In 1796, after ruling for 60 years, Chinese Emperor Qianlong decided to retire. In an act of filial piety, he did not wish to reign longer than his eminent grandfather, the Emperor Kangxi. However, far from embracing a life of geriatric obsolescence, dedicated to poetry and his many concubines, Qianlong could never bring himself to abandon the power that came from possessing the Mandate of Heaven. The new Emperor Jiaqing ruled in name only until Qianlong finally died in 1799 at the age of 89.
An Emperor Never Retires
The People’s Republic of China would be an alien and unrecognizable entity to Qianlong’s stately Mandarins. But the central truism illustrated above has lost none of its potency since the 18th century. An emperor never retires. Nothing illustrates this maxim better than this month's 18th National Congress of the Communist Party.
Jiang Zemin, China’s wily paramount leader from 1989 to 2002, has a long history of confounding China analysts both in China and the West. As the party chief of Shanghai, he was plucked from relative obscurity in 1989 to restore order to a China reeling from the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Without an independent power base in Beijing, many believed Jiang would not survive and would prove a transitional figure, not dissimilar to Mao’s chosen successor, the ill-fated Hua Guofeng. But Jiang, with the critical support of his patron, the “retired” Deng Xiaoping, outmaneuvered his adversaries and secured not only his own position but the continuation of the economic reforms that have been at the heart of China’s miraculous rise.
After his retirement in 2002, Jiang, setting a terrible institutional precedent, lingered as the chairman of the Central Military Commission until 2005. After being pushed out of that body, the Communist patriarch sank into the shadows. His allies, though, continued to dominate the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body, through Hu Jintao’s first term as President and General Secretary. Jiang Zemin’s political arm has at times even seemed to defy his own mortality. Last year, rumors that he had died became so ubiquitous that it sparked an internet crackdown. Yet, as Mark Twain once said, reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
Jiang Zemin, in what will likely prove his last big moment in Chinese politics, certainly did not let it go to waste. At the opening of the Congress, he conspicuously entered the Great Hall of the People alongside Hu Jintao and in front of future president Xi Jinping and the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee. In the scripted world of Communist politics, it can only be seen as a naked show of strength. Jiang’s emergence at the Congress as China’s eminence gris once again demonstrates that the 86-year-old is anything but retired. As long as Jiang Zemin is alive, the incoming leadership will have to secure his approval for any major policy decision. Given the factional nature of Chinese politics, this is no small consideration.
What is something that George Washington and Mao Zedong both have in common? They both hated the idea of competing political parties. For Washington it came from a desire to prevent the rise of factions, while for Mao it came from a desire to protect the Communist monopoly on power. Yet while China indeed remains a one-party state, its various factions over the years have been more divided and fundamentally at odds than anything we can imagine between Democrats and Republicans. In this respect, General Washington’s fears have become China’s reality.
As in the United States, China has divisions akin to left and right. Since the death of Mao and the liberalization of political thinking, both sides have had their champions.
With the Deng Xiaoping legacy as a guide, China’s right advocates for further economic liberalization, specifically reforming the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and takes a more internationalist outlook. They are the faction that an increasing number of western and Chinese academics say must be ascendant if China is to continue its stable growth.
In contrast, the Chinese left, with the mantle of Mao Zedong and more modern champions like Chen Yun, Li Peng (and until recently, Bo Xilai) have advocated retrenchment, using a more robust state sector to reduce income inequality and roll back many of the excesses of China’s new market economy. They point to China’s bulging Gini Coefficient, a measure of income inequality, and runaway corruption as evidence of the reforms causing political and moral degradation.
It should be noted that disagreements between these factions extend only to the economic realm. Despite a few aborted attempts by figures such as the disgraced Zhao Ziyang (and perhaps Wen Jiabao), there has been a consensus among all factions that serious political reform remains off the table.
In the coming years, another signpost of the direction of factional struggle will be the promulgation of Xi Jinping’s governing philosophy. Perhaps, owing to Mao Zedong’s precedent of enshrining his own views and ideology as simply “Mao Zedong Thought,” each subsequent paramount leader has also felt the need to proclaim an official governing ideology. Some prove ephemeral, like Hua Guofeng’s “Two Whatevers,” which slavishly attempted to follow Mao’s example in all aspects. Others, like “Deng Xiaoping Theory,” which presented the ideological justification for reform, are considerably more consequential. Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” stressed that the party must represent the “demands of development of production, direction of development of culture and the fundamental interests of the broad masses.” Its tacit endorsement of continued market reforms and official reorienting of the party as a party for all Chinese (not only the worker, peasant or soldier) angered leftists at the time and likely still stirs some resentment to this day.
Even if he wanted to, Hu Jintao could not totally repudiate his predecessor. At the same time, his Scientific Development Concept is a clear attempt at moderating the excesses of the 1990s and has been said to cause the elder Jiang no small amount of irritation. During the 2000s, Hu and company reasserted the state role in Chinese enterprise, pursued protectionism with a vengeance and promoted what they called a more sustainable “people-centered” and “harmonious” model of development. With the imminent and unprecedented arrival of a second retired emperor, Xi Jinping will have to walk a fine line. His course must simultaneously show due deference to the Jiang and Hu lines and try to stake out some novel approach of his own.
An ancient Chinese proverb spoke of the emperor as a boat and the people as an ocean. The boat rides above the ocean, but the ocean is ultimately supreme and can overturn the boat at any time. In a post-Tiananmen world, both the left and the right’s paramount interest is in maintaining stability and keeping the Communist boat from becoming submerged by the angry floodwaters of a restive populace.
Unfortunately, China’s aging oligarchy is not designed for new and bold initiatives. Ruling as they do, with very tenuous legitimacy, its leaders are loath to go out on a limb unless they are absolutely forced. China’s emerging problems are deeper and more complicated than in times past, and increasingly call for bold and decisive action. Xi and his comrades will have to overcome the sclerosis of the system if the People’s Republic is to continue.
Jonathan Levine is a lecturer of American Studies and English at Tsinghua University in Beijing and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group. You can follow him on Twitter at @LevineJonathan.