You may remember a piece I wrote last summer. It was a review of Vladislav Zubok’s book, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev.1 Zubok contends that the collapse of the Soviet Union should be understood as a consequence of generational turnover. I was attracted to the idea; generational turnover is the very mechanism I had identify as the key to American history in my essay “Culture Wars are Long Wars.” 2
The review is Tanner Greer, “As the Generations Churn: The Strategic Consequences of Cultural Change in Communist Russia… and China?,” Scholar’s Stage (28 August 2021); the book, Vladislav M. Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2009)
Tanner Greer, “Culture Wars are Long Wars,” The Scholar’s Stage (3 July 2021).
In that review I mused on the possible implications of this schema for Chinese politics. I wrote:
When I look for connections between Xi’s cohort, their foundational political experiences, and their current policies today, the most obvious is the CPC’s decision to re-embrace Maoist thought and imagery. While there is a political logic to rehabilitating Mao (which Xi has explained himself), it is clear to me that a lot of this is driven by nostalgia for the Maoist world of Xi’s youth. I do not think this resonates with younger cohorts; I doubt that future generations of Chinese in power, even if they remain committed to an authoritarian future for the Chinese people, will feel the need to Mao things up.
…If there is a cohort more disposed to rapprochement with the Western world it would probably be that which came of age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. (In Chinese terms these would be the “七零后“ or the ‘post-70s generation.’) This was a time when the outside world was a place to learn from, Chinese society embraced radical change, rules were few, and liberalism had a hopeful sheen. Even today the most committed liberals of the Chinese diaspora tend to be of this cohort. In my personal, purely subjective judgement, this is the most “pro-America” generation of Chinese now living. Younger cohorts’ attitudes towards the United States, especially the ‘post-90s’ and ‘post-00’s’ generations, were shaped by the events of the last two decades, a time when China climbed from strength to strength as America blundered from one catastrophe to another.3
Tanner Greer, “As the Generations Churn,”
A few weeks ago I came across an infographic that illustrates why the policies of the modern Chinese Communist Party are even more generationally bound than either the old CPSU or the current U.S. federal government:
The graphic comes from a piece by Damien Ma and Joshua Henderson published by Marco Polo last year.4 The graphic displays two bodies of decision makers: the 205 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and the 535 Americans elected to the 117th Congress. The oldest member of Congress (Diane Feinstein) is eighty-eight years old; the youngest (Madison Cawthorne) is twenty-six. That is a sixty-two year spread! The oldest and youngest members of the Central Committee, on the other hand, were born only 17 years apart.
Damien Ma and Joshua Henderson, “Age Rules: The Arrival of the Post-60s Generation in Chinese Politics,” MacroPolo, December 21, 2021.
The generational concentration of Chinese upper officialdom reflects “up or out” Party rules. After serving for several years in a position, Party officials either advance up the ranks or are forced into retirement. Each stage up the ladder has an enforced age limit.
Ma and Henderson provide another graphic:
The current politburo is dominated by “post-’50 generation”（“五零后”）party leaders. This will still be true after the next congress in 2022—but the level just below them is set for a generational transition. Ma and Henderson report that 80% of the Central Committee will be “post-’60s” by the end of this year. They provide some survey data to suggest why this matters:
As I wrote in my last piece, my personal conclusion based off of nothing more than meeting many Chinese of all ages is that the “post-’70 generation,” not the “post-60” is the most ‘liberal’ age block living in China today. The fact that current Party rules—rules that have no reason to change in the near future—force out the older generations at a set rate, and keep the younger generations from power until it is their turn to wield it, suggests that a window for accommodation may open up in the 2030s.