Unsettled Succession: China's Critical Moment

September 1, 1997 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: Cultural Revolution

Unsettled Succession: China's Critical Moment

Mini Teaser: Who will be the next leader of China? In one form or another, the succession issue has been the central drama of Chinese politics almost since the beginning.

by Author(s): Bruce J. Dickson

Who will be the next leader of China? This question has been a perpetual preoccupation of scholars and journalists for decades, and the reason is clear: In one form or another, the succession issue has been the central drama of Chinese politics almost since the beginning of the People's Republic in 1949. The absence of institutionalized procedures for selecting China's top leader led to the most serious political conflicts of the Maoist era: the Gao Gang-Rao Shushi episode of 1954, resulting in the "suicide" of one and the disappearance of another of two leading figures; the Cultural Revolution and its attack on Mao's supposed successor Liu Shaoqi; the Lin Biao affair, culminating in deadly plane crash of another of Mao's designated successors; and the arrest of the "Gang of Four" a month after Mao's death.

The Deng Xiaoping era has also seen its share of political intrigue as succession arrangements unraveled: first when Hua Guofeng and other Cultural Revolution beneficiaries were outmaneuvered by reformers in the early 1980s; later when Hu Yaobang lost Deng's favor and was forced into retirement in 1987; and most recently when Zhao Ziyang similarly lost Deng's confidence and was removed from his posts in the wake of the pro-democracy movement of 1989. Reports of infighting and jockeying for power among the five or six likely successors to Deng continued thereafter, fueling the perception that the succession issue was among the most--if not the most--serious problems of Chinese politics.
And then, finally, on February 19, 1997, Deng died--and nothing happened. Mourners did not march on Tiananmen Square, turning the death of a leader into a protest against remaining leaders, as occurred after the deaths of Zhou Enlai in 1976 and Hu Yaobang in 1989. Nor did one faction of leaders arrest its opponents, as happened after Mao died in 1976. There was no massive public grieving or disruption of everyday life. And to date there have been no significant shifts in Chinese policies, foreign or domestic.

Was the importance of leadership succession in China, then, simply overrated? Not entirely. China's leaders were aware that the death of a prominent leader could be taken as an unspoken signal initiating spontaneous protests and they took steps to pre-empt any hint of unrest. Additional plain-clothes and uniformed police were dispatched to likely trouble spots, such as college campuses and Tiananmen Square. Those few citizens who tried to bring flowers to Tiananmen were deflected, detained, and then ushered away in police cars. Foreign dignitaries and media were barred from Deng's funeral, denying potential protesters a sympathetic audience. If Deng's death was anti-climactic, it was partly because great care was taken to make it so.

Still, while succession is not an insignificant issue, it is easily oversold. The absence of formal procedures for selecting a new leader, the infrequency of such events, and the tendency of Chinese elites to struggle against each other for political power combine to give the problem of leadership succession its persistent fascination for China-watchers. But the potential for political crisis at times of transition should not obscure the fundamental truth that no communist government has ever collapsed as the direct result of leadership succession. When a leader dies in office, his survivors have always been able to reach a consensus around a new standard bearer in short order. Not all such leaders were inspired choices (Hua Guofeng and, in the case of the Soviet Union, Konstantin Chernenko come quickly to mind), and not all remained in their new posts for very long. But in all cases the normal operations of state continued with little disruption at the time of succession.

Succession remains a serious issue, however, because so much is at stake in the longer run. In China's case, the succession to Deng, once it plays out, may determine whether the policies of gaige and kaifang (reform and opening to the outside world) are continued and perhaps deepened, or abandoned. It may rearrange significantly the relative power of the current constellation of leaders and influence the degree of political order in China. If intra-elite strife were to ensue, political instability would likely follow. If, as a consequence, China's leaders were to lose control over society, and over the many thousands of local officials who run China on a daily basis, the survival of the regime itself could be at stake.

Such apocalyptic consequences are unlikely, however, for at least three reasons. First, there was no power vacuum when Deng died because he held no formal posts. Remembering the havoc wreaked by the succession issue during and immediately after Mao's tenure, Deng took the trouble to work out his own succession far in advance. His status as China's paramount leader was not undermined by having more junior officials formally fill the top posts in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government. Like Mao, however, Deng lost confidence in his initially designated successors (Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang), pushed them out of office, and replaced them with new heirs apparent, the last being Jiang Zemin. When Deng died, the top leadership positions--general secretary of the CCP, prime minister, president, and chairman of the Military Affairs Commission--were all filled. Few outside observers believe that the current ranking of leaders will remain fixed beyond the next few years, but the fact that the primary contenders already hold formal positions at least postpones the problem. The real shape of the post-Deng era will therefore take time to clarify.

A second reason for expecting scant policy discontinuity in the near term is that there is little dispute among current leaders concerning policy preferences. As was not the case during the Mao succession period, all the potential competitors hold positions relatively close together on the policy spectrum, exemplified by a general consensus on gaige and kaifang. Despite occasional shifts in the direction and pace of reforms, none of China's front-line leaders is calling for a return to a centrally planned, heavy-industry based economy. Any attempt to recentralize power, especially over the economy, would be resisted by local leaders, the main beneficiaries of market-oriented reforms during the Deng era.

Indeed, already in the early 1990s resistance by several provincial governors forced Prime Minister Li Peng to abandon his attempt to recentralize control over financial and investment matters. Nor is anyone calling for an immediate transition to a full market economy, or putting political reform back on the agenda. All Politburo proponents of political liberalization were replaced in the summer of 1989.
There are undercurrents favoring political reform in China, but they are not strong enough by themselves to break the surface. Some of those who were demoted for their support of reform have subsequently returned to political life in less prominent positions (e.g., Hu Qili as minister of electronics and Yan Mingfu as vice minister of civil affairs). They may still privately favor political reform and may still have extensive networks of supporters. In 1995, there were rumors that Jiang Zemin had reached out to Hu Qili and Yan Mingfu to solicit their support, but was rebuffed; Hu, Yan, and other proponents of political reform have little reason to support Jiang, whom they see as an opportunistic and mediocre leader. Perhaps, too, they were waiting for the post-Deng succession to reassert themselves, but their marginal posts make such a reassertion difficult.

There may be other closet supporters of political reform as well. Qiao Shi, for instance, has often been portrayed as a potential Yuri Andropov--a former spy chief transformed into a symbol of political reform. While there is little in the public record to lend credence to such speculation, Qiao has been active in invigorating the National People's Congress (NPC), China's nominal parliament, as an important political institution. No longer a mere rubber-stamp body under the absolute domination of the CCP, the NPC now has permanent committees and permanent staff to review and in some cases revise laws drafted by the CCP. Larger numbers of NPC delegates are now willing to oppose party initiatives, such as the Three Gorges Dam project or Jiang's nomination of one of his Politburo allies for the post of vice premier. In the March meeting of the NPC, the first after Deng's death, an unprecedented 40 percent of delegates refused to approve the government's work report on crime and corruption, criticizing the effectiveness of the efforts to fight crime. The CCP has still never lost a vote in the NPC, but the Congress can now force the postponement of a vote on controversial matters or the revision of pending legislation.

A former president of the NPC, Wan Li, is also seen as sympathetic toward political reform. He is generally credited with initiating the move toward private farming in the late 1970s, and he also has contributed to institutionalizing the NPC's role in the policy process. During the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, he cut short a foreign trip to convene a meeting of the NPC's Standing Committee to consider the legality of imposing martial law. Rumors that he was placed under house arrest upon his return to China appear to be unfounded. Moreover, his continued presence on the Politburo until the 14th Party Congress in 1992 indicates that he made his peace with other leaders, regardless of his position on the student movement. At 82, he is too old to be appointed to a front-line post, but he could remain an influential supporter of reform behind the scenes.

In short, while Qiao Shi and Wan Li have strengthened the NPC as a forum for monitoring party decisions, they have not yet opposed a party initiative. The NPC may further strengthen its role as a safety check on party decisions, but it is unlikely to directly challenge the CCP's authority from below.
The third reason for doubting the imminence of a regime crisis is a consequence of the first two: Since there was no power vacuum when Deng died, and since all potential successors espouse similar policy positions, societal interests will not be aroused by the outcome of this succession, as was the case at the time of Mao's death. One main consequence of the post-Mao reforms has been the depoliticization of everyday life in China, meaning that the party/state is less intrusive, and therefore less important, in the daily lives of most Chinese. Although there is still immense interest in the elite's jockeying for power, most Chinese will not be much affected by which technocrat comes out on top. Moreover, Chinese citizens have no direct say in how their national leaders are chosen. When considering the main problems facing China, the political prospects of half a dozen elderly men matter far less to most than the economic, social, and environmental problems facing the country.

Crisis = Dangers + Opportunities

The Chinese word for crisis, weiji, is a combination of the words for danger and opportunity, and this is indeed the best way to see the current succession "crisis." From the perspective of China's leaders, there is the ever present danger of elite conflict and the loss of power by one group or another. This inherent uncertainty makes a period of protracted succession struggles particularly worrisome. But there is also opportunity at hand for policy innovation and consolidation.

A divided leadership is especially dangerous if one leader or group of leaders reaches out to society for support against his opponents, real or imagined. This was a favorite tactic of Mao's, and it was also used successfully by Deng during the Democracy Wall movement in late 1978. Zhao Ziyang tried a similar tack in 1989, when, after losing the support of Deng and other party elders, he sided with the student demonstrators. Zhao's public statements of sympathy for the goals and methods of the protesters (combined with private communications between political reformers within the party and student leaders) signaled a split within the leadership, emboldening some protesters to press their demands, confident that at least some party leaders would support them. In a perhaps apocryphal but nevertheless telling exchange between Deng and Zhao during this struggle, Deng boasted that he had the support of three million soldiers, and Zhao replied he had the support of one billion Chinese. Deng then answered, "You have nothing"--and of course Deng was right. Amorphous popular support is no match for political organization and live ammunition.

Nevertheless, despite Deng's early support for an immediate crackdown, and despite his high prestige and network of supporters in the party, government, and military, the student movement continued for over a month before its tragic dŽnouement. Much of Deng's political capital among his colleagues, within Chinese society, and in the international community was spent imposing martial law. In Deng's absence, elite consensus on behalf of such severe measures will be even harder to achieve. With political dissatisfaction running high in society, populist appeals will be that much more threatening to party leaders against whom they are directed, and that much more tempting to party leaders who can rally popular support for their cause.

Periods of succession are also rare opportunities for policy innovation. The opacity of top-level policymaking in China makes it difficult to predict what form any innovation may take, but Chinese leaders, as well as those in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, have often used succession as an opportunity to embark on sudden and unanticipated reforms.
For the past several years, Deng was too weak physically to have much direct involvement in the policy process, but his political influence remained strong. Hence, while he no longer initiated change, his presence blocked others who might have done so for fear of exposing themselves to charges of disloyalty and factionalism. Now such constraints are removed. Leaders are free to promote their own agendas, and to garner support for further advancement they will need to distinguish themselves from Deng's old line. Thus, policy innovation becomes not only a possibility but a necessity for the ambitious. Previous leadership successions, in China as well as in other communist countries, have led to populist-minded reforms that improved standards of living and eased political restrictions. The succession to Deng may be an occasion for similar liberalizations.

There were hints this past summer that China's leaders are considering a resumption of political reform. One possibility is the extension of direct elections of local leaders from the village up to the county level. Reformers confront the dilemma of how to initiate even the discussion of political change without raising expectations, which can lead to instability when those expectations are not met. Frustration over the slow pace of political reform resulted in student-led demonstrations in the winter of 1986-87 and spring of 1989. Will China's next generation of leaders be able to balance their desire for political reform with the general preference for social stability any better than the previous generation?

We will soon have an opportunity to assess the prospects for such changes. Attention has now turned from the death of Deng to the 15th Party Congress, scheduled for late October 1997. Party Congresses typically approve leaders for top posts and issue programmatic statements outlining the party's agenda for the next several years. During the run-up to the Congress, behind-the-scenes jockeying for power and positions on the CCP's Politburo and Central Committee has intensified. Deng's death has aided those who wish to depart from his policy combination of economic dynamism and political stasis, but straying too far from his line might appear unseemly so soon after his death. The roster of party leaders and the Congress' programmatic statement will be scrutinized carefully for indications of whether the current leadership is prepared to innovate in either the economic or the political sphere.

Present circumstances in China entail dangers and opportunities for society as well as for elites, and for similar reasons. The alternative possibilities of political stalemate and disunity both could increase anxieties about the future. Worse, there is some small chance that new leaders will roll back recent reforms, limiting economic opportunities within China and reducing access to the outside world. Recent efforts to restrict access to the Internet and the closing of computer bulletin boards are dismaying reminders that not all of China's leaders welcome the free exchange of ideas.

Just as periods of succession are rare opportunities for policy innovation by elites, so are they rare opportunities for mass-mobilized political protest. In political systems where organizing collective action is extremely difficult, the death of a leader can trigger bandwagoning behavior--as occurred in 1976 after the death of Zhou Enlai and again in 1989 after the death of Hu Yaobang. In 1991, China's leaders were so worried about the potential for mass protest following the suicide of Jiang Qing, Mao's widow, that they delayed announcing it for three weeks. The prospect of mass protest could increase significantly if a potential leader or group of leaders were to reach out to society for popular support against intra-party rivals. Despite the 1989 crackdown, there was clear evidence that many party leaders at the time supported the popular movement, and political activists may be waiting for an opportunity to try again. For those who have concluded that the current regime is beyond hope, and that the only possibility for political change lies not in reform but revolution--a conclusion that many East European activists had come to long before the revolutions of 1989--the succession period may be seen as a window of opportunity. Indeed, if a crisis does arise, it is most likely to involve an explosive combination of divided elites and mobilized masses that could lead China abruptly away from the fragile order upon which Deng insisted, and toward a ferocious turbulence he and others feared deeply.

Alternative Futures

Contemplating the years ahead, four scenarios are worth considering. They are ranked here in ascending order of their potential for producing political instability.

First, there could be a smooth though protracted process of leadership succession, with the policy status quo essentially preserved. In the immediate future--say, the next three or four years--this is the most likely course of events. If it comes to pass, Jiang Zemin will remain in his posts atop the party, military, and state, not least because he has succeeded in recent years in bringing cronies from Shanghai to central party and government posts, and in building bridges with key PLA leaders. But Jiang will find it difficult to be an autonomous or decisive leader. Aside from his own limitations, he will be constrained by a collective leadership wary of letting him accumulate the power to match his posts. Qiao Shi, Li Peng, Zhu Rongji, and others may not covet the job of paramount leader, but they have a common interest in checking the expansion of Jiang's power. Power may continue to reside in individuals more than institutions, but increasingly China's leaders are institutionalizing political authority, both to rationalize the political system and to limit the potential for personal aggrandizement.

A second scenario is a future marked by growing regionalism. Economic decentralization in the post-Mao era has led some to envision a return to the warlord-style of Chinese politics that existed during the early twentieth century, and with it a return to political instability, regional rivalry, and perhaps civil war. Others draw a different conclusion from the same trends: an emerging federalism, with economic development decisions in the hands of local government. One consequence of such a federalism would be to enhance prospects for the survival of market-oriented reforms for the simple reason that many local governments benefit from them. As their tangible benefits are demonstrated, such reforms are more likely to be adopted by an increasing number of local governments. The declining power of the central government over the economy, and the competition by localities for access to foreign trade and foreign investment, are fully compatible with the federalism scenario and need not presuppose the collapse of the central government.

In any event, it is extremely unlikely that growing regionalism will result in the disintegration of China, as it did in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Unlike those two countries, China is not an artificially manufactured multinational state. Several non-Han nationalities live in China, but roughly 95 percent of the population belongs to the Han nationality. Except for the strategically important--but economically marginal and sparsely populated--areas of Tibet and Xinjiang, there is no tradition of non-Han national independence elsewhere within the present borders of China, and--again with those exceptions--the deeply rooted traditional norm of a unified China will prevent regions from declaring independence. (Taiwan, of course, is an entirely different matter.) Regional leaders may contend with one another for de facto autonomy and the power that goes with it, all the time declaring their allegiance to national unity. But with nationalism on the rise in recent years, literal secession is not an option for local leaders.
Third, there could be a retreat from reforms and an increase in authoritarian controls. This scenario is especially likely if political activists, party reformers, or an alliance of the two try but fail to promote democratization. While Deng himself was blind to it, most of China's leaders recognize the trade-off between the goals of economic growth and political stability, and many are willing to slow the pace of economic growth and roll back reforms if it proves necessary to restore or maintain political order. Indeed, conservative leaders were able to bottle up the economic reforms and slow economic growth until Deng's "southern tour" of 1992, when his visits to and approval of economic hot spots kick-started the double-digit growth that China has experienced since. In the post-Deng era, conservatives may again try to roll back reforms. The increasingly decentralized nature of China's economy steeply raises the cost of such an attempt, but conservative leaders will be willing to pay it if their fears of instability begin to mount.

In the fourth and last scenario, there could be revolutionary change in Chinese politics, sponsored either by current leaders or through social revolution, or by a combination of the two. The explosive mix of elite mobilization and popular participation clearly represents the biggest threat to political stability in China in the years ahead. In the past, the regime has gone to great lengths to demobilize society after popular upsurges, and the norm of democratic centralism was a powerful constraint on populist appeals by leaders. But during a protracted succession struggle, some leaders might decide that linking up with social protest movements is their last best hope to promote their own candidacy, the political reform agenda, or both.

Several events could trigger the sort of social upsurge that ambitious politicians could seize for their own purposes. Rumors have circulated for years that some party leaders are ready to reassess the official verdict on the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations as a "counter-revolutionary rebellion." Reversing the verdict would be popular, but would require repudiating Deng's assessment that the demonstrations were both a planned conspiracy and a dangerous turmoil. Moreover, it would legitimize the demonstrations themselves and could encourage their revival, just as the reversal of the verdict on the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations to honor Zhou Enlai fueled the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-79. Similarly, a reappraisal of Hu Yaobang may be in the offing. In 1987, Hu was forced to resign his post as the CCP's general secretary for being too supportive of political reform, and his death in 1989 triggered demonstrations. Hu and many of his accusers are now dead, so a reappraisal would have little practical significance, but as a political symbol it would legitimize demands for the kind of political change with which he is still identified. Similarly, restoring Zhao Ziyang to an official post would vindicate his support for the demonstrators of 1989. Any of these steps would signal the CCP's willingness to depart from Deng's line and to consider radical and wide-ranging political reform, along with the risk of instability that would inevitably accompany it.

Recent evidence suggests that mobilizing popular support on behalf of political change would be rather easy. Organizing and controlling it, however, would be a much greater challenge. In China, as in other Leninist systems, the ruling party maintains a monopoly on political organization. Those organizations that do exist (the Communist Youth League, Women's Federation, Writers' Guild, Federation of Trade Unions, Student Federation, and so forth) are controlled by the party, and are therefore very ill-equipped to channel popular sentiments upward. Indeed, one of the key demands of the 1989 demonstrations was for the state to recognize the legitimacy of autonomous unions for students and workers, but this was rejected as being incompatible with CCP rule. China lacks the autonomous organizations needed to express and pursue collective action without creating political chaos. Extra-governmental collective action in China is by definition rebellion; they are acts targeted against state policy without authorized organization, planning, or leadership. Similarly, the outcome of rebellion is often framed in zero-sum terms: either the state suppresses the rebellion or its own survival is jeopardized. That was the calculation of conservative leaders in 1989, and the same calculation may hold in the post-Deng succession.

Many of China's leaders recognize that the imbalance between economic and political freedoms is not sustainable over the long run, but remain deeply divided over how best to correct it--by pulling back on economic reform or by opening the political system. Even those who would prefer more political reform do not know how to implement it without jeopardizing the CCP's power. The experience of former communist countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that tried to reform, but collapsed in the process, is a chilling reminder to China's leaders of the dangers of attempted adaptation.

Even if revolutionary change were to come to China, democracy would by no means be the inevitable outcome. Given the array of severe political, economic, social, and environmental problems confronting China--and given its huge population's lack of experience in representative government--it is by no means certain that a democracy could effectively deal with such challenges. Hence, democracy might not be consolidated even if attempted. While the historical record suggests that failed democracies of the past often lay the foundation for successful democracies in the future, it is also true, as Samuel Huntington has observed, that failure can delegitimize democracy as a plausible alternative in the near term. The country's size and level of economic and social development being as it is, an old-fashioned authoritarian regime similar to the current one, but stripped of all ideological pretension and perhaps dominated by the military, could arise instead--either directly or from the ashes of a failed democracy.
One last but important point on this matter: Under any of these four scenarios, Chinese nationalism is likely to become more assertive than it already is. Under those scenarios that suggest the possibility of increased authoritarianism, nationalism could and undoubtedly would be used to mask, or justify, heightened repression within and aggressiveness without.

Throughout the post-1949 period, the CCP has been unwilling to accommodate popular demands for political change. The experience of other communist parties suggests that it may be unable to do so. Indeed, the historical record suggests that communist governments do not evolve, but collapse. So while it would be foolish to predict when major political change will come to China, it is possible to say how it will come: suddenly and dramatically, not gradually and incrementally. In 1989, Chinese students and East European intellectuals had no inkling of the events about to unfold, or any sense that a window of opportunity was about to open before them. But once the opportunity appeared, a rapid social momentum developed, sometimes from unexpected sources, to drive events forward. A peaceful, incremental, elite-sponsored transformation from Leninism to pluralist democracy is as remote a possibility in China as it always was in the Soviet Union, and it has been made all the more remote by the historical baggage accumulated by the CCP during past episodes of popular protest. Clearly, for democracy to ever come about in China, the incumbent regime must be replaced.

Many of China's intellectuals know this, and many political activists are undoubtedly looking for the next window of opportunity to resume political protest. Political leaders, wary of this possibility, are anxiously alert for the same type of signal. The succession to Deng may or may not lead to upheaval or revolution, but it is a "critical" moment, full of dangers and opportunities for all concerned. With the stakes so high and the outcome so uncertain, the next few years may well determine the political future of China for many decades to come.

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