Around the world, hopes are high for the new generation of Chinese leaders that will formally assume power over the next year. President George W. Bush wants to meet many of them on his trip to Beijing on Feb. 21-22. Certainly, the so-called fourth generation of leaders has many strengths. For one, it has shed most of the ideological baggage that hobbled its predecessors. Its members are better-educated than their elders and know how to fix China's economy.
But China's emerging leaders are untested in the rough-and-tumble arena of leadership. They have spent most of their careers serving leaders, not being leaders. The ability to offend no one may be a prerequisite to ascending to China's political pinnacle, but the very caution that helped presumptive heirs Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao on the way up may now be a disadvantage. There's a danger that the leaders that will run the country will be reactive and unable to stay ahead of the key issues they will face, including political reform, social instability, and relations with the U.S.
Like the Soviet Union in the mid- and late-1980s, China's elite is split between those who want more openness in society and those who favor stability at all costs. Stability has been the watchword of President Jiang Zemin's decade in power, during which top officials have played on the threat of chaos, warning that the choice is between stability and disaster. Now there are calls from among some of the party elite to rethink the emphasis on stability. These brave few say that more democracy--more freedom of the press, more rule of law, more room for political maneuver--will provide the shock absorbers China will need to get through the difficult decade ahead. It would be wise for Hu and his colleagues to listen to them for the fourth-generation leaders will have to contend with the upheaval caused by the continuing economic revolution. Displaced farmers and unemployed workers, anger over weak property rights, and corruption are chronic problems that the leadership will face.
The big question China will confront is how to react to these socio-economic problems. Will it crack down, as it has done with its anticrime campaign, or will it address the fundamental sources of discontent? Does the new leadership allow the media to expose more corrupt officials, or keep corruption revelations to lower levels? Will the fourth generation produce a legal system that can protect property rights, or does it continue to favor the Chinese Communist Party and the powerful? Will Hu continue to embrace the reflexive nationalism that he displayed after the U.S. accidentally bombed China's Belgrade embassy or will he embrace America as a source of knowhow and capital? Bush will get a chance to meet some of this new generation. Given what we know about them, it would be a mistake for him to place too many hopes on these fundamentally conservative leaders. Although the true test of leadership will only come once the new generation fully takes power, there's little in their record to suggest that Hu and those around him have the dynamic vision to provide the breakthrough leadership that China requires over the next decade. Then again, perhaps he will surprise China and the world by going beyond his reputation.