A former Chinese official's manifesto for a new burst of reform mixing Mao, markets and guarded political relaxation has opened a rare window into ideas shaping the country's next generation of princeling leaders.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will have several meetings with his counterpart, Xi Jinping, during a visit to China this week, an opportunity to size up the man who is due to take over as top leader from late 2012 when Hu Jintao steps down as general secretary of the ruling Communist Party.
The retired official, Zhang Musheng, may give some clues.
In a widely discussed book and in interviews, Zhang has urged reviving early ideas of revolutionary founder Mao Zedong as a template for fresh reforms. This would include limited political liberalization, which Zhang said the next generation of leaders believes is urgently needed to defuse mounting economic, social and political strains.
He did not hide his frustration with China's current leaders, nor his hopes for 58-year-old Xi and other red princelings, officials whose fathers and mothers served as revolutionaries under Mao and founders of the People's Republic of China.
This attitude of doing nothing and always waiting and waiting is wrong. It's like playing pass-the-parcel with a time-bomb, Zhang told Reuters in his office in the national tax bureau, where he once ran a publication.
The next leadership cohort has plenty of drive and guts, said Zhang. They have more of a fierce sense of mission to grapple with China's problems, he said.
They aim to shore up the Communist Party's crumbling legitimacy and surmount ideological rifts blocking political reform, Zhang argues.
To do this they will reach back to the 1940s when Mao briefly endorsed a relatively mild new democracy, courting intellectuals, patriotic capitalists and small democratic parties while vowing to share wealth with workers and peasants.
Zhang's tangled ideas are far from a policy blueprint, but they provide unusual insight into the sentiments shaping China's new leaders. They will need to act boldly to tackle flagrant corruption, economic imbalances, inequality and unrest that could erupt in crisis, he said.
Internationally, nowadays it feels like its 1929, and domestically it has already reached the state of the late 1980s, Zhang said, referring to the Great Depression and to the discontent that fueled China's Tiananmen Square protest movement of 1989, which culminated in an armed crackdown.
China has intense problems and widening tensions, said the 63-year-old with a crew-cut, raspy smoker's voice and a relentless flow of words. But if the next collective leadership can seriously address these problems, we can solve them.
A TRIAL BALLOON?
Zhang's book, Transforming Our View of Culture and History, appeared several months ago wrapped in an aura of high-level patronage.
Zhang Musheng's ideas are widely seen as a trial balloon by some in the Party, especially future princeling leaders, for a program of action said Wu Si, editor-in-chief of a Chinese magazine, Yanhuang chunqiu, which is read by many retired officials.
The book was issued by a People's Liberation Army's publishing house, with a rambling preface by Liu Yuan, a general whose father was a close Mao comrade who fell from grace and died persecuted in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Other generals attended a forum about the book, said Zhang.
Liu Yuan has shown his support, and I think that reflects broader support as well, said Wu.
Xi (pronounced Shee) and several other potential members of China's post-2012 leadership are princelings, as are General Liu and Zhang, whose fathers suffered persecution during Mao's Cultural Revolution, and who themselves spent years working in the fields and factories as sent down youth.
Zhang said he had met Xi, but gave no more details.
China's emerging leaders may not agree with all of Zhang's ideas, but he gives voice to a general impatience for bolder change, said several Beijing intellectuals familiar with official thinking.
Zhang Musheng represents many of the red successor generation. He says what many of them think but can't say directly, said Zhou Zhixing, a Beijing magazine editor and ex-official who has published several lengthy dialogues with Zhang.
Xi was paying attention to the debate over Zhang's new democracy ideas, said a journalist in Beijing who often speaks with officials and spoke on condition of anonymity. Zhang said the Communist Party secretary of Shanghai, Yu Zhengsheng, had asked for copies of his book.
The big guessing game is how much of this big debate Xi himself will absorb and adopt, said Liu Suli, a bookstore owner and veteran observer of Beijing's intellectual scene who attended several discussions about Zhang's proposals.
But one point that is clearly signaled by the discussion and Zhang's special status is that the next generation wants to get something done.
DEFENDERS OF THE REVOLUTION
Just how different Xi and his comrades are from President Hu's generation will become clearer only once Xi settles into power after early 2013, when a meeting of the national parliament is likely to seal his succession to the presidency.
The privileged yet demanding upbringing of Xi and his generation, and their exposure to the harsh realities of Chinese society when they were sent down during the Cultural Revolution imbued them with experience and ideas lacking in the current cohort of engineer-leaders, said Zhang.
Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, served as a vice premier under Mao and was persecuted before and during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao turned against many of his long-time comrades out of the belief that they threatened the purity of his revolution.
Other princelings with a chance of serving under Xi in the elite Standing Committee include Bo Xilai, party chief of Chongqing and Yu Zhengsheng, the chief of Shanghai.
Despite family suffering at Mao's hands, many princelings are fiercely attached to defending the achievements of his revolution and keeping the party in power. Bo Xilai has advertised his ambitions for a place in the central leadership through a campaign of red songs and culture extolling the achievements of Mao's era.
They have a very strong sense that they are the inheritors of the realm and want to make their mark by doing something, said Wu Si, the magazine editor.
They're different from ordinary civilians who rise up from the bottom and rely on patrons, constantly having to balance relations and exercise caution.
President Hu and many other members of his leadership circle also saw China at the grassroots during the Mao years. But their outlook was forged while they were still at university, absorbing a cautious and conformist outlook that still marked their careers, said Zhang.
MORE SERIOUS THAN JUNE 4
Under Hu, China's economy has grown to surpass Japan's as the world's second biggest, even as advanced economies have struggled with debt and tepid growth.
Beijing has pushed programs to spread more welfare to hundreds of millions of workers and farmers, and to lift their incomes so they enjoy more secure lives and spend more.
But Zhang said those achievements were accompanied by mounting problems that could wipe out the gains of economic growth if left to fester: flagrant corruption, stubborn inequality and rising unrest among migrant workers and farmers.
If our ruling party lacks vigilance about its problems in renewing its legitimacy, it could be more serious than June 4, said Zhang, referring to the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.
Because, it would break out not among students, but among workers and farmers and the broad ranks of intellectuals.
Simply squeezing out higher economic growth would not solve those problems, he said. Rather, Xi and his comrades will have to grapple with political reform to rein in abuses and give citizens a strong stake in the Party's future.
The biggest mistake in reform and opening up was that in fact it amounted to restoring the economic policies of the new democracy period, but in politics, society and culture there was no restoration, said Zhang.
Zhang's new democracy proposals include expanding the power of China's tame, Party-run parliaments; allowing more open factional wrangling within the party; giving trade unions real autonomy to defend workers; and rolling back some controls on the news media. But the party's ultimate control would remain.
Whether Xi and his cohort can make these bold changes is far from certain, say liberal critics, who argue that any reforms will run up against entrenched conservatism.
There are big differences between the current generation and the next generation (of leaders), but they will face the same problems and constraints, said Liu, the bookstore owner.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Don Durfee)