When Communist China adopted the open-door policy in the late 1970s, Western universities opened their arms to a wave of remarkable graduate students. After years of exile to remote collectives during the Cultural Revolution, this group had gotten into Chinese universities by passing competitive exams rather than through political credentials. More than a decade later, the fruits of their exposure to the West are seen in every segment of Chinese society. Now in their late 30s and 40s, members of this Class of 1977, as it is called, are quietly transforming the financial, legal, and government systems--and waiting for their turn in power.
Their steady rise is a major reason why no matter how brutal the current sclerotic generation of leaders are--both to China's neighbors and their own citizens--there is reason to be hopeful about the country's long-term future. Hard-driven, self-confident, and nonideological, the Class of '77 will be in a better position to usher in greater professionalism, openness, and political tolerance (Cover Story, June 5 ).
It won't come a moment too soon. The current leaders appear frozen in their authoritarian ways. In Hong Kong, which is just a year and a half away from rejoining China, pressures to curb the press are rising. Cartoonist Larry Feign, whose comic strip, The World of Lily Wong, took to task both Hong Kong's ineffectual British Governor and Beijing's heavy-handed autocrats, is being sacked at South China Morning Post. The newspaper denies that political pressure played a role and says the strip was cut to reduce costs. The Hong Kong press corps believes otherwise. Feign's departure follows a string of events that sends a chill down the spines of those uho believe that the free flow of information is necessary for efficient markets and democratic institutions. One Hong Kong reporter was sentenced to 12 years in jail for revealing Chinese "state secrets" that turned out to be interest-rate changes. Rupert Murdoch has dropped the BBC, which had angered China, from the northern footprint of his Hong Kong-based Star TV satellite broadcast.
The Class of '77 promises to be less concerned with Western criticism. This is not to say the West won't still have its share of trade and human rights beefs in the future. Even with the '77ers at the helm, China is likely to remain authoritarian for years to come. There also is a nationalistic streak: Many want China to be a superpower that can hold its own economically or politically with the West or Japan.
Still, the '77ers are likely to create a more levelheaded, predictable, and transparent place to do business. They see political pluralism--not socialism--as China's goal. Western business, government, and cultural organizations should help this generation build the institutions needed for a civil society. In coming years, outside attention will focus on the ups and downs of the elderly communist diehards as they wage their power struggles. But for a better idea of where China is headed, get to know the Class of '77.