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China picks core new leaders

May 23, 2009

Asia Times
By Willy Lam
May 23, 2009

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.)
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