China's 'fifth generation' of leaders reflects nation's shifts

Times Staff Writer

China is used to dour Communist Party leaders with sanitized resumes, but the new team unveiled Monday has glamorous wives, exposure to Tiananmen-era student leaders and even a brush with divorce.

That's not to suggest that China's monopoly party is going tabloid. The tough crowd that forged modern China behind such mantras as "power stems from the barrel of a gun" remains secretive, heavy-handed and wary of any challenge to its authority.

But the party's long-standing instinct to airbrush away the personal histories of its leading lights behind the high walls of Zhongnanhai, the ruling compound in Beijing, is becoming more difficult in the Internet-driven world as the so-called fifth generation of leaders ascends to power.

On Monday, Xi Jinping, 54, the Communist Party secretary from glitzy Shanghai, and Li Keqiang, 52, his counterpart from the northeast rust belt area of Liaoning province, were introduced to the nation. The two are China's likely next leaders after President Hu Jintao steps down in 2012. Xi appears in line for the post of president and party chief and Li for the lower position of premier.

Xi and Li's resumes reflect a nation and leadership in transition, a mix of modern credentials and old-style cronyism. Compared with the engineering degrees that most fourth-generation leaders boast, their law and economics degrees underscore China's growing demand for more worldly leaders. Their experience managing a variety of urban and rural portfolios also contrasts with predecessors who rose on connections alone.

Yet they also have timeworn qualifications considered vital for party advancement: decades of experience amassing patronage and building connections.

"Although the Communist Party is not that open and transparent . . . the system has selected good people in recent years," said Yang Zhaohui, a professor at Peking University. "On merit, Hu is no worse than Bush."

Li, of humble roots, has long been seen as Hu's protege.

Xi's father was a revolutionary hero who became a senior party official.

Born in 1953 in Shaanxi province, Xi enjoyed a comfortable childhood in Beijing until 1961, when Mao Tse-tung purged Xi's father amid accusations of disloyalty, giving the boy early training in treacherous party politics.

After working on a farm in Shaanxi starting in 1968, Xi earned a place at Beijing's elite Qinghua University just as his father's political fortunes recovered. Xi received his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and his doctorate in law.

He joined the party at 21 and eventually became party secretary of affluent Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, where he is credited with forging links with foreign investors and mounting campaigns against red tape.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., former head of investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc., called Xi "a guy who really knows how to get over the goal line."

Xu Jun-da, a Taiwanese businessman who worked in Fujian in the mid-1990s, said Xi was decisive, down-to-earth and knew how far to push people. "He was steady and followed the rules," Xu added.

Xi became party secretary of Shanghai this year, replacing Chen Liangyu, who is accused of misusing more than $470 million in pension funds.

Xi stands out from other party officials in part because of his second marriage to famous Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan. After rumors spread that the two were having marital difficulties -- divorce, particularly twice, is frowned upon among senior officials -- China's propaganda machine went into overdrive.

In an interview by the party mouthpiece New China News Agency around the time of Xi's Shanghai appointment, Peng extolled their modest, happy life, denied knowing he was a powerful official before their marriage and explained how she relayed news of their daughter's birth through relatives, wary of interrupting his selfless work on behalf of the nation.

Xi is reportedly skilled at working his father's connections. According to Watching China, an overseas website, Xi visited at least three "aunts and uncles" -- his father's party contacts -- on every visit to Beijing.

Li, in contrast, has spent much of his career in parts of China that have been left behind. Born in 1955 in impoverished Anhui province, the son of a low-ranking government official, Li found his schooling interrupted by the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution that caused the nation's education system to grind to a halt. Li reportedly gained an appreciation for concerns about poverty and rural issues after being sent to the countryside in 1974.

When the universities reopened in 1978, Li jumped at the opportunity. He was soon exposed to Western liberal ideas, reportedly taking an interest in foreign constitutional law and open elections in the early 1980s at Peking University, on his way to a bachelor's degree in law and a doctorate in economics.

Wang Juntao, a former classmate and longtime political activist twice jailed by Beijing for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student uprising, recalls Li as sharp and someone who enjoyed discussing political issues and new ideas.

"At least in the early 1980s, he was still very open," said Wang, chairman of the Chinese Constitutionalist Assn. in Alhambra. "He wasn't so eager to argue so much, but he would listen."

Li's big break came in 1982 when he joined the Communist Youth League and caught the eye of then-head Hu Jintao. Both came from Anhui and shared an ability to avoid making enemies in treacherous party ranks.

Over the last two decades, Hu has helped his protege rise, a relationship that earned Li the description "Hu's younger clone."

Li also developed something of a reputation for attracting bad luck. Two months after he became governor of Henan in 1989, a string of fires at a furniture factory, movie theater and dance club killed 399 people.

After Li was transferred to Hebei province, the area saw AIDS, social unrest and coal mine disasters that threatened to derail his career, prompting Hu to engineer Li's transfer in 2004 to Liaoning province. After he arrived there, however, the H5N1 bird flu virus broke out.

"These disasters were obviously out of Li's control and weren't directly attributed to his leadership," said the China Leadership Monitor, an online quarterly magazine published by Stanford University. "However, the mere fact that disaster seemed to follow him did not bode well for his public image."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Yin Lijin in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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