China's New Guard

Colleagues at the fast-track Communist Youth League have seen a change in their recently appointed boss. "In the past, Hu Chunhua was known within the Youth League for being polite," says a powerfully connected Beijing scholar. "But now he seems to be acting much tougher." Earlier this year Hu, 44, unceremoniously dismissed one of his subordinates, Lu Shizhen, from her post as party chief at the China Youth College for Political Sciences in Beijing. Even though Lu, at 60, had technically hit retirement age, she was hoping to stay on the job a little longer, according to the scholar, who requested anonymity because he isn't cleared to speak to the media. But Hu didn't even warn her in advance that she was being replaced. "Old Lu's time is up," he said at a meeting soon afterward. People in the room were shocked at such open disrespect for a cadre 16 years his senior.

Life has been unusually tense in the past few months for officials like Hu and their underlings. On Oct. 15, more than 2,000 select Chinese Communist Party cadres will gather for a pivotal meeting at Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Participants' careers could soar or stall, depending on political currents far outside their control. Although president and party leader Hu Jintao (no relation to the Youth League chief) and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are slated to keep their jobs until they retire in 2012, the No. 1 item on this Party Congress's agenda is the advancement of China's future leaders. Many analysts—and many ambitious young party members—are focusing not only on Hu Jintao's likely successor (or successors) but on the generation after that: rising officials now in their 40s who can expect to take power around 2022. Most people have never heard of Hu Chunhua or others of his age like Zhou Qiang and Sun Zhengcai. But they're likely to become far more widely known in the future. They and others like them could be China's last, best hope for political change.

Even before the leaders of the 2020s make their national debut at the upcoming Congress, Chinese have begun calling them the Sixth Generation. (Everything starts with Mao, of course.) Party chief Hu, 64, is the foremost member of generation No. 4, placing Li Keqiang, the 52-year-old front runner to become his heir apparent, in the front ranks of Gen Five. But no one in China is freighted with taller expectations than the offspring of the 1960s. The '60s Generation, as they're also known, are seen as worldlier, more traveled and less doctrinaire than any previous Chinese generation. And—though China's state-run media would never admit it—some Gen-Sixers were probably among the students who rallied at Tiananmen Square in 1989. China will be a different place when they come to power, says Renmin University professor Mao Shoulong. "These younger officials will have liberal thinking and open minds. They'll see an era of change."

As a mirror of the society around them, the Gen-Sixers are less ideological and more market-savvy; their peers include private-sector millionaires and environmental activists. But they're also apt to be nationalistic, even arrogant, some analysts say. "They lack the humility of [their elders]," says Cheng Li, a Sinologist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Some of them are quite spoiled, in my view." They certainly have been fortunate compared with earlier generations. For one thing, their higher education was uninterrupted by the traumatic Cultural Revolution of 1966–76, when universities were shuttered and students were shipped off to the backcountry to toil in the fields. Instead, they grew up in the era of "opening up and reform," as (Gen Two) Deng Xiaoping's quasi-capitalist policies were called.

The Gen-Sixers' schooling outdid their predecessors' in breadth as well as depth. All nine current members of the party's supreme decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, were trained as engineers. By contrast, says Prof. Wang Yukai of the National School of Administration in Beijing, "those born in the '60s have a broader knowledge base—law, economy and so on—that isn't limited to engineering and science. So their thinking is more international." Gen-Six grads from elite schools like Peking University can understand how prosperity helped topple dictatorships in South Korea and Taiwan. They're likely to apply those lessons at home, says Tianjian Shi, a political scientist at Duke University. "When they encounter a problem in society, they may allow more people to have more input in the political process," says Shi.

Smart political prognosticators—and ambitious Gen-Sixers—are keeping a particularly close eye on several young party leaders. By some rankings the fastest-rising star at present is Zhou Qiang, 47, an alumnus of the Communist Youth League system. The Youth League has been a favored path to the heights ever since former Youth League chief Hu Jintao took over China's top job five years ago. Zhou was appointed governor of Hunan province last year. His rate of ascent has been rivaled, if not exceeded, by Agriculture Minister Sun Zhengcai, at 44 the youngest minister in China's cabinet. But neither of them can match Youth League leader Hu Chunhua's inspired career path.

After graduating at the top of his Peking University class in 1983, Hu turned down a cushy job in the capital. Instead, official accounts say, he volunteered to go to Tibet. The remote Himalayan outpost, where altitude sickness is often a debilitating affliction for lowlanders, is generally viewed as a hardship assignment rather than a springboard for promotion. Hu spent 12 years there, at first working for a newspaper and later as political commissar of a state-run hotel. His tenure has become a "mark of distinction," says Yang Dali, director of the East Asian Institute in Singapore. "He's portrayed as a striver who was willing to follow his beliefs and act on them." It didn't hurt that his Lhasa stint overlapped with that of Hu Jintao, the party boss in Tibet back then. The connection has served the younger Hu well.

Assertive Gen-Sixers like Hu may stand out against China's prevailing political backdrop of timidity, inertia and opacity—"the bland leading the bland," as some call it. Even so, they're anything but rogues by Western standards. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, only the most doggedly faithful young party members had any hope of speedy advancement. Those who kept protesting in the spring of 1989 after the rallies were declared subversive need not apply. Today the Mao-era cult of personality has given way to a cult of consensus. President Hu's Fifth Generation understudy Li even looks like his bespectacled boss. "The young are more likely to be independent and individualistic," says Shi, "but as they grow older, collectivism is still the dominant norm."

Still, China's political climate is changing. Internal party decisions and personnel appointments are submitted to piaojue"decision by vote"—"a new term being endorsed as part of the party platform," says Li at Brookings. One recent straw poll among party members gave high marks to Shanghai party boss Xi Jinping, 54, prompting speculation that he could "helicopter" into the Standing Committee alongside Li Keqiang. Xi has the support of Hu's Gen-Three predecessor as party head, Jiang Zemin, who even in retirement wields major influence in the party. Hu might even be compelled to elevate Xi to a post that would make him marginally senior to Li. Then again, rumor mongering is a favorite tactic in attempts to manipulate the Congress's decisions.

All of which makes it that much tougher to tell the Sixth Generation's future. "Hu cannot even decide his own successor," says Cheng Li. "So how can he decide his successor's successor?" Even within the party, some observers speculate that the longstanding structure for orchestrating the succession—including the formalized system of generational politics—may be headed for a breakdown. "The rules will change," says Cheng Li. "Expect the unexpected … By the time the Sixth Generation comes to the top of the leadership, the Communist Party might be gone." Still, the party's critics have prophesied its collapse for decades. The one sure thing is that the currents now sweeping China are beyond any one leader's control. Old Mao's time is definitely up.