman.

Three decades on, their fates could not be more different. Li is the country's highest-ranking vice-premier and is poised to become the country's second most powerful leader at the party congress next month.

Wang, the chairman of the US-based China Democracy Party, is living in exile after having been jailed for being the "black hand" of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement.

It is these kinds of early encounters with people from different political and intellectual backgrounds that have raised hopes that the incoming leadership will have more modern views on governance and a broader world outlook than the older generation, analysts say.

"This leadership will probably be very different from the Hu Jintao generation," said Professor Michel Bonnin, a researcher at the Paris-based École des hautes études en sciences sociales' Centre for the Study of Contemporary and Modern China. "These people were at university when universities were absorbing Western ideas and there was a freer atmosphere on campus."

But it is also their first-hand experience of hardship in the countryside that raises expectations that the new leaders will have greater sympathy with the poor. As "educated youth", or zhi qing, many were sent to farms where they experienced the grinding poverty of the rural poor. It's hard to imagine that this would fail to have an impact on their lives, making them sensitive to the plight of ordinary people and having a realistic view of the country's problems.

Bonnin, who wrote The Lost Generation: The Rustication of Urban Educated Youth in China , 1968-1980, believes the new generation of leaders, having lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in their youth and also tasted the liberal atmosphere of the 1980s, will have realised that the country's problems will need to be solved through the rule of law and political reform.

"It is a mistaken idea that since these people were Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution era, they will be Maoists. Going down to the countryside made them reflect upon reality and … they are against empty slogans," Bonnin said.

"I think these people who went through the Cultural Revolution will try to modernise China in the direction of the rule of law. They will understand that this is the only resolution - and the Maoist method of mobilisation and propaganda are not good for solving China's problems."

Historian Yuan Weishi believes the new leaders' understanding of the grass roots, coupled with their more modern outlook, will distinguish their style of rule from the current generation.

"The new generation is different from the last one. Their mentality is less authoritarian," he said. "They understand people from the bottom level and they have more knowledge and ideas of what the world is about - this will have an impact on their governance."

But even if they realise that political reform is a necessary step to tackle social inequality, a growing wealth gap and rampant corruption, Yuan worries that they will still lack the resolve to push through these initiatives for fear that liberalisation might unleash social instability and, for some, jeopardise lucrative vested interests in the commercial sector, he said.

"Failing to make big-enough steps will be detrimental to China's development. We will have to wait and see whether they have the courage and vision to carry them through," Yuan said. "When they assume authority, their priority will be to ensure that their positions are secure."

Analysts fear some of the new leaders may have evolved into the sort of officials they once abhorred. It is no secret that many mainland officials and their relatives trade on their connections and lineage to wield influence in politics and business, and accumulate astonishing wealth. Many have acquired foreign passports, sent their children abroad and stashed hundreds of millions of dollars offshore.

Public resentment over corruption and cronyism among politically powerful families is growing as the income gap on the mainland continues to widen, threatening the rule of the party. Bloomberg reported in June that the extended family of president-in-waiting Xi Jinping have business interests in various commercial sectors including investments in companies with total assets of US$376 million. It also reported this year that the family of disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai - who was ousted in March and expelled from the Communist Party last month for crimes including corruption - accumulated at least US$136 million in assets.

Analysts say this complex network of vested commercial interests will be a key obstacle in the political reform plans of the next leadership. "Political reform will also touch on their vested interests and the regime's inertia is not something that a handful of people can change … when you're part of the regime, you can't afford not to participate in the game," veteran China watcher Ching Cheong said.

Bonnin agreed: "People have the feeling that [the leaders' vast wealth] has not been legally or morally acquired, and they will resist change because they're afraid that if there is rule of law and democracy, they will be accused."

Zhang Lifan , a historian formerly with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the humble past of the new generation of leaders, and their understanding of the poor, did not guarantee that they would advocate reform.

"You cannot always rely on past experience to judge future performance," Zhang said. "The key is what they will be like once they have tasted power."

Wang, who knew Li well at university, said he was not sure if Li was still bold enough to carry out reforms, given the years he spent in the conservative bureaucracy while he rose to the top.

"If [Li] can survive in the party, he could have changed," he said. "At a critical juncture, when the circumstances force the party to embark on reforms, he might do it, but he is not a bold person who would launch initiatives on his own."

Zhang said the party's overall priority would always be its political survival, so leaders must first ensure that any reform does not threaten their power. "If they do [undertake reform], it will be for the sake of maintaining their ruling position … so the party can remain in power," Zhang said. "They will act only under the condition that they will be safe.

"They must remain loyal to the interests of the party. This is the bottom line, and cannot be crossed."