Leaders in waiting more educated and open-minded Compared with their predecessors, the mainland's next generation of leaders are younger, better-educated and fluent in English. They have a greater understanding of the world and are more open to new ideas. They will need all these qualities when they eventually take on the severe challenges and heavy responsibilities of changing the face of the world's most populous country. Many young members of the new leadership lineup unveiled yesterday at the closing of the Communist Party's 17th National Congress will form the so-called fifth generation to take over power at the party's 18th congress in 2012, when President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and the rest of the fourth-generation leaders will retire. Many were among the first university students to win their places in intensely competitive entrance exams revived in 1977, as late leader Deng Xiaoping and other rehabilitated reformers began to abandon Mao Zedong's radicalism. In the previous decade, university enrolment was based more on political loyalty than academic merit. 'There are some striking differences between the fourth-generation leaders and those tipped to take over top positions in five years,' said Steve Tsang, a political science professor at Oxford University's St Antony's College. 'The new leaders are generally younger, better educated and, to some degree, less ideological.' Top political prospects Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao and Xi Jinping are from the so-called Year 77 and 78 students, a group of politicians and social elite who enrolled in university in the first two years after college entrance exams resumed. 'The Year 1977 and 1978 students have played the major roles in sowing new thinking, reforming the old system and guarding the new in the past three decades of reform and openness,' said Chen Minmin , a professor a Fudan University's School of International Relations and Public Affairs. With experience of dramatic events in their early years, the group has produced some remarkable personalities with a strong consciousness of their generation, analysts say. Both Mr Lis, Mr Xi and many newly promoted ministerial and provincial governor-level officials belong to the group, also called the 'lost generation', who lived through the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. 'The 'lost generation' was more eager to recover lost time and work harder to overcome any difficulty,' Professor Chen said. The generations of former paramount leaders Mao and Deng were shaped by decades of war and revolution; Jiang Zemin's generation was influenced by the Soviet-inspired industrial drive of the 1950s. The fourth generation's conservative outlook was largely shaped by extreme leftist education and indoctrination before and during the Cultural Revolution. 'While all the third- and fourth-generation leaders received an education in Soviet-style planned economics, many of the future leaders received an education increasingly influenced by western ideas in economics, law and politics,' said Professor Tsang. 'Some officials at lower and vice-ministerial levels have even gone overseas for further study.' Most of the third-generation leaders, like Mr Jiang and former premier Li Peng, were educated in the Soviet Union or the eastern European bloc during the 1950s. And most of the fourth generation went to university before the Cultural Revolution, when the mainland's textbooks were still copied from the Soviet Union. These leaders, the members of the party's 16th Politburo and Standing Committee, belong to what academics describe as the 'socialist generation'. In contrast, most of the mainland's future leaders went to university after the country began to open up. They have a higher level of education than their predecessors, with several holding master's degrees and doctorates. Another striking difference is that while almost all of the fourth, and even the third, generation of leaders are engineers, many of the future leaders are trained economists, lawyers, philosophers and historians. Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao both trained as lawyers and economists. Mr Xi has a law degree and Wang Qishan is a historian and an economist. Bo Xilai is a historian and journalist. As students in the 1980s, several key fifth-generation members mixed with democracy advocates. In Beijing, Peking University, attended by Li Keqiang and Mr Bo, and Mr Xi's alma mater Tsinghua University were hot spots of dissent. Fudan University, where Li Yuanchao studied, was at the centre of the Shanghai pro-democracy movement. Li Keqiang reportedly plunged into campus politics, befriending free thinkers who went on to notoriety as exiled dissidents and co-translating The Due Process of Law, by the famed English jurist Lord Denning. The older generations shared an orthodox socialist training but the fifth generation entered politics in the relatively liberal and politically stable period after Deng launched market-oriented reforms. Political observers predict the mainland will embark on significant political change in the coming decade, following nearly 30 years of economic and social development that has transformed the country from a hungry economic backwater into the world's fourth-largest economy. 'There is growing demand for fast political reform to accommodate the fast economic growth and social changes,' said Fang Ning , deputy director of the Institute of Political Science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a top central government think-tank. Analysts say this generation is expected to start the country on its first steps towards democracy. But Hong Kong-based commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu says political reform under the so-called 'fifth generation' is likely to be cautious, and their ascent will not necessarily bring democracy. 'We should not pin hope of introducing democracy into China on communist leaders as they attach more importance to the interests of the party than those of the nation or people,' Mr Lau said. 'The hope is the power of the people.' Professor Tsang is also sceptical about whether the fifth generation can really take over power completely when Mr Hu and Mr Wen retire in 2012, pointing out that Mr Jiang and his third generation still wield considerable influence despite their retirement five years ago. However, by 2012, the next generation will be able to wield a certain influence as almost all lower ministerial and provincial positions will be dominated by a generation growing up in an open age.