Past Events

William McCahill Describes the Generations of Leadership in China

On November 12th, Mr. William McCahill came to IWP to discuss the characteristics and the history behind China’s leadership.

Mr. McCahill had a 25-year career in the Foreign Service where he worked in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Beijing and held senior posts in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and Canada. After retiring from the Foreign Service in 2000, Mr. McCahill worked in the private sector as the cofounder of a China-focused equities and macro research firm, opened the Beijing office of a major American law firm, operated a business consultancy in China, and was a Senior Advisor for China at Mirabaud & Cie., and Religare Capital Markets. Currently, Mr. McCahill is a Senior Resident Fellow at The National Bureau of Asian Research.

Mr. McCahill began his lecture with an anecdote from ten years ago when he and a colleague went to a Chinese bookstore. Xi Jinping had just become president, and they were looking for books on leadership in China for a paper they were writing examining Chinese leadership. After finding little success in the management section and finding no books on self-improvement, they came across an aisle marked leadership. However, Mr. McCahill quickly became disappointed when all he could find was “academic rubbish.”

“The shelves were filled with third-rate university presses’ publications of third-rate professors, compilations of such [nonsense] as great speeches of the great leaders and so on,” he explained. However, there are many examples of great leadership in Chinese history. Chinese leaders drew inspiration from Confucianism, legalism, Qing dynasty emperors, and Mao Zedong. Modern Chinese leaders came from the Communist Party valuing obedience to hierarchy, conformity, and self-criticism. Having a family background in the Communist Party was also essential for future Chinese leaders.

The U.S. has many ties with China, but it is now trying to limit these ties because China represents a strategic competitor for the U.S. “What’s changed?” Mr. McCahill asked the audience.

The change has been China. Mr. McCahill explained that one of the obvious changes in China was its leadership. He outlined the three distinct generations of leaders in China since the 1990s. Although each generation of leadership was part of the Communist Party, their characteristics vary due to the differences in their education and the environment in which they grew up.

The first generation grew up in the Republic of China that was founded in 1911. The “leadership trio,” Zhu Rongji, Jiang Zemin, and Qian Qichen, grew up in a China that had open commerce with the rest of the world. They grew up with Western educations that emphasized a liberal ideology. The “leadership trio” later formed China’s core leadership in the late 1990s to early 2000s.

When the Communist Revolution broke out in the 1950s, the Western institutions that had taken root in the Republic of China began to flee or were expelled by the Communist Party. The only foreign influence allowed into China was the Soviet Union. Liberal education was shunned and replaced with engineering and technical education. This period of change was when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the second generation of Chinese leaders, grew up. Their primary education included the Western education that previous generations received, but their secondary and tertiary education incorporated a Soviet curriculum.

When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, China once again fell into chaos. For the next ten years, the national economy came to a halt, violence rose, and famine spread throughout China. It was during the Cultural Revolution that the third generation of leadership, including Xi Jinping, grew up. This generation is called the “lost generation” because their education came to an immediate halt during the revolution.

Mr. McCahill explained that the distinct generational differences in these leaders’ formative years reflect how they have led China. The first generation of leaders had been more open than the later ones because they had grown up in a China that had been open to foreign influence. However, because the first generation was more open to reform, the West mistakenly thought that the later generations would also be open to reforms.

“We were naïve in imagining that that ‘leadership trio’ would be followed by similar, if not more cosmopolitan, leaders and that there would be a kind of linear progression from reform to reform, from openness to openness. Our mistake, our cardinal error, was not reading Chinese history carefully enough,” Mr. McCahill explained.

“And now we face a new era of China, but we should have seen it coming.”

Admissions Course on the US and China in Power Transition