Lawyers Are Taking Over China's Government

In the beginning there were firebrand revolutionaries like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Then came the engineers. China's post-Mao leadership has been dominated by engineers of varying stripes. Party chief (and President) Hu Jintao trained in hydraulic engineering, and Premier Wen Jiabao studied geomechanics, for example. Apparatchiks like them account for eight of the nine members of the Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, a trend replicated throughout the lower ranks, too. But times are changing. An analysis of younger rising stars in the party's leadership firmament reveals that cadres trained in the "soft sciences"—especially law—are quickly catching up as leaders realize they need a broad range of skills to govern. Is it the kind of change that could finally render the kinder, gentler face the government has been seeking for so many years?

Of the eight fastest-rising young Politburo stars, none got their highest degree in engineering. Instead, their educational backgrounds—defined by the highest degree attained—include economics, history, management, journalism, business, and law (three have legal training). "This is a substantial change," says Brookings scholar Cheng Li, an expert on the Chinese leadership. He sees a marked "soft science" academic trend among younger leaders, compared with the older generation of top officials.

During China's decades of untrammeled, go-go growth, top leaders were preoccupied with building, producing, and developing. Decision-making strategies shared a common thread: the regime tried to build its way out of problems. Not enough energy? Beijing constructed the world's largest hydroelectric project—the massive $30 billion Three Gorges Dam—which flooded archeological sites and required the forced relocation of 1.24 million people. The dam's planning relied mainly on engineers and "reflected little input from scientists, much less social scientists," who might have foreseen the protests and other "disastrous" costs of resettlement, says Dai Qing, a prominent critic.

Worsening drought in the North China Plain? President Hu's predecessor Jiang Zemin (electrical engineering) launched the ambitious, multidecade South-North Water Transfer Project, which involves channeling water from the southern Yangtze River to the north of the country via massive viaducts, incurring huge expense (an estimated $62 billion) and the diversion of water near the origin of India's Brahmaputra River—a special concern of the government in Delhi.

By contrast, some of China's younger cadres now focus more on "people solutions" to north China's water shortage. These include grassroots education campaigns promoting water conservation and raising water prices to combat waste. (Some universities have introduced "water-usage swipe cards" as a means of discouraging students from taking overly long showers.)

It's obvious enough why social scientists would dominate relatively new or nontraditional bureaucratic fiefdoms like the Ministry of Environmental Protection, which is headed by economist Zhou Shengxian. (It was elevated to a full ministry last year.) China's top negotiator on climate-change issues, for instance, is former diplomat Su Wei, whose specialty is international law.

But even the traditional power centers inside the Politburo hierarchy are now being poached by up-and-coming social scientists. The man currently seen as the likely successor to Premier Wen is Li Keqiang, who studied economics and law. Former Beijing mayor Wang Qishan, who majored in history, is now China's point man for the immensely important Sino-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Meanwhile, former commerce secretary Bo Xilai, currently a provincial party secretary, is a rising star who has a postgraduate degree in, of all things, journalism. Though statistics are hard to come by, 20 years ago such a strong showing in the liberal arts would have been unthinkable.

It's a good bet that, with social scientists acquiring more policymaking clout, China will see a shift away from the past practice of economic growth at any cost. Certainly the crush of law degrees among China's fresh crop of leaders bodes well for much-needed improvements in the rule of law—or at least in the procedural implementation. (In an interview with NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria, Wen said that China would not be truly ready for democracy until it saw greater adherence to existing legal procedures.) Some relatives of villagers detained for engaging in protests are, for the first time, being advised by authorities to seek professional legal advice about the mechanics of the appeal process, probation, and bail.

And some younger-generation leaders have openly embraced the mantra that money and growth aren't everything. Several years ago Chen Gang, mayor of the Beijing district of Chaoyang, threw his support behind artists trying to save their studios in a defunct '50s-era factory from demolition. (The complex was slated for redevelopment into a pricey residential complex.) Chen envisaged "Factory 798" becoming like New York's SoHo. Now it's thriving and full of galleries, museum offices, and restaurants—so successful, in fact, that at least two other shuttered Beijing factory compounds are slated to become similar cultural enclaves. "[We] need economic development, but artists need artistic development, too," explains Chen. He has the best of both worlds, having studied chemistry in college but also government administration during a short postgrad program at Harvard.