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Li Cheng, China’s Leaders
So who will govern China in the twenty-first century? For several years now, political analysts have been fascinated by the study of the Party elite, with experts in the change of leadership emphasising their role in the demise of authoritarian regimes. The changes that have had an impact on the sociology of Eastern Europe's ruling classes are also considered a significant factor in their democratic transformation. Given these circumstances, Li Cheng's book on the subject can be nothing other than welcome. Despite the gradual opening up of China over the last two decades, the sociology of the political and economic elite has remained somewhat neglected. Li Cheng, who seems to belong to this social group, was particularly well-placed to take on such a project.
He has chosen to study the generation which is now taking up the reins of power in China. As in any well-written scientific work, the author justifies the use of the concept of generation by referring to the Founding Fathers (of the field). He thus explains that the definition of generation he prefers is the one given by Mannheim, who insisted on the importance of collective political and social experiences (p. 6), rather than any definition based solely on the year of birth. While this choice seems totally justified, the author's practical implementation of this approach is quite poor. One wonders if he is deliberately trying to run with the scientific hare and hunt with the political hounds. But that does not alter the fact that he makes a serious mistake in branding those born between 1941 and 1956those officially known as the fourth generationthe generation of the Cultural Revolution. In fact, the impact of this event is very different according to whether one considers those who were aged between 15 and 18 in 1966, the Red Guards, or those who were 25 and were already working at the time. All the studies and autobiographies to date show that the Red Guards generation endured a very distinctive experience that brought a critical influence to bear on their world view and on their political behaviour. Those members of the elite who were born in 1956 were barely involved in the most extreme stages of the Cultural Revolution and many even had the opportunity to study abroad during the 1980s. Their experience puts them closer to those who were born between 1956 and 1966 than to their predecessors. This misinterpretation undermines the value of Li Cheng's study. Furthermore, the author is sometimes rather lax in his use of certain concepts. For example, the term technocrat is applied somewhat loosely; it is impossible to understand how Fang Lizhi, a university physics professor, was a former technocrat (p. 31), unless a proficiency in scientific and technical fields can be confused with a propensity to technocracy.
However, this work does have certain strengths. The quantitative analyses based on the official biographies of the ruling cadres clearly demonstrate the rise in cultural awareness among the younger generation Central Committee members (see the chapter entitled The Rise of Technocrats).
His analysis of the biographies of Party cadres at both provincial and central levels shows that the changes in personnel during the last two decades have been quite considerable. Li also draws certain other interesting conclusions; in particular, he demonstrates how the eastern provinces (notably Shanghai, Jiangsu and Shandong) are over-represented while the southern provinces, which account for 10% of the population and 14% of GDP, are represented by only 5.4% of leaders at central level, 2.7% at provincial level and 3% of city mayors (p. 60).
Furthermore, Li notes that in the fourth generation, a higher proportion of provincial leaders and mayors serve in their native regions (p. 81). Finally, in this generation as in previous ones, a very low percentage of leadership positions are held by women (12.1% of the most recently studied group) (p. 57). It should be recognised that the author is well aware of the limits of quantitative analysis. As he himself observes, quantitative analysis tells who governs but provides no clue as to how they came to power (p. 81). And yet the methods used to select the Party elite are an essential part of the functioning of any political system.
This is why Li Cheng tackles the issue of the role of groups of connected people using targeted studies. In his chapter on the Qinghua clique, he shows that the explicit aim of Jia Nanxiang, its president since the 1950s, had been to nurture the future leaders of the People's Republic. He encouraged not only the acquisition of new skills, but also political ambition. This is how the political advisers, a body which he himself created, became both high-ranking officials as well as renowned researchers (even if their academic level was not particularly brilliant). Despite the Cultural Revolution and the various events of the Party's contemporary history, Qinghua's graduates have reached high-ranking positionsHu Jintao, the Party's future number one, was himself a graduate of Qinghua in the 1950s.
Anybody who is even remotely interested in the leading group of Chinese Party officials knows that besides the Qinghua clique, the other influential groups are the Princes' Party (taizi dang) and the Secretaries Group (mishu bang). With respect to this latter group, Li Cheng devotes a study to the cases of Zeng Qinghong and Wen Jiabao, but it should be acknowledged that one does not learn much from this particular chapter. Li does however remark that nepotism plays an important role in China, but only when the people concerned possess a sufficiently high level of education.
Although it does not represent a significant breakthrough in the sociology of the Chinese Party elite, Li Cheng's book does constitute a reasonable work and could be useful for a course in Chinese political science.
Translated from the French original by Bernie Mahapatra