China picks core new leaders
By Willy Lam

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration seems preoccupied with the twofold task of baoba and baowen - maintaining an 8% growth rate and upholding social stability - it is also giving priority to the rejuvenation of the party's leadership.

Attention is being focused on young turks of the sixth-generation, meaning cadres born in the early to mid-1960s. The identity of prominent fifth-generation cadres, who were born in the early to mid-1950s, was already revealed at the 17th Party Congress in 2007.

For example, Vice President Xi Jinping, 56 and first Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, 54, were inducted into the Politburo Standing Committee, China's highest ruling council, at that pivotal conclave. It is all but certain that Xi and Li will take over from respectively President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao at or soon after the 18th Party Congress in late 2012.

Since Xi and Li are deemed "safe choices" who will not deviate from the political line laid down by patriarch Deng Xiaoping, ex-president Jiang Zemin and President Hu, Beijing's political observers are most curious about the sixth-generation team, the great majority of whose members are unfamiliar figures even to their compatriots.

Some of the mystery surrounding these rising stars was lifted when a current issue of the official journal Global Personalities singled out five sixth-generation politicians with colossal potentials: Governors Zhou Qiang, Hu Chunhua and Nur Bekri, respectively of Hunan province, Hebei province and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region; Agriculture Minister Sun Zhengcai; and first party secretary of the Communist Youth League (CYL) Lu Hao.

Apart from Lu, Zhou and Hu (no relations to President Hu) are former honchos of the league; and Nur Bekri had served in its Xinjiang branch in his younger days. It is thus obvious that President Hu, a one-time CYL boss who heads the CCP's powerful tuanpai (CYL faction), has played a pivotal role in the elevation of these 40-something neophytes. Tuanpai cadres are generally considered to be politically correct and knowledgeable about the requirements of the central authorities.

Moreover, fifth-generation stalwart Li Yuanchao, a politburo member who is in charge of high-level personnel matters, is a tuanpai affiliate and crony of the president. Owing to factors including density of media coverage - and their prominence in the CCP's dominant faction - Zhou, 49 and Hu, 45, seem to have pulled ahead of their sixth-generation confreres in leadership sweepstakes.

Zhou, a native of Hubei province, began his career as a specialist in youth and ideological work. He gained ministerial ranking at the tender age of 38, when he was appointed CYL first secretary. Zhou, a protege of President Hu, was transferred to Hunan province in 2006 to widen his exposure to regional issues; he became governor of the central province a year later.

The Chinese media have praised Zhou for helping to lift the economy of one of China's six land-locked internal provinces. Despite the global financial crisis, Hunan's GDP grew by a stunning 10.3% in the first quarter of this year, which was 4% higher than the national average.

A few years ago, Zhou won the United Nation's “Champion of the Earth” award for motivating young men and women to show concern for the environment.

The rise of Hu Chunhua, 45, also a Hubei native, has been even more meteoric. Apart from having served as CYL chief, Hu shares something important with President Hu, his key mentor: long experience in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Immediately on graduation from the prestigious Peking University in 1983, Hu went to Tibet and worked there on and off for nearly 20 years - rising to TAR first vice-party secretary in 2006.

After serving as CYL party secretary for less than two years, he became Hebei's acting governor in 2008 and governor early this year. A fluent Tibetan speaker, Hu was credited with reviving the Tibet economy, thwarting separatist tendencies among Tibetans, as well as moving more Han Chinese into the restive region.

It was perhaps due to his special relationship with the president that Hu did not need to take responsibility for the tainted milk scandal that first erupted in Hebei last year. As things stand, it is highly likely that both Zhou and Hu will be inducted into the Politburo at the 18th CCP Congress.

There are important reasons why President Hu, 67, would want to confirm and consolidate the “core” of the sixth-generation leadership three years before his scheduled retirement from the post of party general secretary at the 18th Party Congress.

In the run-up to the 17th Party Congress in 2007, Hu was prevented by a powerful coalition of party elders including ex-president Jiang from naming his own successor. While Vice President Xi enjoys a reasonably good relationship with Hu, the “princeling” son of party elder Xi Zhongxun does not come from the CYL faction, and Hu's original intention was to elevate first Vice Premier Li, a former CYL boss who is deemed the president's doppelganger, to the very top.

Xi, who will most probably become party chief and state president at and soon after the 18th Party Congress, will have a 10-year term. By ensuring the political future of Zhou and Hu, President Hu will in fact be picking Xi's successor. This somewhat Byzantine practice of gedai, or “cross-generational” designation of leaders is not without precedent.

At the 14th Party Congress in 1992, patriarch Deng Xiaoping surprised ex-president Jiang by effectively appointing the latter's successor. At Deng's insistence, Hu, then a 49-year-old ex-Tibet party secretary, was promoted a member of the Politburo Standing Committee - and made the “core” of the fourth-generation leadership.

This latest development in internal CCP politics has posed a number of questions. Firstly, will President Hu get his way? As things stand, it seems apparent that Xi, who may feel unhappy about the practice of gedai designation, is going along with the machinations of his boss.

In recent speeches on the grooming of cadres, Xi has toed the president's conservative line that young officials worthy of promotion “must have both de (moral and political rectitude) and cai (professional competence), with priority being given to de.

The vice president pointed out at a conference on personnel issues that senior staff in organization and personnel departments must “raise [younger cadres'] level in Marxist theories and consolidate the foundations of their ideals and beliefs”. Given that most members of the CYL clique are long-standing party functionaries - and that they have ready access to supremo Hu.

Much more significant for the future of the country, however, is whether CYL affiliates can acquit themselves of the task of tackling the increasingly complex challenges facing 21st century China.

While the likes of Zhou and Hu may have impeccable credentials as the cream of the party faithful, their expertise in global business and high technology - two areas where China has to excel in order to maintain its competitiveness - clearly lag behind members of the so-called haiguipai (Returnees Faction), or officials with advanced degrees from Western universities.

In terms of their upbringing, education and working experience, both Zhou and Hu have very little exposure to Western culture and institutions. It is ironic that the director of the CCP Organization Department, Li Yuanchao, has repeatedly called for the large-scale elevation of talented cadres with overseas training. Li introduced in the spring a so-called “A Thousand People Program” to lure highly qualified “returnees” to work in party and government departments.

“We must speed up the process of attracting high-caliber returnees so as to combat the global financial crisis and to push ahead scientific development,” Li said at a seminar on personnel administration. Since the mid-1990s, more than 200,000 Chinese with foreign academic degrees have returned to work in China, and a dozen-odd members of the haiguipai have attained ministerial-level positions in the central government.

Like most members of the CYL clique, Zhou and Hu have steered clear of the controversial issue of political reform. It is noteworthy, however, that President Hu seems to have violated the oft-cited principle of “intra-party democracy” - which would at least in theory allow cadres a bigger say in choosing their leaders - by letting two favorite underlings take the proverbial “helicopter ride” to the top. This is given the fact that a large number of CYL heavyweights have proven to be lackluster cadres who owe their rise to patronage rather than performance.

Examples include the party secretaries of Tibet, Xinjiang, Sichuan and Shanxi, respectively Zhang Qingli, Wang Lequan, Liu Qibao and Zhang Baoshun. Zhang and Wang have been criticized for suppressing the religious and cultural heritage of ethnic minorities within their jurisdiction.

Liu, together with his predecessor Du Qinglin, yet another CYL alumnus, has been faulted for the large number of shoddily constructed buildings that collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake last year. And Zhang has been widely blamed for failing to cut down on the large number of deadly accidents in the coal mines of his resource-rich province.

The onus is now on Zhou and Hu to prove to other cadres - and 1.3 billion Chinese - that they have what it takes to, in patriarch Deng's memorable words, "prop up the sky" at times of monumental challenges.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)