China's "4th Generation" of Leaders

Jay Moore research at
Mon Mar 5 07:54:03 MST 2001

China's Generational Shift
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 5, 2001; Page A12

BEIJING, March 4 -- A shopkeeper's son with a photographic memory and a
penchant for dancing, Hu Jintao has never been to the United States or
Europe, and is believed to rarely express his opinions during Communist
Party meetings.

Yet Hu, who remarkably has never suffered because of his capitalist class
heritage, appears set to become the next leader of China. In an
extraordinary feat for a party famed for letting its political struggles
throw this country into chaos, China's senior leadership decided several
years ago that the 58-year-old vice president will guide China -- with its
nuclear weapons and U.N. Security Council seat -- into the future.

Hu's position is expected to be confirmed during the pivotal 16th party
congress next year. But the campaign to install him will heat up during this
year's annual session of the National People's Congress, which begins

Hu's anticipated move to the top of China's political hierarchy -- as
president, party secretary or both -- is part of a broader generational
change in which as much as three-quarters of China's decision-making
Politburo will be replaced at next year's congress and as many as six new
faces will join the Politburo's all-powerful, seven-member Standing
Committee. Jockeying for positions such as premier has begun already and the
10-day legislative session could provide clues in one of Beijing's favorite
games -- guessing who is up and who is down inside the high red walls
surrounding the party's headquarters known as Zhongnanhai.

Hu and others such as Vice Premier Wen Jiabao, Guangdong Gov. Li Changchun
and party insider Zeng Qinghong come from a group of politicians known as
the Fourth Generation. (The Third Generation is President Jiang Zemin, 75,
and his colleagues; the Second Generation, the people surrounding paramount
leader Deng Xiaoping, who consolidated power after the death of First
Generation leader Mao Zedong in 1976.)

Unlike their elders from the Third Generation who still can claim some
revolutionary credentials -- Jiang, for example, was an underground student
organizer in Shanghai -- Hu's generation reached maturity after China's
revolution in 1949. The group has few if any members who studied in Russia
and were enamored at an early age with Stalinism. And unlike the Fifth
Generation that will follow them, few have studied in the United States or
other Western countries. They are for the most part home-grown, and many,
such as Hu and Wen, spent long years in poor regions; both were dispatched
to Gansu in western China during the Cultural Revolution.

This group has seen both the failings of Marxism-Leninism -- in the collapse
of the planned economy -- and the shortcomings of China's transition to a
market economy -- in the vast and growing gap between rich and poor --
according to Cheng Li, a political science professor at Hamilton College in
Clinton, N.Y., and author of an upcoming book on China's new leaders.

"Some have wondered if Adam Smith might have been as wrong as Karl Marx,
although the consequences of their errors have been profoundly different,"
Li said in a recent speech on the Fourth Generation. "As a result, new
leaders are far more interested in discussing issues than defending 'isms.'

One thing they are committed to defending, however, is the rule of the
Communist Party, Li stressed. And the one ideological tool they will wield,
he said, is nationalism.

This was illustrated on May 9, 1999, two days after the United States bombed
China's embassy in Belgrade, when Hu issued an extraordinary statement on
state-run TV, pledging the government's support for "all protest activities
that are in accordance with the law." Tens of thousands of people had
already begun demonstrating around China, sometimes violently. Hu's gambit
was seen as a success because it allowed the party to reassert control and
leadership over the protesters.

Hu encapsulates his generation's tendency to focus on power, not ideas. In
party meetings, he is said to rarely voice his views. "He is seen as a
cipher," said a Western diplomat. "Even people who work closely with him
have no idea what he thinks. He never varies from the line. He is always
word perfect."
Hu was first noticed by party insider Song Ping in Gansu province in the
1960s. Song, a hard-line conservative, recommended him to Hu Yaobang, then
the leader of China's main liberal faction, who brought Hu Jintao into the
Communist Youth League, which remains his main seat of influence. While he
was party secretary in poor Guizhou province in the mid-1980s, Hu allowed
liberal intellectuals to live there and escape criticism in Beijing. But
several years later, as party secretary in Tibet, Hu helped mastermind a
brutal crackdown on protests against Chinese rule.

"Does he believe in anything? Who knows?" said an Asian diplomat. "In your
presidential campaigns, the candidates win by telling the people what they
think. In China, they win by keeping quiet."

The Third Generation is also one of survivors, of political chameleons who
have reinvented themselves as the party has seen fit. Take Vice Premier Wen
Jiabao, a candidate for the premiership:

On May 18, 1989, Zhao Ziyang, then chief of the Communist Party, went to
Tiananmen Square to persuade protesting students to leave. A photograph of
him talking to students living in a bus on the square shows Wen Jiabao, who
was one of Zhao's closest aides, in the background. Wen's ability to survive
Zhao's subsequent purge, the crackdown on the student-led protests and the
roundups that followed is testimony to his ability to morph from a man
focused on political reform to an expert on the economy. As part of his
penance, for almost a decade he wore a Mao suit whenever he was seen in

Wen has grown in stature in the party and government. Premier Zhu Rongji
gave him responsibility for the campaign to fight floods in 1998, banking
reform and agricultural issues. He also participated in drawing up the 10th
Five-Year Plan, still the road map for economic development.

Part of the succession struggle involves whether and how China's retiring
leaders will exert influence over the China of tomorrow.

Jiang, who is retiring, is known to want to maintain influence. He hopes to
do so through two men -- Zeng Qinghong, 61, who heads the key party
personnel department, and Li Changchun, 57, who runs Guangdong province. Li
Peng, the head of the National People's Congress and the architect of the
Tiananmen crackdown, hopes to elevate his protege, Luo Gan. It is unclear
whom Zhu will back.

Of all the Fourth Generation, Jiang's protege Zeng arguably has the most
experience dealing with the United States. After the Tiananmen Square
crackdown, Zeng worked closely with the Bush administration to arrange
national security adviser Brent Scowcroft's secret trip to Beijing. A
European diplomat described Zeng as "scarily competent, the best of the
bunch." But earlier this year, Jiang failed to engineer Zeng's appointment
to the Politburo. He also failed last year to move Li Changchun back to
Beijing as a vice premier, but is expected to try again at the end of the
legislative session.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

More information about the Marxism mailing list