The Fifth Generation of the Chinese Communist Party

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 3

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds a Congress of Delegates every five years to pick a new Central Committee and Politburo. While the 17th CCP Congress is not due to take place until autumn 2007, President and General Secretary Hu Jintao has already started the crucial task of inserting allies and cronies in key party and government slots. Most of the 63-year-old Hu’s associates and underlings hail from the Communist Youth League (CYL), which he headed in the mid-1980s. Much of the quality of China’s next leadership corps—in addition to Hu’s succession strategy—can be gleaned from studying the profiles of a couple of the president’s favorites.

Foremost among Hu’s CYL protégés is Party Secretary of Liaoning Province Li Keqiang, 50, who is often called his mentor’s doppelhanger. Li, a top graduate from Peking University (Beida) and a former CYL party secretary, has risen so fast through the hierarchy that party insiders have dubbed him the potential “core of the Fifth-Generation leadership,” a reference to senior cadres now in their late 30s to early 50s. Like Hu, Li stayed behind at Beida after graduation to become a political instructor. Also like his boss, the law and economics graduate earned his spurs while toiling in the localities. He served in the central, predominantly agricultural Henan province, and for the past year has been based in northeastern Liaoning, whose industrial foundation was laid by Soviet experts in the early 1950s.

Yet Beijing’s political observers have only given Li a mediocre rating. They point to his six-odd years in Henan, first as vice-party secretary, then as governor and party secretary. It is true that during his tenure the economy of Henan, China’s largest province in terms of population, has improved in lockstep with the rest of the country. From 1998 to 2004, per capita GDP in the province went up by about 70 percent, while peasants’ per capita annual income rose 14 percent in 2004 to reach 2,550 yuan (China News Agency, January 10, 2005). Li, however, has hardly acquitted himself of President Hu’s premier requirement of regional chieftains: the maintenance of socio-political stability and the avoidance of scandals, particularly those that attract the attention of Western media.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Henan became notorious in and out of China for its heart-rending AIDS villages in which impoverished peasants sold blood to eke out a living—and contracted the deadly virus from unsanitary blood-transfusion equipment. To be sure, this tragedy occurred before Li arrived in the province, but the CYL high-flyer largely followed existing practice by clamping a media blackout on the national disgrace. Until Premier Wen Jiabao announced a more humane policy on AIDS in November 2003, foreign reporters and doctors were turned away from rural Henan. Moreover, activist members of health-related NGOs, as well as internationally-known volunteer doctors Gao Yaojie and Wan Yanhai, were harassed, detained, and put under tight police surveillance.

Party Secretary Li was also ineffective in deterring grassroots officials from pocketing funds and donations that central authorities and foreign NGOs had given AIDS victims in 2003 and 2004. Apart from AIDS, Henan has in the past few years witnessed bloody conflicts between the predominant Han Chinese and the minority Muslim population. A horrendous clash in Zhongmou County in late 2004 resulted in the death of over 120 residents, and was only suppressed after more than 10,000 People’s Armed Police officers were dispatched to the area (Time, Asia edition, November 15, 2004).

During his tenure in Henan, Li failed to demonstrate the breadth of vision and boldness in experimentation that characterized forward-looking regional “warlords” in recent communist Chinese history. For example, agrarian reform pioneered in the late 1970s and early 1980s by then party secretaries Zhao Ziyang and Wan Li in respectively Sichuan and Anhui provinces was instrumental in persuading late patriarch Deng Xiaoping to opt for thorough-going privatization. Instead, Li largely followed the philosophy and work style of Hu when the latter was party secretary of landlocked Guizhou Province in the mid-1980s. While Hu was diligent to a fault, he kept his ideas to himself—and invariably toed the line from Beijing.

Since leaving the CYL headquarters in 1998, Li has acquitted himself well in following Beijing’s lead in organizing Mao-style political campaigns. These ranged from ex-president Jiang Zemin’s ideological movement to promote the “Three Represents Theory” to Hu’s current campaign to maintain the “advanced nature” of party cadres and members. Shortly before his term was up in Henan, Li gave a series of press interviews bemoaning the fact that central China had been neglected for the past decade, as the eastern coast and then the western and northeastern regions were given priority access to the nation’s resources (Xinhua, December 13, 2004; Henan Daily, November 30, 2004; Henan Daily, April 22, 2004). Yet the question can be asked whether what Li called “the emergence of the central [part of China]” might have been achieved if the party boss had made more imaginative use of Henan’s enormous resources as well as his own sterling connections in the capital.

Given that the grand plan to revive the three northeastern provinces is one of the first economic initiatives of the Hu-Wen Administration—and that Liaoning is the so-called dragonhead of the region—Li seems better placed to display his talents in his new posting. This is despite the fact that since arriving in the provincial capital of Shenyang in December 2004, the young party boss has followed the CCP tradition of depending on the proverbial “red-hot fervor of cadres and the masses”—rather than institutions and the law—to solve problems. This was demonstrated while he tried to tackle the issues of squatter housing as well as the stockpiling of petitions filed by residents with complaints against government departments. Li has come up with a “cadre responsibility system” whereby officials at different levels of administration are given quantitative targets akin to quotas in handling housing problems and the masses’ grievances (Xinhua, May 29, 2005).

Among the rising stars within Hu’s labyrinthine CYL network, it seems apparent that Jiangsu Province’s party boss Li Yuanchao has demonstrated the highest level of originality and bravado. The 55-year-old Li (not related to Li Keqiang) is also a former party secretary of the League and a vice-minister of culture. Since coming back to serve in his rich native province in 2000, the Beida economics graduate has broken new ground in the sensitive area of administrative and political reform. For example, the party boss has encouraged open competition for candidates applying for posts up to the level of vice-directors of provincial departments. Moreover, short-listed candidates must take part in “oral examinations,” which are telecast live. Li has indicated that open recruitment “should be carried out on a regular basis and over a wider range.” Li has also earned plaudits for relatively enlightened policies on culture and the environment. For example, he raised eyebrows by saying that city planners should discourage the construction of glitzy skyscrapers, which spoil the landscape and lead to wastage of material and energy. “Skyscrapers are neither beautiful nor practical,” he said early this year. “And they are a shame to our ancestors” (People’s Daily, January 6).

In general, however, the two Lis as well as other Hu protégés have conformed to the CCP tradition of quietly waiting in the wings and keeping a low profile so as not to be seen as upstaging their superiors in the Politburo Standing Committee. Diplomatic analysts agree that it is almost a foregone conclusion that Hu will largely achieve his objectives at the 17th Congress. After all, the other major faction in CCP politics, the so-called Shanghai Clique once led by ex-president Jiang, has been fading fast since the latter’s retirement from his last significant position of commander-in-chief in 2004. Moreover, Hu has been adept at building bridges to other important factions such as the “gang of princelings”—a reference to the offspring of party elders or retired generals—by elevating a significant number of these high-born cadres to senior party, government and military slots.

The significant issue then is whether the large number of Fifth Generation cadres being groomed for ministerial and Politburo positions are up to scratch. This is particularly urgent given that despite China’s ability to maintain a high growth rate, the leadership is facing unprecedented challenges on domestic and foreign fronts. Contradictions between the under-classes and the new elite of cadre-capitalists are intensifying, while China’s aggressive power projection in faraway areas such as Africa and Latin America is raising alarm bells in capitals ranging from Tokyo to Washington.

In terms of resolving domestic problems, it seems advisable that the president’s head-hunters should, in the interest of materializing Hu’s “harmonious society,” also look for future leaders among sectors that have always been under-represented in the Central Committee and the Politburo. For example, while peasants make up at least 70 percent of the population, there is hardly any Politburo member who speaks for their interests. It is ironic that during the chaotic 1950s and 1960s, when Chairman Mao rode roughshod over the country, quite a few “model farmers” and members of non-Communist parties were appointed to ministerial-level positions or above. The chances are not high that despite his apparent eagerness to learn from Mao, Hu would be tolerant enough to fill the party and government’s top echelons with elements deemed incongruous with his main goal of prolonging stern one-party rule.