BEIJING — Over the next 12 months, Chinese President and Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin will preside over one of the most important legacies of his rule: the handover of leadership to the next generation.
The so-called "fourth generation," led by Mr. Jiang's heir apparent Vice President Hu Jintao, is unlike any group of leaders to govern China.
"Because of their Cultural Revolution experience, this will be the most diverse, least ideological, and most capable generation of leaders in China's history," says Cheng Li, a professor and author of the book "China's Leaders."
The emerging elite are pragmatic survivors of hardship, and may deal with the United States - on everything from nuclear arms to human rights - in substantially different ways.
Born between 1941 and 1956, they travel in the West, talk BMWs, listen to Beethoven and Mozart, and invest in the stock market. Few care for old slogans about "sacrificing for a bright future," or believe in Marxist rhetoric, experts say.
They are more professional, more educated, and more aware of the outside world than their parents were.
In 1980, for example, only 4 percent of China's ruling cadres had a college degree; today, more than 90 percent do. China in the 1980s had 3,000 lawyers; today there are 150,000.
Thirty years ago, some of the fourth-generation members were Red Guards, hand-picked enforcers of Chairman Mao's teachings. Others were beaten by these guards, or saw their parents killed in the name of progress during China's Cultural Revolution period (1966-76). Many were sent to the countryside, where they ate nothing but potatoes.
In the end, most were disillusioned - a generation that started, as the saying goes here, "with big bangs and big red flowers" but end "with a broken heart and lost soul," 10 years later.
Yet, after the Communist Party Congress and transition in September next year, leaders of the fourth generation - whose experience is "unprecedented and unrepeatable" says Chinese intellectual He Qinglian - will for the first time dominate its top ranks.
The generational handovers began in 1949, with Mao Zedong, the "first generation" leader of Communist China. Then followed Deng Xiaoping in 1977 and Jiang Zemin in 1989. President Jiang's apparent successor, Hu, is currently vice president of China, leading the so-called "fourth generation."
In the 1970s, Hu was sent to the countryside for a decade. He knows "the real China," says one expert, and "not just the developed coastal areas" - the wealthy east coast of skyscrapers and joint ventures that in recent years has defined China for Westerners.
Hu's generation is emerging at every level of the Party. In 1999, the fourth generation occupied 167 of 344 top Party spots, according to the Chinese Communist Party roster. During the 16th Party Congress changeover next year, that number may swell to more than 250.
Yet predictions about what it means for an educated cadre of business-oriented "technocrats" to run China - run the gamut.
It appears so far that the new breed is less sympathetic to the US. While older generation leaders, like Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji, are known, privately, to admire the US, those between ages 45 and 60 are more likely to see the US as a global competitor and even a potential enemy.
It is notable that Hu's first visit abroad is reportedly planned for Europe, not the US.
Yet skepticism about the US, arising out of tensions in recent years, is based less on Marxist readings among this generation and more on a changing nationalist spirit.
Some observers say the new leaders will bring new standards of compromise and consensus, and will further "democratic reforms" and ideas of "rule of law" now said to be under discussion in Party circles.
Others say the fourth generation is already corrupted by the spoils of new wealth, and that the daily "rat race" of hardball Chinese politics will nullify any "special" contribution they may make.
Hopeful analysts, such as Professor Li of Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., say the character and style of new leaders will alter the mindset of Chinese policies on foreign policy, US-China relations, unemployment, and development of the interior of China.
"You will see less dogmatism, and more rational decision making based on self-interest," Dr. Li says.
Others are less sanguine about any new mindset. They feel that, without changes to make the Party more accountable, different leadership styles won't matter.
"This group may be more open, more inclined to consider different opinions, more tolerant," says a Beijing professor who prefers not to be identified.
"But they have to survive in the same old Party milieu. China is in a critical moment. Our reforms exposed fundamental problems. Corruption, and the gap between the rich few and the desperately poor many, is a symptom of an unaccountable Party. We have capitalism without civil society. Frankly, I don't hold out much hope for the fourth-generation technocrats."
The fourth generation inherits the mantle of "reformist China" - the move toward free markets started by Deng Xiaoping - and that has turned China into the highest-performing economy in Asia.
That shift was strikingly reaffirmed on July 1 in a controversial speech by Jiang when he invited so-called "red capitalists" - private entrepreneurs and high tech barons - to join the Party.
"Corporate values" are already evident as China prepares to join the World Trade Organization later this fall. Several US senators, who last month visited a famous off-limits seaside compound in Beidaihe, where China's leaders vacation, expected to find rustic Soviet-era dachas complete with shuddering plumbing.
Instead, they found manicured lawns and plush offices more like the corporate campuses of Silicon Valley or the Harvard Business School.
"One thing is clear," says another Chinese professor and fourth-generation member, who also requests anonymity. "No one in the party believes any longer in a planned economy."
Yet, it is unknown how liberal fourth-generation leaders will be - whether they will address oppressive practices and support free-thinking young leaders.
Hu, for instance, took the tough line in a crackdown on uprisings in Tibet in the late 1980s.
"Hu Jintao, who seemed to display few liberal tendencies as party secretary in Tibet, may clash with more liberal thinkers such as Vice Premier Wu Bangguo or rising star Bo Xilai [former mayor of Dalian]," says Eric Harwit, China specialist at the University of Hawaii.
Still, in a speech this week at the school of the Communist Party Central Committee, Hu backed Jiang's recent opening to private business people. "We should stick to Marxism," Hu said in an obligatory reference.
But he then went further. "However, we should not be limited by certain specific judgments or programs of action drawn out at specific historical moments," Hu said. "If we stick to the old ideas, we will subsequently lag behind the times, and the Party will stop advancing and lose its leading status."
Also, the fourth generation takes over a China no longer run by one strong personality but by a group of seven "standing committee members."
"Decisions aren't made by one guy anymore, one charismatic leader," says a Western diplomat who asked to remain nameless. "Increasingly, the big decisions are made by seven guys, and that is an improvement."
In lifestyle terms, the fourth generation, whose children attend college in America and Europe, are more accepting of Western values and styles, especially of consumer values.
"It is easier for them to accept a Western lifestyle," says a Beijing political scientist and member of the fourth generation.
"When I call friends in the Party, they are often out at dinner or the theater. They don't have the same purpose as the old generation, the same revolutionary goals to change China. They show off a little. They are interested in a better standard of living. They also think for themselves."
In their early careers, this new breed rose through professional merit - rather than the systems of "guanxi," or personal connections, that are still important here.
After Deng Xiaoping's reforms in the 1980s, young Party members - many with degrees in science and engineering, and often drawing from survival skills honed during the Cultural Revolution - were promoted without having many friends in high places.
"They ... have risen [at first] more because of their practical abilities and achievement rather than political connections or ideological beliefs," says Dr. Harwit.
Still, as they rise, fourth generation figures, especially "princelings" or the children of officials, use the "guanxi" system. As Li points out, graduates from Beijing's Tsinghua University are at least as tightly networked and connected as those of Harvard, Yale, and Oxford universities.
Hu Jintao is a Tsinghua graduate; in 1998, five of 22 Politburo members were Tsinghua grads; Premier Zhu will soon retire as dean of the Tsinghua management school.
The education of the coming leaders, moreover, is more striking precisely because of Mao's hostility toward intellectuals and college graduates. Until the late 1970s, a college degree was an anathema to joining the Party.
Likewise, despite the fact that early leaders, such as Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping studied abroad (in France), China suspended for 20 years its student exchange programs, even with East bloc states. (Mao never left China except to visit Moscow, which he disliked.)
One Western diplomat describes the new leaders: "They went out to the farms. They saw first hand the destructive power of the party. They had to be resourceful to survive. Now the fourth generation feels it is 'their time' to rule, and they don't want to see China ever go through a period like that again."