Rarely does world politics grab so much attention. Riding invisible “ demographic coalition “ of underprivileged Americans, Barrack Obama’s re-election has stunned not only Republicans but also renewed hopes for social democratic politics in democracies around the world. Next is a slow yet profound generational power shift in China. The current Vice-president Xi Jinping’s coronation as the Chief of the Communist Party, who along with Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, a batch-mate from the days of infamous Cultural Revolution, will also take over as president in March 2013 and also new chairman of party’s powerful Central Military Commission is a story in contrast. As expected, the 18 National Congress of the Chinese Communist in progress has effectively ended Hu Jintao’s decade long rule, Xi Jiping, 59 years old, about whom even few Chinese know much about is set to take charge of world’s most populous country and its second largest economy.
Native of remote village of Xiajiang in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Xi Jinping’s rise to pinnacle of power is also described as the rise of China’s “lost generation”. This “lost generation”, writing in the Asian Times, Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief says, “represents those Chinese who “ were young Chinese in their teens thrown into the decade-long turmoil of the Cultural Revolution that Mao Zedong unleashed in 1966…They had no childhood, no education, no family and, in the eyes of many, never felt happiness”. Many of them who were to be “trained in the university of life” to play a future vanguardist role were “very angry-angry with everyone” as they felt a rage against the society for robbing their innocence!
In other words, the historic shift of power from powerful reformist President Hu Jintao who in his last-state –of –the –nation address has admitted the growing contradictions of Chinese society and criticized current Chinese path of development as “unbalanced, unco-ordinated and unsustainable” will hand over power to a generation most affected by Chairman Mao’s war against rising “antagonistic contradictions’ and expected dilemmas of socialist revolution. Mr Xi Jinping was hardly 13 when Mao launched his Cultural Revolution to purge the Chinese society of its bourgeoisie elements and recast Communist Utopia. His father Xi Zhongxun was one of Mao’s favorite comrades but later fell out with him and spent much of his next 26 years in custodial suffering.
Chinese experts point out that many of them were Red Guards who inspired by Mao savagely attacked and even tortured so-called “capitalist roaders” within and outside the party soon themselves became victim of a deformed communist utopia. Xi Jinping was sent to impoverished north-western Shaanxi province to become farmer and work in the countryside. If this led Xi Jinping to develop distrust of great leaders, "strong emphasis on stability, and fear of turmoil”, it also led him to cultivate empathy for poor and farmers. ‘A master of building methane-generating pits’, Xi Jiping jokingly recalls himself, referring to his works on waste disposal and lead ‘sanitary revolution’ in rural China during the Cultural Revolution when he worked in a People’s commune in northern Shaanxi. Recalling his days as a farm labour in the fields, he wrote in 1998; “I am a son of the yellow earth” as if he was just a common man. In an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television in 2003, Xi Jiping has also recalled memories of Cultural Revolution: "In the past when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervor of the Red Guard era…But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realised, it proved an illusion." In other words, once “good at chanting Mao slogans”, he is expected to follow a calibrated strategy of “reform of the political structure” to disguise increasing “de-Maofication”and is also expected to attach “great importance to conducting oversight of cadres”, an euphemism for rising incidence of corruption in the top echelon of the party. No doubt, Xi will be tested and tormented by rising wealth disparity, so-called ‘mass disturbances’( official jargon for protests ranging in size from a handful of people to many thousands) and endemic corruption in China, a fact symbolized by former Central Politburo member Bo Xilai’s spectacular downfall amid allegations of corruption and a murder cover-up.
Wealth disparity and lack of inclusive growth I also experienced in my own night outs in the glitzy Beijing in January 2012 where poor would be flocking to proletarian street restaurants for two squares a meal and rich teens would be seduced by swanky red sports cars in the middle of the night. Wealth disparity and rising cases of corruption has led Mr. Hu Jintao, the outgoing president, to warm younger generation of leadership in his state- of- the nation speech that corruption could cause “the collapse of the party and the fall of the state”.
Hope, UPA leaders in India especially rising young Turks in the party and the government are closely watching the words of Hu Jintao about catastrophic effects of corruption and undertake bold political and economic reforms. Chinese watchers also worry that Xi and his allies will be challenged by both left (who supports old style communism and right (economic and political reformers) in China. Leftists worry perhaps genuinely that China sooner or later will meet the fate of former countries of the Soviet Union and Easter Europe if it continues to be seduced with the market and casino capitalism. In contrast, rightists blame the party that Chinese economic reforms have not been genuinely liberal and transparent. The focus on “improved quality and performance” in the resolution of the party congress suggests the growing impatience of economic reforms in the “state-investment led model of growth”. In an article in the People’s Tribune, a magazine produced by the Party’s mouthpiece the People’s Daily, Yuan Gang of Peking University had earlier sounded out a stark warming to Xi and his cohorts that “A tightly controlled society in which people only do as they are told, are utterly subservient, and in which there is no freedom of action, will meet a rapid end.” This is also echoed in the growing impatience of the rising middle class which believes that China may continue to grow better than others but the era of double-digit growth is almost over.
Despite bitter ideological and political divisions, both sides, however, agree that if the party does not radically tackle rising huge gap between rich and poor and corruption, it would not be a surprise that children of cultural revolution or more precisely “lost generation” may preside over the looming social upheavals and chaos leading to the demise of the Communist party without which Chinese society can’t envision itself, at least in the immediate future. If the rise of “lost generation” in China is fraught with challenges of making a “harmonious society”, pursue “scientific outlook on development” and “generating happiness” in China then it is also equally true that Chinese have a habit to surprise conventional politics, liberal or Marxist. Though it is almost a foregone conclusion that Xi Jinping will be the next General Secretary of the party, there is also a possibility that the rise of this “Son of the Yellow Earth” may become a new “red star over China”; whether it turns out first as tragedy, then as farce, only history will tell!
(Ashwani Kumar, Professor and Chairperson, Center of Public Policy, Habitat & Human Development, School of Development Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai; he has edited “ Power Shifts and Global Governance”, Anthem Press; London)