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Climbing Political Ladder In China, Youth Is Suddenly An Advantage

New age limits, coupled with the lowering of minimum age of certain government jobs, has dovetailed with a general celebration of youth in burgeoning China

Shen Nienzu

BEIJING - These days for Chinese officials the question of age may be even more sensitive 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 minimum age requirement for various official jobs has progressively been lowered, while a maximum age restriction has been imposted for positions at each level of the hierarchy.

If one does not get promoted by the fixed age, one’s career is doomed to stagnate forever.

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

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,” Chen Xuewei, professor at China’s Central Party School explained.

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 core leadership age group, and should be maintained, while those under 50 is to be increased.

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

Rising Stars

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 closely watched.

Hu Chunhua is referred to by the media as “little Hu” for the similarities in his career profile to President Hu Jintao. At 29, he was the youngest department-level official 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, becoming the youngest ministerial-level official.

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.

In his thesis “Age advantage in provincial-level officials’ promotion”, Chen Po, a student of Political Science at the University of Chicago, concluded that it’s not actually the more experienced who are most likely to be reach the top echelon. According to Chen’s analysis of the last 20 years, though the provincial party committee secretaries have an average age of 57.2, the ones who eventually ascend to the Politburo have a lower average age, at 54.75.

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, due to the demand of meeting a rigid age structure, some party committees are obliged to promote the less well-qualified.

Zeng Yuping, the former CPC party secretary of Yicheng City, Hubei Province, cites 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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