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China's younger leaders. Newcomers like Gao face task of making reforms stick

Gao Di said he didn't choose to be Communist Party secretary for one of China's richest provinces but that he had little choice in the matter. ``If I'd been allowed to select my own job, I'd rather be an editor of a newspaper,'' he said in an interview here.

The selection of Gao Di is one example of how master strategist Deng Xiaoping has gone about the tough task of finding new people to carry forward his sweeping reform program.

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Gao said he was nominated for the most powerful post in Jilin at a meeting last spring. He said that some 1,100 senior party members from the province (out of a provincial total of more than 900,000 members) wrote names on a blank ballot for the party secretary, five deputies, the governor, and other top officials. After extensive discussions by the provincial party committee, the names of the nominees were reported to Peking.

Last year, among the 58 top posts in China's 21 provinces and five autonomous regions, some 26 were filled through new promotions, and most of the rest were filled by people shuffled from other posts. With a few exceptions, most of the newcomers are political unknowns. Except to the tightly knit ruling elite, it is unclear how these officials were chosen.

As Jilin's new party secretary, Gao insisted that he is not the prot'eg'e of any higher leader, as many top new officials in China are said to be. Some observers say that the party's selection procedures have become more democratic, though it is still a highly bureacratic process, with Peking retaining ultimate control. Gao said he was virtually unknown in Peking until he was selected and then admitted to the 210-member party Central Committee at a national conference last September.

``For this new practice of giving positions, the general secretary of the party [Hu Yaobang] sent three people to our province, and they talked to 60 or 70 people they respected. After repeated discussions, the selection was finally approved by the Central Committee,'' said Gao, who first moved to Changchun two years ago.

He said the Central Committee did not approve all the recommendations of the provincial party elite but that, ``generally speaking, for those who received the most support, the changes were very, very few.'' In Jilin, the personnel changes reduced the average age of top party officials from about 60 years to just under 50 years.

It hasn't been easy for Deng and his fellow reformers to find the right kind of people -- not just reform-minded ones, but also quick learners who can absorb the political skills of the older generation and quickly take on the momentous tasks that lie ahead.

``The problem is that it is difficult for us to find these comrades with our present methods, and it is more difficult to find just the right person,'' General Secretary Hu told a party meeting in Shanghai recently.

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In the past, the selection process has depended on guanxi, or ``connections'' in the party. Positions were filled by longtime associates of the country's top leaders or their immediate subordinates -- usually revolutionaries tested during the Communists' protracted struggle for power in the 1930s and '40s. The highest officials in the provinces were trusted party comrades who were ``dispatched'' to their posts by the Central Committee, as was Gao's predecessor in Jilin, Qiang Xiaochu.

To some extent, the old rules still apply to the new generation. But under rules announced last year which aim to limit the term of office of senior officials, the life-tenure system for party and government posts has been abolished. Many of the new faces now on personnel rosters -- even in the top positions -- are people whose qualifications appear to be mainly that they are younger party members in good standing who have some advanced education or technical expertise. Their administrative and political abilities are largely untried.

In an interview in Changchun, Gao Di came across as a professional party man and political conservative, which in current Chinese political terms usually means one whose concerns focus on ideology and organization.

The first six months in the Jilin party seat severely tested Gao's abilities. Last summer, northeastern China suffered the worst floods of the century, destroying more than one-third of Jilin's grain crop and adding significantly to a national drop in grain production.

Articles in the party-controlled press indicate that Gao acquitted himself well, and his public image is that of a model younger-generation party secretary. As a former newspaper editor in his mid-50s, he has been careful to cultivate his relations with the local press. His persecution during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) appears to have strengthened his communist convictions and motivated him to try to ``perfect'' the party organization and craft a party line that is ``correct.''

After one year in university, he joined the revolution about the time Japan surrendered and left Changchun, then-capital of Japanese-held Manchuria. He joined the party in 1946. His first major position appears to have been a three-year stint as a newspaper editor in the late 1950s, though he spent most of his career in local government and party posts. During the Cultural Revolution, he was labeled an ``active counterrevolutionary,'' based on articles he wrote or allowed to be published.

Gao asserted that the most effective way to prevent the Cultural Revolution from recurring is to criticize it completely. He rated this method ahead of improving the party's democratic processes and strengthening China's legal and judicial system. If the Cultural Revolution is totally criticized, he said, the next generation will not permit it to happen again. Gao's positions are vintage party line. He rejects debating about the fundamentals of socialism and is committed to preserving the party's supremacy and projecting its moral authority. Monday: Pros and cons of joining the party.

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