For China’s diplomatic corps, the change at the top in the Washington embassy marks a generational transition that is gathering speed ahead of a sweeping leadership shake-up expected next year. The personnel changes are not only critical to the diplomatic service, but also key to whether the rise of China is to continue uninterrupted, especially in the face of the worst headwinds in its relationship with the West. With former ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai and many other diplomatic veterans retiring in the coming months, observers say that Beijing’s ultimate ambition to outdo Washington in jockeying for influence and primacy in the Indo-Pacific and beyond will also hinge on the transition. More than the gaps in age – 13 years – and seniority in service, what really sets Cui and his successor Qin Gang apart is probably how differently they came of age during the tumultuous Mao era. Cui, who stepped down in June aged 68 after an eventful eight-year stint in Washington, is usually considered a part of the Cultural Revolution generation – roughly those over the retirement age of 65. Cui often talks about those chaotic years when he, like millions of others, was banished to the countryside even before he could finish high school, and how China should learn from the historical blunder. While his contemporaries – including Chinese President Xi Jinping, and foreign policy chiefs Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi – may have different ways of construing that part of their lives and its legacy, their personal and shared trauma during their formative years has left a permanent mark. “That’s how I got to know China’s rural area and the problem of poverty. That’s how I got to know what the country really needed,” Cui recalled last year in an interview with former US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson. “So I think people in my generation were very lucky that we spent most of our careers in the decades of reform and opening up.” Cui Tiankai: from a Heilongjiang farm to China’s ambassador in Washington It was a different story for Qin, 55, and other rising diplomats, who were mostly born after 1963 and went on to complete their formal education without interruption after the Cultural Revolution ended. “It was a life changing experience for those who were born before and during the 1950s, because they had to rise from the setbacks and try to make up for lost time,” said Gu Su, a political scientist at Nanjing University. Their successors born in the 1960s, such as foreign vice-ministers Le Yucheng and Ma Zhaoxu , were lucky to have largely escaped the scarring of those turbulent times and emerged in the era of China’s reform and opening up. “Formative experience may have had some major implications on their personal trajectory, how they choose to advance their careers, and the way they perceive the country and the world,” Gu said. The rise of the new generation of Chinese diplomats is also reflective of the changes in diplomatic demeanour worldwide, according to Gal Luft, a co-director of the Washington-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. “New diplomats are less restrained and more media savvy. They are less confined to talking points and more to the art of sound bites and tweets. They may be a part of the post-Cultural Revolution cohort but they are no less a part of the post-unipolar moment,” Luft said. “They have seen more US defeats and blunders than victories and remarkable achievements. For them America is an old lion whose roar is worse than his bite.” Qin and his peers usually appear more confident than their predecessors, thanks to the fact that they have mainly belonged to an ever-rising China where they were able to pursue tertiary education and personal careers of their own choosing. Apart from Cui, Xi’s top foreign policy aide Yang, 71, and Foreign Minister Wang, 67, are also expected to be replaced at the Communist Party’s five-yearly national congress next year for reaching retirement age. Wang, also a state councillor, is still likely to move another step forward next year to succeed Yang, a member of the powerful Politburo. After years of delays in key diplomatic appointments, especially top overseas ones, Beijing has moved in recent months to reshuffle the ageing senior diplomatic line-up while making room for some of the younger talent to advance in their careers. Over the past two years, most of China’s top-ranking, longest-serving ambassadors, some of whom past the retirement age of 65 for cabinet-level ministers, such as Cui and former envoy in Moscow Li Hui, have been replaced. Beijing has also promoted many of those in their 50s – such as Xie Feng, 57, a deputy minister responsible for US affairs, Deng Li, 56, assistant minister for the Middle East and African affairs, and Li’s successor Zhang Hanhui, 57. A batch of even younger diplomats, born in the 1970s, has also emerged, such as foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying , Jing Quan, deputy head of department of North American and Oceanian affairs, and the newly appointed head of the Asian Department – Liu Jinsong. After a brief 18-month stint as China’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu, 49, was promoted less than two years ago as head of the ministry’s policy planning department, where his predecessors include Wang Yi and Cui. But finding replacements for Yang and Wang, who have led China’s diplomatic service since Xi took power nearly a decade ago, would remain the most arduous task. With the imminent bowing out of China’s most senior diplomats, who would inevitably cast a long shadow on whoever succeeds them, it remains a big question if those chosen to replace them would be able to ease themselves successfully into those big shoes, observers said. Pang Zhongying, an international affairs expert at Ocean University of China, warned of a possible knowledge gap between the rising diplomats and their older colleagues. “Do they really understand the US and Europe, and the changes they are going through at home? Do they really understand the nature of the problems the world faces? Are they sufficiently trained and experienced to deal with the challenges and deliver on China’s global ambitions?” he asked. “We have yet to see those younger diplomats rise to real challenges that will shape China’s relations with the world. They still need to prove themselves and demonstrate their competence in the new jobs.” In zeroing in on American missteps and failures while conveniently ignoring China’s own shortcomings, younger diplomats become prone to nationalist politics in the face of tightening international scrutiny. Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said they were more likely to emerge as Wolf Warrior -style diplomats that the leadership has repeatedly called for, although they has had better education and job opportunities. Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington, also cautioned against the tendency among Chinese officials to create an exaggerated sense of worth about China’s strength and capabilities. “My worry is … more to do rather with their ability – and inability – to speak truth to power, or what passes for that in the Chinese political system. At a time of centralisation within the party-state, and within the party itself, this lack of top-flight standing – and voice – of senior diplomats might in fact be their biggest weaknesses,” he said. Gu said the quality of the diplomatic service was likely to play a decisive role in the fate of China’s global ascendance, especially considering the US-led encirclement efforts. “Ignoring it or a failure to address it will probably be remembered as one of the biggest lessons in China’s diplomatic history in the future,” he said. Nicholas Burns, a seasoned diplomat and Harvard professor tipped to be the next US ambassador to China, said strengthening America’s diplomatic capacity would be essential for the administration of US President Joe Biden to win the battle against Beijing. But others cautioned that the importance of diplomats should not be overstated, especially when the China-US tensions had contaminated the atmosphere for necessary dialogue and communications. “Diplomats of all levels are merely amplifiers of the policies set by national leaders and their respective centres of power,” Luft said. Gupta also said that while diplomacy would be key to Sino-American jockeying for advantage on the grand canvas of the Indo-Pacific’s geopolitics, the priority for both sides was to get their own houses in order first. “At the end of the day however, it will come down to political will, the extension of credible defence obligations, economic openness, vitality and fiscal well-being, and the health of one’s political system and national discourse that will shape geopolitical outcomes in the Indo-Pacific. Diplomats can only go so far in remedying gaps in these regards,” he said.