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« Reacquainting ourselves with the unthinkable | Main | Nation building on our plate »
Sunday
Dec172006

China's next set of leaders, America's next challenges

Incoming congressional Democrat leaders signal they'll get tough on China over both trade and human rights. While stipulating that Beijing must progress on both fronts, let me tell you why this myopic focus may ruin a historic opportunity.

China is on the verge of a generational leadership change that will profoundly shape its emergence as a global power over the next decade. Approached strategically, America should take advantage of this new cohort's eagerness for China to play an actively constructive role in international affairs.

To understand this future, you must know what's come previously.

Modern China's first generation of leaders was inevitably winnowed down to just one man - Mao Zedong. Like most revolutionaries once they achieve power, Chairman Mao became obsessed with two goals: maintaining the regime's revolutionary spirit and maximizing his personal dictatorship.

Stunningly, Mao's long reign resulted in mass death of a scale beyond that attributed to any 20th-century leader, including both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Emerging from those chaotic years, a wounded China was soon resurrected by the strategic vision of Mao's successor - Deng Xiaoping. No single event has shaped our current world more than Deng's decision at the start of the 1980s to launch China on a modernizing path that saw it turn toward markets while voluntarily opening itself up - for the first time in centuries - to the world outside.

Arguably, the tiny Deng stands as the most towering historical figure of the second half of the 20th century, surpassing both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Deng's second generation was followed by a third fronted by Jiang Jemin, China's president and party boss across the 1990s. Jiang's rule was roughly book-ended by the Tiananmen Square massacre (1989) and Hong Kong's return from the British (1997).

What's important to note about the third generation is that it was largely educated in the Soviet Union, the birthplace of the socialist camp. The technocratic flavor of that formative experience emboldened this generation to extend Deng's economic reforms far deeper into Chinese society, even as these leaders steadfastly refused political liberalization.

That brings us to the current or fourth generation of leaders represented by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, a risk-avoiding pair who've quietly helmed "peacefully rising" China since 2002. Internally, their focus has been on harmonizing the huge imbalance between the booming coastal provinces and left-behind rural poor of the interior.

Since 9/11, China's been almost invisible in international security affairs, essentially free-riding on America's vigorous prosecution of both the global jihadist movement and the so-called axis of evil, despite being a potentially key player in many instances. After all, China has long stood as North Korea's patron and now emerges as a dynamic investor for energy and raw material providers throughout the Middle East and Africa.

But understand this: China's fourth-generation leaders did not travel abroad for their education, trapped as they were by the Cultural Revolution, Mao's last-gasp purge of counter-revolutionary thought. So it's hardly a surprise that these homebodies have later proven reticent to step out internationally.

But that's changing as China's fifth-generation leaders prepare to be named next year and soon after begin their years-long transition to rule, slated to begin officially in 2012. Increasingly, China's next generation of leaders speaks openly of the nation's impending achievement of great power status.

Here's both the challenge and the opportunity presented by these fifth-generation leaders: starting in the 1980s, many of them were educated right here in the United States - birthplace of today's market-driven globalization. Simply put, we have never a faced a more sophisticated set of Chinese rulers, who may well understand globalization's governing dynamics better than we do, as their economy is far more immediately subject to its powerful forces.

How America engages China's emerging elite in coming years could well determine - for good or ill - the lasting contours of the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. Bind America and China together, and globalization cannot be derailed, but set them persistently at odds, and a worldwide economic crash becomes entirely plausible.

The scariest aspect to this relationship right now is that America's economic interdependency with China vastly outweighs the two nations' political and - more importantly - military connectivity.

To me, that's a recipe for danger as America navigates the next two years of a badly wounded, lame-duck presidency and a protectionist, homebody Congress.

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