They were never guerrillas, hiding in caves until they could make their move and build the China of their dreams.
They arrived later, coming of age in the epoch of Mao, watching as his excesses starved millions, purged the country’s thinkers and sent Chinese society into convulsions.
They saw Deng Xiaoping throw open the doors and invite the world in. They watched socialism and capitalism melt into one odd Chinese economy. They soldiered on in the bureaucracy as Soviet-bloc communism withered and died. Their heads brim with images – real and televised – of America and the West.
Sometime in the next week or so, their moment arrives in the spirit of a popular Chinese Communist saying: “The revolutionary tradition: Pass it to the new generation.”
The men ascending to the Chinese Communist Party’s inner sanctum during the National Party Congress in coming days are less ideological than their predecessors. They inherit a land in the throes of transition – partly of its own making, partly carried along by the forces of a globalised economy.
“This will be the least dogmatic generation,” said Cheng Li, author of the recent China’s Leaders: The New Generation. “They will be more flexible, and bolder in terms of reform.”
Generational torch-passing can be a messy endeavour in China, where emperors occasionally offered one son to anoint another and, more recently, one of Mao’s heirs apparently perished in a suspicious 1971 plane crash after a coup plot was reportedly uncovered.
Even in recent years, succession has been unruly. Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng, held power only briefly after the communist founder’s death before being shunted aside by Deng. Zhao Ziyang, once Deng’s handpicked heir, has been under house arrest since losing a power struggle after the 1989 student protests.
Today, though jockeying for influence is under way, all signs point to the new slate of leaders – “di si dai,” or the fourth generation since the Communists took the mainland in 1949 – assuming office with the closest thing to an orderly transfer of power that China has ever had.
The People’s Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, hasn’t mentioned the fourth generation explicitly but has ruminated liberally on the first three.
In a recent editorial, it called the first generation of leadership – Mao’s - indispensable for “integrating the basic theory of Marxism and the actuality of Chinese revolution.” The second – Deng’s – was lauded for ”initiating the new great project of party building.”
The latest generation – that of Jiang Zemin, widely expected to retire as party general secretary in the next several days – was praised for “creating fresh experiences - and composing a glorious chapter.”
Jiang has shepherded China further out of its economic isolation and begun an overhaul of the Communist Party by inviting entrepreneurs to join. Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu, expects such “professionalism rather than ideology among the leaders” to continue.
“China is clearly transitioning out of communism. It remains only as a label,” Roy says. “There is reason to hope the newer leaders will be more technocratic and less ideological.”
The ascending generation experienced firsthand the dangers of ideology run amok. Mao’s Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, in which intellectuals and many skilled workers were humiliated, imprisoned and sent off to faraway farms to till fields, set back progress for a decade.
Most younger leaders came of age during that era Hu Jintao, Jiang’s expected successor as party secretary and president, was 23 when it began. Such front-row experience, many say, will produce leaders who exercise more moderation in both domestic and foreign policy.
“The Cultural Revolution experience made their (generation) cynical to any ideology, communism and liberalism alike,” says Suisheng Zhao, editor of the Journal of Contemporary China and executive director of the Centre for China-US Co-operation at the University of Denver.
The cult of personality that surrounded Mao and to a lesser extent Deng has waned. Jiang has courted it with little success he is neither beloved nor feared. And a senior Foreign Ministry official recently offered this statement, unusual for China: “Different leaders have different styles. But what is more important is policy.”
Yet policy, too, is filtered through the experiences of the age.
Norman Kutcher, a Syracuse University historian who studies how historical forces have shaped leadership in China across the centuries, says the collective experience of the Cultural Revolution is, in the psyches of Chinese who came of age in the 1960s, not unlike the Vietnam War for Americans.
“It leaves leaders with a fear of chaos,” Kutcher says. ”The people who lived through the Cultural Revolution have intense psychological baggage. ... They tend to be left wondering what’s right and wrong, and as a result latch on to very ‘obvious’ values, such as the appeal of money.”