By Anastas Vangeli.

Concerning China’s new leaders, one particularly intriguing question is how they will continue to sustain the Party’s legitimacy through political reform. Political reform is something that has been discussed a lot, but acted little upon.

In order to discuss the prospects of political reform, one has to look at the generational features and peculiarities of the incoming leadership, and the characteristics that will greatly inform their thinking and decision-making.

The fifth generation of leaders is comprised of individuals who were born and bred in the People’s Republic of China. Their life experiences are extremely dense and diverse – however, a  common trait is that they had a firsthand account of the Cultural Revolution during their youth; they matured in an era of Reform and Opening Up.

Their political careers began to unveil during the 1980s and the 1990s, and often included a post in a coastal province or around the Bohai rim; that is to say their job was to design, implement or supervise the reform process at a lower level during the peak of the reform period.

They came to the point of maturity in an era of complex, professionalized policy-making. Many of them are in fact known for being keen on political reform – the name that stands out the most being Wang Yang.

Aside from being experienced practitioners, many of them are intellectuals (there is a record number of PhD holders among the new CCP elite – including both Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang) who are also much more international compared to their predecessors (with Li Yuanchao for instance, being a former fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard).

Finally, what defines this group of leaders as a “generation” is that they are free of the burden of the past, and especially of the decision-making that caused tectonic shifts in the political landscape of China (such as the events of 1989) – at the same time, they face the challenge of making their own contribution to history.

During the National People’s Congress earlier this year, Wen Jiabao stressed that his generation did not manage to make more significant steps towards political reform, and that political reform is something that remains as a task for the next generation. Wen used the case of Bo Xilai as a pretext to warn of another Cultural Revolution, and stressed the “urgency” of the need for political reform. Given their portfolios, Xi, Li and the rest certainly have the potential to live up to this challenge.

The latest scandal about Wen’s alleged “hidden riches” presented another illustration of the urgent need for political reform. The Party must introduce transparency and accountability to its top leadership, in order to sustain a certain level of public trust in the regime. 

Hong Kong press has reported that Wen suggested to the Party Centre that he would take the lead to make public his personal and family income and wealth.  Whether this will materialize anytime soon remains to be seen. But if it does indeed happens, it will mark a major step of meaningful political reforms.

Anastas Angeli is a freelance writer on Chinese politics and Sino-EU relations based in Beijing.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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