Young Dragons Rising in China

By Geremie Barme

At the start of what will be a year of pre-ordained political change in China, the traditional calendar will next month usher in another year of the dragon.

According to the traditional Chinese zodiac, dragon years come around every 12 years.

A son born in a dragon year can be a blessing "may the son become a dragon" (that is, a success) is an ancient benediction because this birth year is said to presage a personality featuring enterprise, intelligence and inhibition.

China's political leaders, however, know all too well that dragon years 1989 most famously are fraught with hidden dangers: ambition frustrated, isolation and risk.

In 2012-2013 we will see the retirement of a generation of party-state leaders, from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao downwards. This time around, and for the first time in the history of the People's Republic, true heirs of the dragon that is the progeny of the founding party rulers of modern China will take key command jobs in the ruling party elite.

Members of what are called the "revolutionary successors", that is the children of the communist leaders, made a play for power in the early months of the Cultural Revolution of 1966. As middle school students favoured by Mao, and with privileged access to state information, they thought they would soon inherit what is called the rivers and mountains of China. They helped create the Red Guard movement, but they were soon cast aside for their links to the old party bureaucracy.

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Instead, the politically ambitious among them have had to wait nearly 50 years, biding their time building up local political power bases and supporting commercial empires. The two revolutionary successors with the greatest international name recognition are Xi Jinping, son of the general Xi Zhongxun who helped oversee economic reform in Chinas south and Bo Xilai, whose father was Bo Yibo, a party planner extraordinaire. Both men are tipped for power, Xi as general secretary of the Communist Party and president of China, and Bo as a possible entry into the ruling politburo.

The jockeying among these leaders and others for key posts in the 2012 politburo and state council has been under way for the past few years.

This electoral cycle with Chinese characteristics actually began back in the Olympic year of 2008, easily putting the two-year US presidential electoral run-up in the shade. The hyper-nationalism of 2008 was in part directed by Xi, the re-appearance of a cosmetic socialism it's called red culture was championed by Bo in Chongqing.

And then there's the heavy-handed behaviour on display in regard to territorial disputes with China's neighbours in the South China Sea. These have all been part of a vast, shadowy power play involving incoming as well as outgoing leaders.

Xi and Bo are the children of founding fathers of the socialist state. But they are only two of the most prominent leaders of China's red boomers a generation of men and women born either at the civil war-era communist capital at Yanan in Shaanxi in northwest China in the 1940s, or around the founding years of the People's Republic.

Some of the more public members of this ageing but entitled cohort have in recent years agitated not only to be recognised as the rightful heirs of the revolution, but in some cases to act as a loyal opposition to the mercantilist policies of a party they feel has lost both its moral and its revolutionary moorings.

Calling themselves Children of Yanan, they meet on various anniversary days throughout the year to commemorate their forebears and to offer their views of China's present social, political and economic affairs.

The significance of family state capitalism that was evident even 25 years ago is undeniable. Members of the Children of Yanan cleave more to the rhetoric of revolution than many of their more powerful siblings, all the while enjoying the material benefits of socialism unbound.

Last year marked stark new crises in China. Villagers in South China revolted en masse against local party bosses as a result of thuggish land grabs. In the middle of the year a high-speed train disaster in Wenzhou killed dozens but also brought into question the accelerated rate of change in the country.

While international leaders would welcome Chinese bailouts and some business people laud the Beijing model, in China itself the voices of discontent and alarm concerned with corruption and thuggish authoritarianism are on the rise.

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Geremie R. Barme is a historian, editor of China Heritage Quarterly and the founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University.

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