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Hu Jintao Picks Core Sixth-Generation Leaders

May 17, 2009

By Willy Lam
Jamestown
May 16, 2009

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
administration seems preoccupied with the twofold
task of baoba and baowen -- maintaining an 8
percent 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 (Global Personalities [Beijing
journal], April 22; Sina.com.cn, April 15). 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
forty-something neophytes. 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 (Straits Times [Singapore], April 27).

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 protégé 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 has 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 percent in the first quarter of
this year, which was 4 percent 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 (Xinhua News Agency, April
29; People’s Daily, February 15; Hunan Daily, January 13).

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 upon 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 (People’s
Daily, January 13; Sina.com.cn. January 22). 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 (Asiatimes.com, October 10, 2008).

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 doubleganger, 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 ten year
term (see China Brief, “Hu’s Impasse at the 17th
Party Congress,” October 17, 2007). 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 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 (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], May 7).

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” (Xinhua News Agency, March
30; People’s Daily, April 18). Given that most
members of the CYL clique are long-standing party
functionaries— and that they have ready access to
supremo Hu—tuanpai cadres are generally
considered to be politically correct and
knowledgeable about the requirements of the central authorities.

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-calibre returnees so
as to combat the global financial crisis and to
push ahead scientific development," Li said at a
seminar on personnel administration (Xinhua News
Agency, April 6). 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 (BBC news,
May 15; AFP, February 22; Telegraph.co.uk, May
11). 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.
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