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China’s New Rulers: What They Want

Following are the members of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, whose election is expected in November 2002, listed by their rank according to protocol, with their main Party and future state positions. Ages are given as of November 2002; the positions listed are in addition to the policy-making duties of PBSC membership.

  1. Hu Jintao, 59; Party General Secretary; State President; Central Military Commission Chairman. He is described as the “Core” of the Fourth Generation.
  2. Li Ruihuan, 68; National People’s Congress Chairman
  3. Wen Jiabao, 60; Premier of the State Council
  4. Wu Bangguo, 61; Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman
  5. Luo Gan, 67; Secretary, Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission
  6. Zeng Qinghong, 63; Secretary, Party Secretariat
  7. Li Changchun, 58; Executive Vice Premier (a likely choice still under consideration)

1.

The men who will take control of the world’s most populous country following the November congress of the Chinese Communist Party did not run for office or make public promises of change. Instead, they were considered and approved for promotion by the outgoing leaders, who could draw on detailed confidential reports on each of them compiled by the Party’s secretive, highly trusted Organization Department. These reports form the basis of a remarkable new Chinese-language book, Disidai, or “The Fourth Generation,” which is being published in November in the US.1 Its author is a Party insider using the pseudonym Zong Hairen, whom we have found authoritative and reliable. Practically all of his predictions during the past year about the shape of the new leadership have been confirmed by events. Zong has authorized us to present in English the main findings in his book. We are doing so in two articles, of which this is the second,2 and in a book, China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files.3

The Organization Department’s investigation reports include selections from each leader’s formal and informal remarks delivered confidentially during the past couple of years within Party circles. The quotations are intended to show the speakers’ views on a host of issues, including, for example, the plight of workers and farmers as China enters the World Trade Organization, how Party rule can be sustained, and relations with the United States. Since all the new leaders were already in official positions when they spoke, they explained and defended current policy. But they did so in ways that reveal their preoccupations, their priorities, and their styles of thinking, and their remarks offer some guidance to the ways in which they will govern China once they are in power.

The new rulers, each identified in our previous article and listed in the box on this page, will, as members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), set policy for every function of Chinese government, whether in economic planning, police control, or foreign affairs. In some of their statements the new members of the PBSC, led by the fifty-nine-year-old Hu Jintao, recognize the recent failings of Party rule and popular discontent over it, but they are confident that they can win support and co-opt or crush opposition. That confidence clearly owes much to the economic boom and relative stability achieved since the Tiananmen events of 1989. They all seem to have no doubt about China’s rising global status, which they plan to maintain through a cooperative relationship with the US and a broader diplomacy embracing Europe and Russia. Their confidence is also evident in their view that China will continue successfully to control Tibet and Xinjiang and advance its claim to Taiwan.

But the new rulers do not plan merely to continue the status quo. A significant constituency, led by the sixty-eight-year-old liberal Li Ruihuan, a former carpenter and mayor of Tianjin, who is slated to take over the chairmanship of the national parliament in March 2003, wants to see semicompetitive elections for government positions up to the provincial level as well as greater freedom, within limits, for the Chinese press, television, and radio.

Those in charge of China’s economic future—especially premier-designate Wen Jiabao—have talked about their plans to address the helter-skelter market transition of the last two decades with more emphasis on growth based on rising domestic demand and less on growth resulting from exports; they say they want to reduce income inequalities and do more to protect the environment.

None of the new leaders hints at any willingness to compromise the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. If they can control the pace of change, as they hope, China will likely move into a post-ideological authoritarianism that emphasizes economic development. It will resemble the authoritarian systems that once existed in South Korea and Taiwan, and still does in Singapore. But if their limited reforms lead to demands for greater change, China, in our view, could slip more quickly toward a democratic revolution of the sort witnessed in Hungary and Poland.

Like their predecessors, the Fourth Generation leaders believe that the first requirement for China’s continued social and political stability is rapid economic growth. But they have new ideas on how to achieve it. Under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin there was a consensus that export-led growth, stimulated by foreign investment, was the secret to rapid development. But, as has been said, Wen Jiabao, the future premier and head of the State Council, stresses a different vision of growth through enlarged domestic demand:

The long-term strategic direction for China’s economic growth has to be rooted in the expansion of domestic demand…. Raising the people’s standard of living is the basic starting point for various projects. Clearly we need to undertake effective measures to raise the incomes of residents, and especially the family incomes of farmers and lower- and middle-income residents of small towns, and work to raise the purchasing power of these residents.

This policy could have several consequences if it were carried out. By raising incomes and living standards it could help to consolidate the regime’s popularity, make the China market a reality for both Chinese and foreign firms, and enlarge China’s freedom of action in foreign policy by diminishing its dependency on exports to Western markets.

China suffers from vast disparities in income between the relatively prosperous coastal cities and the poor agricultural and industrial regions inland. Similar disparities exist between social classes, with manual workers and farmers receiving extremely small incomes in comparison with those of private entrepreneurs, managers, and foreign enterprise employees. Such inequalities are cited both by the regime’s domestic critics and by foreign analysts anticipating a “collapse of China.” The same problems are on the minds of the Fourth Generation. While visiting poor districts in the northwest province of Shaanxi in 1999, Li Ruihuan, a carpenter in his youth, commented:

The CCP has been in power for 50 years but there are still 30 million people in poverty and 50 million people without primary education. This is our failure, our sin.

In Shandong in 2001 Li added:

At this point, we should give more attention to disadvantaged people, such as the furloughed4 and unemployed, retired staff and workers, and people in the villages who still don’t have enough to wear and eat.

A shift in economic strategy may mean more pressure on unprofitable state-owned enterprises (SOEs), particularly in light industries and in heavy industries producing steel, cars and trucks, ships, and coal. After nearly two decades during which officials encouraged the growth of non-state-owned companies and sold off the assets of loss-making state corporations, state-owned enterprises now account for only about a quarter of GDP. Many remain inefficient, which is why more than half of the loans made by state banks are not paid back and why workers and retired people frequently demonstrate in protest over unpaid wages and pensions.

Wen Jiabao and other incoming economic policymakers would like to phase out more quickly the SOEs that do not make money. The policy under Jiang Zemin and the outgoing premier, Zhu Rongji, has been to “grasp the large and let go of the small”—to sell off small SOEs while pouring new money into big ones, so as to create South Korean–style conglomerates that keep control of the economy in the state’s hands. Wen has argued against this slogan, saying that it should not be treated as “an absolute standard.” He implies that some large state enterprises that are losing money can also be sold off, so long as they are not strategic industries, such as defense, energy, transport, and telecommunications, that he believes the state must control.

* * *

On environmental issues, Wen is the most forward-looking leader yet to appear in China. He has been critical of the Great Western Development Plan, under which Beijing has poured government money into building up the western hinterland in order to exploit the region’s resources and tie it politically to the rest of the nation. Wen has argued for slower step-by-step development that pays attention to controlling pollution of air and water, among other measures, to stop deterioration of the environment. He has also been critical of the grand “south–north water transfer” plan that has been proposed for a network of canals and aqueducts to carry huge amounts of water from the south, where water is plentiful, to the dry north. In challenging the plan, Wen speaks with a modesty that is rare for a Communist leader:

We must conserve water before moving it, control pollution before turning on the tap, protect the environment before consuming water. We must fully think through the economic, social, and ecological effectiveness of transporting water…. There must be no hasty start to the work before we have undertaken scientific, full-scale confirmation. Water conservation must be tried before undertaking water transfer.

The new leadership also wants to loosen some social controls while maintaining a police state. The PBSC member overseeing security issues, Luo Gan, advocates reforming the Maoist household registration system, which still ties peasants administratively to the land, by creating a single national registration status for all citizens. If Luo has his way, peasants will be able to migrate freely to wherever they have work, and any Chinese citizen will be able to get a passport with ease.

Luo has also ordered that more funds be allocated to courts and prisons in order to improve administration, and has admonished courts not to pass the death sentence without solid evidence. (In China people can be sentenced to death for such crimes as bribery and theft.) But his concern is concentrated on administrative efficiency rather than on the rights of prisoners or elementary civil liberties for citizens. This is shown by his record, as the member of the outgoing Politburo in charge of security, of arresting thousands of people who belong to independent organizations such as the Falun Gong or who try to start new ones. And it is highlighted by the number of executions and police killings that have taken place under his authority. The investigation report on Luo notes with approval that more than 60,000 people were killed either in the course of police work or after death sentences in the four-year period between 1997 and 2001, an average of 15,000 a year. To put this in perspective, Amnesty International was able to identify only 2,500 executions in China in 2001, a figure that it said accounted for 81 percent of the known worldwide total. Since the investigation report’s figures also include police killings of alleged criminals caught in the act or trying to escape, they are not directly comparable to the Amnesty figures. But they suggest a far wider use of the death penalty than was previously known.

2.

After more than a decade of political stasis since Tiananmen, China may be in for a period of carefully limited political change. The Fourth Generation’s statements recorded in their personal dossiers suggest that several of them take the problems of China’s sclerotic political system seriously. They are willing to experiment with the system in ways the Party leadership has not considered since the Tiananmen tragedy occurred.

The main problems of China’s current political system, as the Fourth Generation sees them, are corruption and abuse of power by Party officials, and the consequent disaffection on the part of the Chinese public. The documents refer, for example, to many cases in which officials and their families have been accused of siphoning off money from state industries or accepting bribes to help private businesses. They quote Li Ruihuan as saying:

To be sure, the CCP ranks have grown quantitatively to over sixty million…but why is it that our unity, our attractiveness are weaker than they have ever been? Why does no one feel honored or have a sense of historical mission to be a CCP member or cadre? This is the biggest danger today, and the fuse for potential social turmoil.

Hu Jintao is quoted as saying:

The biggest danger to the Party since taking over has been losing touch with the masses…. If we want something to happen below, we have to do it first at the top. If we want the people to stop something, the leaders should first stop it themselves.

Members of the Fourth Generation are broadly split into two camps about how to address these problems. One group—which includes Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Luo Gan—believes in the use of internal Party mechanisms to rectify the behavior of “cadres,” i.e., Party and government officials. Hu has said that the Party should do a better job of recruiting, evaluating, training, and promoting its cadres; he has supported new regulations issued in July 2002, which specify a rigorous process of deciding on promotions through investigations, hearings, and examinations.

Another group—which includes Li Ruihuan and, surprisingly, Jiang Zemin’s top aide Zeng Qinghong—do not believe that internal mechanisms alone can keep Party cadres from indulging in corruption and abuse of power. They believe that Party cadres need additional discipline through measures providing for external popular “supervision,” which they also describe as “democracy.” These include limited competitive elections and a partially free media, including the press, television, and radio. “If we want to change the situation,” Li Ruihuan has said, “and to effectively prevent and check corruption, we must constrain and supervise power.” On another occasion he said:

We in the CCP cannot seem to implement successful supervision of ourselves…. Why did an advanced political party, a Party that represents the interests of the broadest number of people, come to this pass? Where in Marxism or Deng Xiaoping Theory does it say the Party should fear the people, fear supervision by society, fear reforming itself, fear the rule of law, fear telling the people about our own and our families’ incomes?

Li wants to extend the direct competitive election of government leaders, so far limited to the village level, to the 50,000-odd township governments—something already tried on an experimental basis in about a dozen places but without approval from the Politburo. Three to five years later, Li says, direct elections should be expanded to counties and cities, and later to entire provinces. Candidacy in such elections would be open to non–Party members, but presumably not to organized parties other than the Chinese Communist Party. The officials who ran for office would have an incentive to please the voters, but the reform would create no threat to Party rule. Since Li will be the head of the National People’s Congress, he will be in a strong position to promote his ideas. Li also suggests reducing Party oversight of the media and allowing private ownership of some newspapers.

* * *

Whether there will be real movement on political reform may depend on the calculations of Zeng Qinghong, who was for years Jiang Zemin’s shrewd and quietly successful political strategist. The investigation reports contain few statements by Zeng on political reform; but according to Zong Hairen’s book, he has said privately that he would like to lift the ban on opposition parties. He would also favor expanding direct elections to the county level or higher, and he wants a more independent press. But like the other leaders, Zeng would not emulate the American system. “America has many things that we need to study,” he has said, “but we Chinese would not like to follow the American model. When we carry out bold political system reform, it has to be on the basis of national unification, ethnic cohesiveness, and social stability.”

There is no indication that any member of the Fourth Generation wants to relax the ban on independent worker, peasant, and student organizations of the sort that briefly emerged in 1989 and—in the hard-liners’ view at the time—threatened Party rule. The reports do not reveal a Chinese Gorbachev among the new leaders—someone who thinks the Party’s problems are so severe that changes are needed that could risk the Party’s existence. Perhaps this is not surprising. Anyone who said that the Party monopoly of power had to be ended would not have survived the selection process for the Politburo Standing Committee in the first place.

But some combination of economic crisis, political stalemate, and international changes could make the generally cautious reformers more radical. The investigation reports leave the impression that Li Ruihuan and Zeng Qinghong—pragmatists with a genuine concern to make the system work better—are not averse to considering non-orthodox solutions. Zong Hairen states that if the political pressures make it necessary, several of the new leaders are privately willing to “reverse the verdict” on Tiananmen—i.e., admit that the 1989 government crackdown on students was wrong. Such an admission would certainly be opposed by Luo Gan and other conservative leaders who believe that the Tiananmen repression was necessary and that acknowledging that it was a mistake would undermine the authority of the regime.

3.

Although members of the Fourth Generation are better educated and more technically proficient than their predecessors, they have less international experience. Only one, Luo Gan, studied outside China, compared to three members of the previous Standing Committee. The preceding leaders traveled extensively on diplomatic visits, attended summits, and entertained a stream of foreign visitors. With the exceptions of Hu Jintao and Li Ruihuan, who served in the outgoing leadership, the members of the Fourth Generation have not yet had as many opportunities for foreign contacts.

So far, the new leaders see little need to change Jiang Zemin’s foreign policies. Jiang’s most impressive achievement was to create a degree of stability in political relations between China and the United States, despite what the Chinese see as a wildly fluctuating, often irrational American policy toward China. When Jiang took office in 1989, China was subject to sanctions by many countries and was shamed at the UN Human Rights Commission by the statements of members deploring the repression of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. Today, as a WTO member, the frequent summit partner of the US, and the designated host of the 2008 Olympics, China sees itself as a respected leader among countries. This is a legacy that Hu’s generation will seek to preserve.

In their internal remarks, the new leaders present their country not as a dissatisfied power, as some in the West portray it, or as a challenger to the United States for regional preeminence, but as a pillar of the global status quo, a force for stability and peace. China supports the United Nations, as well as what it calls multipolarity—the principle that many nations will have a say in world affairs. It also supports, at least verbally, global campaigns against environmental degradation, as well as against poverty and illness, drug trafficking, mistreatment of refugees, and international terrorism, even though it tolerates widespread damage to its own environment.

According to Hu and the other leaders, China now has a visible record of good international citizenship and the rise of China is a threat to no one. In Hu’s words, as China develops, “we will simply have more resources to oppose hegemonism and power politics.” The source of this hegemonism and power politics, and the real threat to global order in the eyes of the new Chinese leaders, is the United States.

America’s “strategic eastward movement has accelerated,” Hu Jintao says. Looking around China’s periphery, he notes that the United States has

strengthened its military deployments in the Asia-Pacific region, strengthened the US–Japan military alliance, strengthened strategic cooperation with India, improved relations with Vietnam, inveigled Pakistan, established a pro-American government in Afghanistan, increased arms sales to Taiwan, and so on. They have extended outposts and placed pressure points on us from the east, south, and west. This makes a great change in our geopolitical environment.

Such a US attempt to contain China was inevitable, according to Zeng Qinghong: “The Americans constantly worry that a strong China will threaten their position of primacy. So the US wants both to dominate China’s market and to find every possible way to contain its development. This contradictory attitude determines that US–China relations develop in a zigzag pattern, so different from [the smooth development of] Sino-European relations.”

On the whole, the leaders’ statements suggest that they give credence to only one side of the China policy debate in the United States. Their views parallel (and seem to be influenced by) those of American “realists” who consider that China and the US, as two immensely strong powers, are doomed eventually to come into conflict. None of the leaders’ statements even alludes specifically to a different American view, often expressed by American presidents and other officials, that American interests are served by a prosperous and stable China.

Despite their dark view of long-term American intentions, the leaders still claim to be optimistic that the US will restrain itself. According to Wen, the two countries have

common interests and goals on a host of global issues such as anti-terrorism, anti-proliferation, anti-corruption, and attacking drugs and organized crime…. All this goes to show that common interests are greater than the divisions between the two countries.

Li Ruihuan points out that economic interests draw the two sides together, and Zeng Qinghong says that

Bush and Clinton are both clear—that to form bad relations with China is against their long-term basic national interest. Therefore, the United States will not develop bad relations with China in the long term, and US–China relations cannot evolve into [something similar to] the former US–Soviet relations.

The international dominance of American power makes the relationship with the US, as Hu Jintao puts it, the “central thread in China’s foreign policy strategy.” China’s leaders think of every other foreign policy relationship and problem in the context of US relations. For example, they value their new friendship treaty with Russia. But they know that the potential for broader Sino-Russian strategic cooperation is limited by Russia’s basic interest in sustaining its relationship with the US. As Hu Jintao says of the relationship with Russia, quoting Confucius, “Relations between gentlemen should be as thin as water”—one does not ask for too much. They also value the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which the Chinese have sponsored, and which includes Russia and five countries from Central Asia, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The organization contributes, they believe, to peace and stability on China’s northern and western borders.

Europe for the new Chinese leaders offers a diplomatic bright spot because they share with the EU countries an interest in checking American unilateralism. Japan, by contrast, is seen as a tool of American power rather than a counterbalance to it and hence it is a considerable threat to Chinese interests. The only blemish the Chinese leaders see in their relations with Europe is European criticism of China’s record on human rights. Yet they speak of such criticism as growing naturally out of cultural differences, while they see American criticisms as an instrument of the US containment strategy. Wen therefore, for example, seems more disposed to make concessions to rights concerns emanating from Europe than from America.

* * *

The relationship with the United States also affects the attitudes of Chinese leaders toward three problems that, strictly speaking, they consider issues of domestic rather than foreign policy—their relations with Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, the vast northwestern region bordering on Tibet and Central Asia, where China faces separatist resentment among Muslim ethnic groups, especially the Uighurs, who make up 47 percent of a population of 19 million. Popular opposition to Chinese rule is not, in the new leaders’ view, the real source of difficulty in Taiwan and Tibet. Instead, opposition has been manipulated, exaggerated, even created by the Americans as part of their strategy of containing China.

Zeng Qinghong describes Taiwan and Tibet as “bargaining chips” of America’s China strategy. As he puts it:

When the US believes that improvement in US–China relations suits its interest, Taiwan becomes unimportant; when America believes that conflict between the two sides is necessary, the Taiwan question is placed on the White House’s table. The Americans never consider Taiwan’s interests, only their own. Don’t you think the Taiwanese are clear on this point? Of course they are—but they cannot say so.

The leaders optimistically believe that the rise to power in Taiwan of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party, which captured the presidency under Chen Shui-bian in 2000 and became the largest party in the Taiwan legislature in 2001, will be temporary. Zeng Qinghong’s dismissive evaluation of Chen is typical:

He has power but no idea of how to use it; he is not a skillful politician. The Taiwanese support him for the time being only out of a certain emotionalism, but emotion has to be sustained for a long time [to be of any importance]. For now, Chen is relying on the economic prosperity built up under the [former regime of the] Kuomintang to survive [and cannot provide continuing prosperity]. So the Taiwan people’s emotions toward him cannot be sustained for long.

Tibet, like Taiwan, is seen by the Fourth Generation as a proxy battlefield in relations with the US. According to Zeng Qinghong, international accusations that the Chinese have been brutal and racist in Tibet “fully reveal the hidden psychology of the Dalai [Lama] clique and international enemy forces to use the so-called ‘Tibet problem’ to damage China’s stability, divide Chinese territory, and contain China’s development and strength.” “Tibet is China’s Tibet, not America’s Tibet or Europe’s Tibet,” Zeng adds. “Everyone knows that the US Indians suffered cultural genocide and the US and Europe are always having problems with racial discrimination, so what right does the US have to beat others with human rights? They should solve their own problems first.”

Surprisingly, the situation in Xinjiang appears to the Fourth Generation as more critical than that of either Taiwan or Tibet. Contrary to the views of many Western experts, Luo Gan says that violent terrorism is a serious problem in Xinjiang, and that the problems there are harder to manage than in Tibet with its single, generally nonviolent minority ethnic group. Apparently the leaders view internal opposition in Xinjiang as all the more serious because it is aided by separatist Uighur forces based outside China, mainly in Kazakhstan. Hu Jintao has chillingly called for an extensive new control system to be installed in the autonomous region:

We must select and send a large number of excellent young and middle-aged cadres, whose personnel lines and salaries are on the central government’s budget, to work in those villages where the situation is complicated, the economy is poor, and the task of upholding stability is difficult…. We have to send our best people to the front lines, the village and township Party committees have to play a core leadership role, the village Party branches have to become fortresses in the battle, the police precinct offices, People’s Armed Police, and basic level militia must develop their roles as core cadres along with the advanced peasants.

* * *

For the West, the main message of the heretofore secret material Zong Hairen has brought to light is that the new Chinese rulers come to power with the self-confidence of men who have outperformed their rivals and have risen to the top of a strong political system. The records and statements make it clear that, unlike the Soviet leaders who preceded Gorbachev, they have a realistic idea of how their system works and of its weaknesses. The Fourth Generation is aware of popular dissatisfaction with the Communist Party but not intimidated by it. They are prepared to continue the economic reforms of the past and to take new measures to address worsening economic inequality without giving up the state’s guiding role in the economy. They want to address long-delayed problems of modernizing the party-state but not to model their system on Western-style democracy. They accept as inescapable the mutually interdependent and mutually suspicious relationship with the United States; they hope both to restrain the power of the US and work out profitable relations with it. They also see great prospects for advantage in their relations with Europe, and they intend to participate in, and have a part in shaping, the global system.

The future may not unfold as the Fourth Generation leaders intend. China may be forced to allow genuine democracy. It may regress toward tighter authoritarianism, or it may collapse. Events could force China into a confrontation with the West, or make it converge with a Western model of economics and society. But none of these possibilities, so often discussed in the West, is ever mentioned by China’s new leaders as they prepare to take power.


  1. Mirror Books. Mao's generation was the first, Deng Xiaoping's the second; Jiang Zemin's the third. The new leadership, with Hu Jintao as general secretary of the Communist Party, is called the Fourth Generation.
  2. See "China's New Rulers: 1. The Path to Power," The New York Review, September 26, 2002.
  3. To be published by New York Review Books in November.
  4. Many state enterprise workers in China are laid off by being "furloughed" (xiagang), which means they continue to draw a minimal stipend from their enterprise, which is not enough to live on.