The Middle Kingdom has passed on to the Fourth Generation or the Disidai. This is how the persons who have taken over the leadership of China are known. The change, consequent upon the stepping down of Mr Jiang Zemin, is momentous in the slow transition already in place in a country known for its inscrutability and for its unchanging character. For China and its watchers across the world, these are, to use the words of an oft-quoted Chinese saying, “interesting times”. The significance of the changes lies in the efforts of the new leadership of the Chinese communist party to reconcile apparent contradictions. Communist China is opening up to capital and capitalists. It is also trying to introduce economic reforms and fast economic growth without loosening the tight political control the party exerts over the people. It is redundant to say that the success or the failure of the enterprise will decide the future of China and history’s judgment of the men who radically altered the face and the character of communism.
Even in these early days, it is clear from the positions adopted by the new leadership before the Congress actually began, that the Fourth Generation, following Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Mr Jiang Zemin, does not intend to perpetuate the status quo. The new general secretary, Mr Hu Jintao, is aware, as he himself has said, of the failings of the party he now leads and of the brewing discontent. Yet he is brimming with optimism and confidence. This confidence grows out of China’s economic success, the relative internal stability after the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and China’s obvious status as a global player in politics and economics. The concerns of the new leadership centre around China’s somewhat haphazard transition to a market economy, the growing disparities between the rich port cities and the poor agricultural and industrial regions inland, and the existence of great income inequalities. These concerns suggest a shift in China’s economic priorities: an emphasis on increasing domestic demand and less stress on export-led growth. The rise in domestic demand is seen as a corrective to income inequalities.
A shift in economic strategy will run parallel with continuities in the party’s monopoly on power. But there is, among the leadership, a consciousness of corruption and abuse of power by party officials. Mr Jintao has noted the danger of the party losing touch with the masses. He has memorably said that, “If we want the people to stop something, the leaders should first stop it themselves.” There is no premium on smugness anymore. There is, however, no promise to end or reduce authoritarianism. Will China be able to politically control the genie of individualism once it is released by economic reforms' This is the challenge before the new leadership. If, as Zhou Enlai said, it is too early to evaluate the French Revolution, it is premature to predict the future of the bamboo curtain.