China’s leadership: the next generation

Li Datong
3 October 2007

The five-yearly national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) takes place on 15-19 October 2007, the seventeenth such event in the party's history. Anyone who is interested in Chinese politics is paying close attention to the preparations. The most suspenseful aspect of the build-up is speculation over who will be on the new politburo standing committee - the highest level of party leadership. Hong Kong and Taiwanese media have already released seven or eight lists of names, and rumours have also been circulating in political and intellectual circles in the mainland.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's articles in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point" (12 September 2006)

"China: a ‘great nation'?" (10 January 2007)

"What China's new property law means" (21 March 2007)

"China's veteran voices of reform" (16 May 2007)

"China's unlearning: a potent anniversary" (13 June 2007)

"The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)

"Hong Kong's one-legged return" (11 July 2007)

"Beijing baozi and public trust" (25 July 2007)

"The next land revolution?" (8 August 2007)

"Beijing's Olympics, China's politics" (22 August 2007)

"China's media change: talking with Angela Merkel" (6 September 2007)

"Shanghai: new history, old politics" (19 September 2007)

One of the reasons that people are so interested in the new leadership is that they are not expecting much from the political report - it is expected essentially to be a further outlining and clarification of Hu Jintao's political ideas, and will not contain anything new. Although Hu's theories are aimed at tackling the problems and contradictions that have arisen from China's development, in practice, more has been said than done. It is hard to see any real progress. The public is gradually losing interest in slogans, and does not hold out much hope for any substantial breakthroughs at the seventeenth party congress. In comparison to bland policy issues, therefore, questions of personnel seem all the more important.

The name-lists of potential new politburo standing committee members currently in circulation do have some basis in fact. Some of the lists seem particularly reliable, and it seems possible that they could have been leaked by top party officials. However, high-level party politics have always lacked transparency. The manoeuvrings are highly complex and wouldn't seem out of place in a novel on royal court conspiracies. We often only see how things are going to turn out at the very last moment. Therefore, although I have spoken to some reliable sources and have a rough idea of who may be in contention, I see no need to put together another list here just for the sake of sensationalism. However, the perspective of party history offers a route to discern the important changes that are beginning to take place in the ways in which party leaders are selected.

The struggle for power

In the past, a key characteristic of the party's paramount leader was that, as an individual, he had significantly higher status than the rest of the party leadership. This phenomenon emerged before the party had come to power. At the end of the "long march", Mao Zedong had still not maneuvered himself into the paramount position. The party leadership was a group of three, consisting of Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Zhang Wentian. As general secretary (1935-43), Zhang was at the time actually the most senior. During the party's period of rest and consolidation at Yan'an, Mao employed extraordinary and ruthless measures to seize the party leadership. The rectification movement was one example of this.

By the time of the seventh party congress in 1945, Mao, with the support of Stalin, had succeeded in eliminating or bringing on-side all his potential competitors or equals within the party, such as Wang Ming, Zhang Guotao, Zhang Wentian and Zhou Enlai. His status was far higher than any of the other individuals who made up the party leadership. Within the party, he was the new "emperor". In 1966 on the eve of the cultural revolution, after initiating another purge which eliminated senior officials such as Peng Dehuai, Mao confidently admitted to foreign visitors that he was "the greatest emperor in Chinese history".

Indeed, Mao used exactly the same methods as China's emperors when appointing potential successors - he anointed them and disposed of them at will. Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao were both earmarked for leadership, and then eliminated after refusing to be totally obedient to Mao. By the time Mao was on his deathbed, there was no one really suitable left, and, like the emperors, he had to choose someone that would be acceptable to all. This turned out to be Hua Guofeng. However, Hua was no more prominent than any of the other major figures that made up the Chinese leadership, and was unable to consolidate his position. Within three years he was gone - replaced by Deng Xiaoping, who as a former general secretary of the party and military commander had the unassailable credentials required to become the paramount leader.

The succession question

Deng never had quite the same authority as Mao. Although he had the final say on most issues, on the really important questions such as successors to the leadership, he still had to consult a group of party elders led by Chen Yun, who had similar credentials to Deng. Deng was not in a powerful enough position to completely overrule Chen. From the information that has been released, we can see that the decisions to get rid of two successive general secretaries, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were compromises that emerged from arguments between the elders. When the time came to appoint a successor, Deng, like Mao, had no ideal candidate in mind, and he had to accept the nomination of the elders - Jiang Zemin.

On coming to power, Jiang misinterpreted the political direction that the Elders wanted him to take. He opposed any ideas of a "peaceful transition" to democracy, and also the market economy. This enraged Deng, whose place in history was based on his introduction of the market economy to China. Deng was forced, in fragile health, to go on his famous "southern tour" in February 1992 in which he warned Beijing, "whoever opposes reform will lose their position".

Jiang's position immediately became precarious, and he was even unsure whether he would still be around to make the political report at the fourteenth party congress. Jiang made a dramatic U-turn, and managed to hold onto his position as general secretary, but Deng had already lost faith in the capricious Jiang. Although Deng never made another attempt to bring down Jiang, he deprived him of the right to appoint his own successor, and himself chose Hu Jintao. Deng's reason for doing this was that he saw the importance of having a clear gap in status between the paramount leader and the rest of the party leadership. He promoted Hu to the politburo ten years early, to ensure that when the time came to choose the next leader, there would be no one else around with the leadership credentials to challenge Hu. Deng knew the importance of the paramount position.

Since Deng's authority still carried legitimacy within the party, Jiang could not overturn Deng's decision. All he could do was promote some of his own supporters after Deng's death in order to maintain some influence. Jiang has partly succeeded in his aims. Despite repeatedly emphasizing his differences from the previous leadership, throughout his five years in power, Hu's hands have been tied and he has been unable put his ideas into practice. Hu now finally has the chance to think about his own successors.

The next generation

The reason Hu was able to take over from Jiang was the status gap between him and other candidates. However, this gap was not based on authority or political achievements, but merely on ten years more experience of life in the politburo. This is a fairly weak claim to authority, and is not enough to give Hu the power to appoint his own successor.

It is interesting that although he does not have this power, Hu will be looking at the group of potential successors and seeing that none of them is in a stronger position than any of the others. The rising stars touted by the media such as Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang and are starting out on a level playing-field.

It is this set of circumstances that will give rise to real change. All Hu can now do is bring a group of potential successors (probably three or four people) into the politburo standing committee and see who can establish the most authority for themselves over the coming five years. Then, before he steps down at the eighteenth party congress in 2012, he must put in place a strict system for choosing between these candidates. This system can only be in the form of an election - there is no other legitimate way of selecting the next leader. This will be the start of the democratisation of the Chinese Communist Party.

The party was founded in 1921, and intra-party democracy could be established by 2012. Ninety years is a long time for this development to emerge, but the rule in Chinese politics has always been the same: the older generation has to disappear before the new generation can truly emerge.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData