Introduction—Could the Seventh Generation Be the Next in Power?
Much of China’s future lies in the hands of cadres born in the 1970s—officials belonging to the “Seventh Generation” (7G) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the last quarter of 2018, a dozen-odd of these forty-something officials were promoted to key regional positions as vice-governors, vice-ministers, or their equivalents. President Xi Jinping’s decision to change the constitution in March 2018 so as to abrogate fixed terms of office for the state presidency of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has raised the possibility that, health permitting, Xi might serve as Party General Secretary until 2032—and State President until 2033—when he will be 80 years of age (Asia.Nikkei.com, March 15; Hong Kong Free Press, February 25, 2018). This in turn raises the possibility that Xi, as the so-called “eternal core” of the CCP leadership, might eventually pass his baton to a member of the Seventh Generation.
In accordance with the succession practices established in the 1980s by “Great Architect of Reform” Deng Xiaoping, former president Jiang Zemin (born 1926)—the “Third Generation core”—ceded power to Fourth Generation leader Hu Jintao (1942) at the 16th Party Congress in 2002. After serving two terms of five years, ex-president Hu handed over the reins of power to Fifth-Generation (5G) representative Xi Jinping at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. If Xi were following the CCP’s recent conventions, he—and the majority of current Politburo Standing Committee members, all of whom hail from the 1950s—would be succeeded by Sixth-Generation (6G) cadres who were born in the 1960s. However, if Xi were to remain party boss until the 22nd Party Congress in 2032, a rising star born in 1960 would be 72 years old—and therefore four years past the PBSC retirement age of 68.  Thus, 6G movers and shakers already in the current 25-member Politburo—for example, Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua (胡春华, born 1963) and Chongqing Party boss Chen Min’er (陈敏尔, 1960)—seem to be out of the running to succeed Xi.
Since the 22nd Party Congress is still thirteen years away—and because 7G officials currently only occupy vice-ministerial level posts—it is too soon to speculate as to who will have the political skills and staying power to take over as the next CCP General Secretary. However, given that ministerial-ranked officials normally retire at the age of 65, the bulk of 6G cadres will start calling it a day by the middle of the 2020s. At a national conference on party organization held in July 2018, President Xi pointed out that “based on near-term requirements and long-term strategic needs, [leaders] in all regions and departments should nurture a specific quantity of superior young officials” (China News Service, July 10, 2018; China Youth Daily, July 10, 2018). The paramount leader’s instructions were issued after a Politburo meeting held a week earlier, which was devoted to “discovering, propagating and elevating high-quality young officials” for the new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics. The Politburo noted that rejuvenation of the party leadership was a “major strategic task to ensure that there are successors working on the party’s enterprise as well as [the goal of] long rule and perennial stability for the nation” (New Beijing Post, June 30, 2018; Xinhua, June 29, 2018).
Who Are the Up-and-Comers of the CCP Seventh Generation?
Ten officials born in the early 1970s (see chart), the majority of whom having been promoted since mid-2018, seem to have a leg up in the jockeying for position that is a hallmark of the CCP’s cunning corridors of bureaucratic competition. With backgrounds including industry, engineering, and finance, these technocratic up-and-coming officials mostly serve as regional administrators. Three of these ten individuals have attained the rank of changwei (常委), or Member of the CCP Standing Committee (MSC), of provinces and directly administered cities. These three are: Liu Jie (刘捷, born 1970), an MSC of the Guizhou Provincial Party Committee as well as its Secretary-General; Zhuge Yujie (诸葛宇杰, born 1971), changwei of the Shanghai Party Committee as well as its Secretary-General; and Shi Guanghui (时光辉, born 1970), an MSC of the Guizhou Provincial Party Committee in charge of political-legal matters, including the key policy portfolio for “stability maintenance” (weiwen, 维稳). The PRC has long followed the practice of party committees—and particularly, their changwei—making policies, which are then executed by the governmental apparatus of the same level. Thus, a changwei of a region’s ruling party committee outranks the vice-governor or vice-mayor of the same province or city, who may not yet have made the standing committee (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], March 25; South China Morning Post, January 5, Jiangsu.sina.com, January 2; China Economics Net, December 10, 2018).
Chart: Prominent Emerging Leaders of the CCP “Seventh Generation” Leadership
In November 2016, Liu Jie set a record for the 7G leadership by becoming an MSC of Jiangxi Province at the age of 46. Liu first earned his spurs in the steel industry in Hunan Province: in 2000, Liu became Director of the Xiang Gang Second Steel Smelting Factory when he was just 30 years old. In 2011, he was transferred to nearby Jiangxi Province to serve as mayor of Xinyu. Liu got his big break five years later when he became an MSC of the Jiangxi Provincial Committee, as well as its Secretary-General. In mid-2018, he was assigned to Guizhou Province to serve in the same capacity (The Paper [Shanghai], May 17, 2018; Sohu.com, May 17, 2018). Both Zhuge and Shi began their careers as engineers in state-run units in Shanghai before becoming administrators in municipal districts, which are roughly the equivalent of counties or prefectures in the provinces. After a stint in the maritime engineering sector of Shanghai, Zhuge rose up the ranks of the party committee of Yangpu District. He became Director of the General Office of the Shanghai Party Committee when he was 45 years old and was promoted Secretary-General last year (Lianhe Zaobao [Singapore], November 21, 2018; Baidu News, November 20, 2018). After graduation from the prestigious Tongji University in Shanghai, Shi worked as an engineer and manager in different units of the municipal public works authority for 15 years. He switched to administration when he became a Deputy Head of the Jing’An District of Shanghai. Shi rose to become Secretary of the Party Committee of Fengxian District in 2011, and then one of several vice mayors of Shanghai in 2013. In late 2018, he was named an MSC of Guizhou Province (Phoenix TV, April 24, 2017; Caixin.com, April 24, 2017).
Chart: Prominent Emerging Leaders of the CCP “Seventh Generation” Leadership
The next tier of 7G cadres consists of five vice-governors of major provinces. Guo Ningning (郭宁宁, born 1970) is one of the few female forty-somethings who have made it to the rank of vice-minister or equivalent. The native of Liaoning Province and graduate of Qinghua University spent most of her career in banking, rising to the post of Vice-President of The Agriculture Bank of China at the age of 46. She became a Vice-Governor of Fujian in late 2018. The fact that she is running a province where President Xi spent 17 years as a regional administrator may stand her in good stead in terms of promotion prospects (New Beijing Post, November 23, 2018). Yang Jinbo (杨晋柏, born 1973), the youngest of the 7G officials in this survey, proved his technical and administrative capability in the energy sector. The native of Shaanxi rose to the post of Deputy General Manager of the China Nanfang Electricity Grid Corp at the age of 41. Last year, he was transferred to the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and was appointed one of its vice-chairmen (equivalent to vice-governor). Experience working with minorities is often considered a big plus when cadres are being groomed for the very top (Caixin.com, November 29, 2018).
The other three 7G vice-governors are Li Yunze (李云泽, born 1970), Liu Qiang (刘强, born 1971) and Fei Gaoyun (费高云, born 1971)—of, respectively, Sichuan Province, Shandong Province and Jiangsu Province. A financial wizard, Liu has worked in the People’s Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). He attained the rank of Vice-President of ICBC, the world’s biggest bank, in 2016 before being transferred to Sichuan last year as one of its eight vice-governors (People’s Daily, September 30, 2018). Like Fujian’s Guo, Liu distinguished himself as an innovative manager in the Agriculture Bank of China. He served a brief stint as Vice-President of the Bank of China before being moved to Shandong in September 2018 (Caixin.com, September 14, 2018). A native of Jiangsu, Fei spent almost his entire career in grassroots- and regional-level administrative posts in his home province. He rose to become party secretary of the large city of Changzhou in 2017 before being appointed a vice-governor of one of China’s richest provinces (Caixin.com, January 31, 2018).
There are very few 7G representatives in the State Council, or elsewhere in the central government. This perhaps reflects President Xi’s insistence on the predominance of party over state—and that important policies be made by CCP cadres at both the central and local levels. So far, two 7G government officials have been identified. Both work in one of the State Council’s most important oversight agencies, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC). Zhou Liang (周亮, born 1971) is one of the Commission’s six vice-chairmen. Li Xinran (李欣然, born 1972) is head of the CBIRC’s Disciplinary Inspection Department. Both Zhou and Li had served in the party’s Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI), which is China’s highest-level anti-graft agency (Huaxia Times, November 19, 2018; Securities Times, March 21, 2018) .
Other Potential Rising Figures of the Seventh Generation
Apart from these members of the 7G leadership who have been fast-tracked for promotion in the party-state hierarchy, there are also other figures worth watching, who currently work in less politically sensitive areas such as mass- and united front organizations. A good example is Wang Hongyan (汪鸿雁, born 1970), who is Executive Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League (CYL). Wang had excelled in local-level administrations in Hubei Province before being inducted into the CYL’s highest echelons in 2008. The fact that President Xi has spoken of the League in derogatory terms, however, could mean that she might make her main contributions in youth-related work (China-onway.com, February 20). American-trained lawyer Li Bo (李波, born 1972) enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Legal Affairs Department and the Monetary Policy Department of the People’s Bank of China after returning to China in 2004. Last year, he was appointed Vice-Chairman of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, whose mission includes promoting China’s image among overseas-Chinese communities (Finance.caixin.com, September 14, 2018).
Xi Jinping’s Requirement for “Political Morality”
In the course of his own rise to power, and since he became CCP General Secretary in late 2012, Xi Jinping has appointed to senior party positions cadres known to him personally—and who have professed unqualified loyalty to the paramount leader. Members of the so-called “Xi Family Army” consists of Xi’s underlings and associates when he served in regional posts in Fujian (1985 to 2002), Zhejiang (2002 to 2007) and Shanghai (2007). Other Xi protégés are his former classmates or officials associated with his home province of Shaanxi (China Brief, February 13, 2018). However, very few, if any, of the rising 7G leaders are known to have personal connections with the party’s “highest commander” (zuigaotongshuai, 最高统帅). It is important to note, however, that they have made the cut in two key criteria for promotion laid down by Xi. The first one is “professional competence coupled with morality, with morality coming first” (decai jianbei, yide weixian / 德才兼备以德为先). In a recent article published by the party theoretical journal Seeking Truth, Xi vowed to “nurture a corps of high-quality cadres who are loyal and [morally] clean, and who can take up responsibilities.” Regarding the issue of “morality,” Xi said that it included “political morality, professional morality, social morality and family morality.” “Cadres must pass muster in these aspects,” he added. “The most important is that they must pass muster in political morality” (People’s Daily, January 16; People’s Daily, January 6).
Given the fact that the majority of the 7G cadres have had ample professional qualifications in areas such as finance and engineering, they seem best placed to satisfy Xi’s stringent requirements on professional capability. The fact that a disproportionately large number of 7G leaders have banking experience seems to reflect the Xi leadership’s concern with fiscal prudence at a time when the nation’s total social debt is estimated to be around three times that of national GDP (South China Morning Post, February 15). In a 2016 speech, Xi urged cadres to take a firm hold of “new development concepts.” These concepts, the President noted, referred to “intellectual and professional requirements because new development ideas include new knowledge, new experience, new information and new requirements that are filled with the characteristics of the times” (People’s Daily, January 3, 2016). According to Central Party School professor Wang Dongqi, “ceaselessly raising the ability and level of cadres’ professional mind-set, professional attainments and professional ability” would also help them acquire a higher political stature and take up more political responsibilities (People’s Daily, September 7, 2018).
At the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference held last month, cadres of all levels were asked to “even more tightly unite under the party central authorities with comrade Xi Jinping as their core” (China Brief, March 22). If, as has been widely suspected, Xi and his closest advisers have equated “political morality” with the profession of total fealty to the “party core,” declaration of loyalty to Xi may trump even the best performance in both professional pursuits and public administration. The promotion prospects of the 7G novices, and the extent to which they can contribute to sound and reform-oriented administration, thus depends in no small part on whether Xi is willing to honor his pledge: that candidates for top-level appointments must come from the “five lakes and the four seas”—that is, a rich diversity of backgrounds in terms of both experience and factional connections (Youth.cn, May 19, 2015).
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping” (Routledge 2015).
 The CCP Constitution contains no specification on the length of tenure of the General Secretary. It also says nothing about the retirement age of members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the nation’s highest ruling council. However, the convention that when the five-yearly party congress is convened, a cadre who has reached the age of 68 can no longer be considered for the PBSC is well observed. Exceptions, however, have been made for General Secretaries. Thus, at the 15th Party Congress in 1997, Jiang, who was then 71, was allowed to serve five more years as both PBSC member and General Secretary.