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Ageism Arrives In China, As Cult Of Youth Replaces Reverence For Elders

Running to get ahead in Beijing
Running to get ahead in Beijing
Shen Nienzu

These days for Chinese officials the question of age is an even more sensitive issue than it is for a lady.

Recently, Zhou Lian, professor at Peking University, likened Chinese officials’ climbing up their career ladders to “participating in a championship,” as everyone vies with everyone else as they try to advance.

Within this context, the government’s age requirement for official jobs has progressively been lowered, while positions at each level of the hierarchy have a maximum age restriction. If one does not get promoted by the fixed age, one’s career is doomed to stagnate forever.

The young generation of local leaders

Among all the criteria for selecting officials, age, as the only quantifiable indicator, has come under scrutiny. “Age has become a rigid lever,” Xin Xiangyang, a researcher at the Marxism school of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out.

For instance, according to this reporter’s calculation, the average age of the 404 newly elected members of the provincial, autonomous region, and municipal Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is 54.83 years. This basically implies that not only did they start their careers early and avoided committing any errors in the last 35 years or so, but they have also been ahead of their counterparts by 5 to 10 years at each level of the hierarchy.

Among the members of the CPC’s standing committees, the six western provinces, including Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, where minority populations are concentrated, have an average age somewhat lower at 53.13 years. “This is because the CPC Central Committee sends young officials to the west to get experience. The difference between the west and the east is too obvious. As a provincial level, a party committee official has to have a global awareness and grasp the national situation,” said Chen Xuewei, professor at China’s Central Party School.

Wang Liping, a professor at Fujian Provincial Committee Party School, also pointed out that China’s reformed and open east coast has greater stability. It’s not easy for younger officials to stand out, whereas out in the west - where reforms need deepening - reform-minded young people are needed to push them forward.

In its five-year plan guideline published at the end of 2009, called “The Building of National Party Leadership,” the CPC Central Committee has made specific demands with regards to the age of provincial party secretaries and local leaders. The echelon of officials around 55 years old is the main body and is to be maintained whereas there should be 3-4 officials who are under 48 years of age, and the number of officials around 50 years old is to be increased.

Following the guideline, 277 of the provincial party standing committees’ current members were born after the 1950s and make up a dominant 68.91 percent of the total. The 119 officials born after the 1960s make up 29.10 percent.

Early birds get to eat the worms

Out of the 31 party secretaries of China’s provinces and municipalities, two of the “post-60s” generation, the Party Secretary of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, Hu Chunhua, and the Party Secretary of Jilin Province, Sun Zhengcai, are the youngest and most watched.

Hu Chunhua is referred to by the media as “little Hu” for the similarities in his career profile to President Hu Jintao. He has set various records for youthfulness in his posts. He was the youngest department-level official at 29 to serve as the Secretary of the Tibet Communist Youth League. He ascended to be the First Secretary of the Communist Youth League in 2006 when he was 43 years old and became the youngest ministerial-level official. The fact of having been in posts for Tibet and the central Communist Youth League at a very young age is his best political capital.

Sun Zhengcai, born in 1963, as was Hu Chunhua, is another of China’s rising political stars. He became the youngest minister in the cabinet when he was appointed head of the Ministry of Agriculture in 2006. Some media hailed him as a dark horse of the new generation.

In his thesis “Age advantage in provincial-level officials’ promotion,” Chen Po, a student of Political Science at Chicago University, concluded that it’s not actually the more experienced who are most likely to be promoted. “The eldest group has a 70 percent chance of retiring and in essence belongs to the pension group. As a matter of fact, it’s often the younger the person the greater his chance for advancement.” According to Chen Po’s analysis of the last 20 years, though the provincial party committee secretaries have an average age of 57.2, but the ones who eventually ascend to the Politburo have a much lower average age, at 54.75 years.

“Making an exception” and “One size fits all”

The CPC central committee’s younger and younger age requirement is affecting the strategy of local party committees in promoting their officials. In certain places, the operations have become mechanical and simplified. In short, due to the demand of meeting a rigid age structure, some party committees are obliged to promote the less qualified.

Zeng Yuping, the former CPC party secretary of Yicheng City, Hubei Province, expresses his deep feelings of the drawbacks of this phenomenon. “To a certain extent, officials’ passion for their work largely depends on the age limit of their posts. If the provision says that one doesn’t have to withdraw from a leadership post until you are 60 years old, one would still possesses passion at 55. But if the provision says that one has to withdraw from a leadership post at 50, one would probably have lost one’s passion by the time you are 48.”

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