China’s contemporary history can be said to begin on February 19, 1997, when Deng Xiaoping died, aged 92 years. It marked the end of “second generation leaders” in China, the veterans of the war and the revolution. With its four modernizations and liberalization of the economy, Deng Xiaoping laid the foundation for a new development and the modern China we know today. Later generations of leaders were to manage this legacy and develop China to become an economic superpower with a new confidence in international politics.
From 1999, the term “generations” was used to refer to the various leadership collectives that followed Mao and Deng. After Mao, Deng was considered the leader of the second generation of leaders and Jiang Zemin was then considered the third generation leader from 1992 to 1993.
The period of 1989, following the demonstrations in the place of Heavenly Peace, became a transitional period of consolidation of the party’s power. Deng Xiaoping retired from official politics in 1992, but informally played an important role until his death in 1997. Top management determined that the Deng line should be continued, with a rally around the “core” of third-generation Jiang Zemin.
In 2012, Xi Jinping was elected president. Together with Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Xi is China’s “fifth generation leadership”.
Hu Jintao – fourth generation leaders
Already at the party congress in 1992, Deng Xiaoping had hinted that the then quite unknown 50-year-old Hu Jintao would in turn succeed Jiang as China’s supreme leader. A generational shift took place in 2002–2004. At the 16th party congress in 2002, the party said goodbye to the “third generation” under Jiang Zemin. Hu Jintao took over as Secretary General and leader of the new “fourth generation”.
During the 2003 People’s Congress, Hu Jianto was elected President of China. The shift was completed in 2004 when Jiang finally resigned from his last power bastion as chief of the armed forces. Thus, with his post in the military commission, Hu Jintao sat on the three highest positions of power that Jiang also held – leader of the Communist Party of China, the office of president and head of the military commission. This was the first time in the history of the People’s Republic that a change of power was carried out without the chief executive being dead or “purged”.
Fourth-generation leaders, like many third-generation leaders, have been referred to as typical technocrats. When the new political bureau’s standing committee, the core of power, emerged during the party congress in 2002, it turned out that all nine members were engineers of education. Among the 24 members of the Politburo are 17 engineers.
The women’s representation in the supreme power organs was still modest. Only one woman, Commerce Minister Wu Yi, entered the Politburo. Five women are among the Central Committee’s 193 permanent members. Some signs suggested that Hu Jintao would become a relatively liberal and reform-friendly leader, but more authoritarian moves gradually emerged.
At the turn of the millennium, China was still a one-party state where the Communist Party dominates and permeates society, albeit not to the same extreme extent as before. In 2001, the party celebrated its 80th anniversary with 65 million members, as well as 14 million on a waiting list. After 13 years as party leader, Jiang Zemin left a political will under the name “The Three Representations”. From this it appears that the party is far from being transformed into a Quanmindang, a party for all strata of the population, distant from the original Gongchandang, a communist class party with defined class enemies.
The same year, it was opened for private business owners and business owners, so-called “red capitalists”, to gain membership and also the leadership of the party. In the propaganda, the party maintained a nationalist rather than a communist profile.
In the 1990s, the authorities also repeatedly struck down opposition activities. Attempts to form the opposition party “China’s Democratic Party” were halted in 1998, and promoters imprisoned. This despite the fact that China had signed the United Nations Convention on Political and Civil Rights that year. Citing the constitution’s prohibition of “sabotage of the socialist system,” the regime has justified itself to intervene in anything that can weaken its power monopoly, such as open criticism and demands for democracy.
Xi Jinping – Fifth Generation Leaders
In November 2012, Xi Jinping was elected Secretary-General of the Communist Party and took office as China’s President in March 2013. At the same time, Li Keqiang was appointed Prime Minister. The new administration from 2013 is called the “fifth generation management”.
Xi Jinping summarizes management’s political visions in what he has called “The Chinese Dream”. The party defines this as the dream of prosperity, collective effort, socialism and national honor. More specifically, this is the desire to bring the poor part of the country’s population up to a middle class level and the ambitions of further economic growth for China in general. Xi also sees the need for national renewal as a response to the cultural influence the United States has had on the Chinese population. Generally speaking, “The Chinese Dream” is a statement that China should occupy a leading position in the world community both economically and culturally.
Some observers also believe that Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang’s government are aware that raising the standard of living to so many millions is very resource-intensive, and part of “The Chinese Dream” must therefore also be a sustainable development.
During the period 2012–2014, one of the Politburo’s most prominent members, Zhou Yongkang, was deposed and investigated for corruption. He was a supporter of another top politician, Bo Xilai, who was convicted of corruption in 2013. In addition to the corruption charges, there are many indications that this is part of Xi Jinping’s consolidation of his power position.
In the spring of 1999, more than 10,000 followers of a quasireligious meditation movement, Falun Gong, gathered outside the Communist Party headquarters in protest against alleged brutal persecution by the authorities. The demonstration was the largest in Beijing in ten years. Falun Gong was immediately banned as a “socially harmful and malicious cult”.
Falun Gong has continued to annoy the regime, which obviously considers a mass movement beyond the party’s control a danger. Falun Gong claims that hundreds of members have died following abuse in prison, while the authorities have only admitted “mass suicide”.
Xinjiang, the border province against Central Asia in the west, was in the 1990s characterized by unrest and occasional actions by militant Muslim groups. Activists from the Uighur people, who make up the majority of the population, have responded to increasing mass immigration of ethnic Chinese. China has responded with major military forces, severe penalties for “terrorists” and tightened surveillance of Muslim movements.