China leadership

Idea that modern China practises abdication of leadership greeted with scepticism

A theory hailing China's leadership transition system has been ridiculed as self-congratulatory rhetoric that ignores the people's aspirations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 July, 2013, 6:29pm

With Communist Party leader Xi Jinping pursuing a "Chinese renaissance", some party ideologues and think tank scholars have attributed the nation's recent rise to its inheritance of a supposed keystone of good governance dating back thousands of years.

That mythical inheritance is the concept of "abdication of leadership" - handing over the "crown" voluntarily to the next generation.

Shoring up the legitimacy of communist rule in a bid to maintain the one-party system has been the primary task of Chinese leaders since the collapse of communism in the former Soviet bloc in the early 1990s. With the challenges facing the new leadership under Xi growing due to rising ideological conflict, social tension and widespread corruption, that task has become all the more imperative.

Think tank scholars have been searching for solutions for years. Among the most discussed models is that of Singapore, where the ruling People's Action Party operates strictly under the national constitution and the rule of law. Or perhaps China could follow the example of Japan, where the main factions within the Liberal Democratic Party compete to balance entrenched interest groups.

But a recent article in the party magazine Qiushi (Seeking Truth) said China's current system of power succession resembled the historical "abdication system" and it had proved successful, with the past three generations of communist leaders overseeing the unprecedented economic "miracle".

It said China's system had proved more successful than the democratic system of developed nations, which was flawed by frequent changes of leader and ruling parties, and the hereditary rule of developing nations in the Middle East and Africa, which featured lifelong tenure.

"Looking back at history and elsewhere around the world, China's current system is not only the most successful one in more than 100 years of modern Chinese history but also the best in the world in the past 60 years," the long article said.

A Communist Party news website, and other state-run media outlets also ran articles hailing the merits of the ancient political system and describing it as the world's earliest form of democratic rule.

The term "abdication" has now attracted nationwide attention and sparked debate among intellectuals, the media and millions of internet users.

With a long history of dynastic rule, some have argued that what Chinese people long for is an enlightened and benevolent emperor, rather than individual liberties. In such a context, the abdication system, in which an emperor passed the throne not to an heir but to a wise man, has been held up as an exemplar.

The legend began with Emperor Yao passing the throne to Emperor Shun, who was succeeded by Emperor Yu, during the period from about 2850BC to 2070BC. Some modern historians believe they may represent the leader-chiefs of allied tribes who established a unified and hierarchical system of government during the transitional period leading to a patriarchal, feudal society.

Historians said the abdication system was also adopted during the golden age of the Tang dynasty (618-907) and the heyday of the Song dynasty (960-1279), known as the Chinese Renaissance, when the Middle Kingdom was known for its economic growth, artistic achievements and scientific advances.

But analysts and many microbloggers have ridiculed the suggestion, saying it reflects the mindset of leaders seeking to legitimise their rule through ancient myths while ignoring global trends.

"Abdication is the renunciation by a monarch, such as an emperor, of his office," one microblogger wrote. "How can this feudalistic system be applied to modern society?"

Liu Kang, director of Duke University's China study programme, said the idea of abdication or power transition from within the ruling elite "reflects the mindset of the Chinese leadership serving as de facto corporate owners and managers of China's economy as well as heirs to the ancient Chinese imperial tradition".

Xigen Li, an associate professor in City University of Hong Kong's department of media and communication, said it was "really creative that the author views the system of Chinese leadership change as some kind of abdication".

He said the author may have been attempting to present a novel interpretation of China's leadership transition to enhance its legitimacy.

"Over the past six decades, there was not even the slightest sign of 'abdication' in the Chinese political system," Li said. "No top leader has ever voluntarily offered his seat [the dictionary definition of 'abdicate'] - to anybody else." Indeed, recent power transitions have proved neither easy nor smooth, involving endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

Since the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the Communist Party has had a difficult time changing leaders. The late Mao Zedong ruled China until his death in 1976, having failed to hand over power to his three chosen successors - Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao and Hua Guofeng - while still alive.

After he came to power, late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping tried to institutionalise a tenure-based and age-limited compulsory retirement system to replace lifelong service for state leaders. Deng himself quit office before he died but ousted his chosen successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang , for their defiance of his policies. Deng then chose Jiang Zemin as leader of the third generation of party leadership and Hu Jintao as head of the fourth. But Deng continued to exercise undisputed authority until his death in 1997.

The change of leadership from Jiang to Hu Jintao at the 16th party congress in 2002 was the first orderly and uneventful transition in Communist Party history in the absence of an emperor-like strongman. Hu in turn handed power to Xi at the 18th party congress in November.

But while many ancient regimes claimed the throne was passed down through abdication, historians say successors more often snatched power by force. In ancient or modern China, leadership transitions have more often proved German philosopher Martin Buber right when he said that "power abdicates only under the stress of counter-power".

China's leaders have embraced key elements of free-market economics but squarely rejected Western-style democracy.

Some analysts see the latest argument as a moral and intellectual challenge to the domination of Western political culture and values, and one that fits Xi's nationalistic mission to realise the "Chinese dream" of a "Chinese renaissance". They said Xi appeared to be pursuing a version of Chinese exceptionalism by seeking a place in the world for a vision of the world's longest-surviving civilisation.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at Britain's University of Nottingham, said it was "very much related to Xi's Chinese dream idea".

In the past six months, Xi has sought to sharpen the party's identity by defining itself against the West, fanning nationalist fervour and promising the restoration of China's ancient grandeur.

Analysts said the latest rhetoric also reflected the leadership's increasing confidence following the dramatic changes in global politics and economics of the past decade.

Comparing China's political and social stability and phenomenal growth with the economic slump in the West and the social turbulence and revolution in the Arab world, the Qiushi article said: "the fact that China is now at its best time since 1840, and also the best among the world's major economies, confirms our confidence in our road, theory and system".

Tsang said the article "reflects the confidence that the regime, and in particular Xi, has in how the Communist Party's consultative Leninist system is performing since the democratic and capitalist systems appear deeply faulted in the global financial crisis".

Xi said recently the country was close to achieving the goal of the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation". But the party's trumpeting of its achievements is selective and routinely ignores the economic, political, environmental and social costs of the economic miracle. An unbalanced economic structure, unsustainable growth model, environmental degradation, a yawning income gap, widespread injustice, declining social morality and rampant corruption have made some nostalgic for the "good old days under Mao".

Liu said a powerful, well-educated and globalised Chinese middle class would pose a challenge to the party's entrenched grip on power. He said a "new Chinese bourgeoisie" would be motivated not only by the economic benefits but also the ideas and culture of globalisation, including universally accepted notions of individual freedoms, rights and democracy.

"The self-congratulatory rhetoric of the China model regrettably shows little awareness and respect of the true sentiments and thoughts of the Chinese public, especially those of the rising middle class," Liu said.

Tsang said the Qiushi article had not made much of an intellectual case. "How's the consultative Leninist system superior? Using bad history - a less than truthful and objective account is bad history - does not make a case," he said. "The 'great system' referred to is in no sense one of 'abdication'."

He said the so-called abdication system was really just the basic institutionalisation of a retirement and promotion system, which was standard practice in most democracies. "The Qiushi piece is, I am afraid, much ado about nearly nothing," he said.

Zhang Ming , a political scientist at Renmin University, said references to "feudalistic abdication" signalled the leadership's reluctance to embrace universal values and global trends.

As China's leaders rely on economic growth to bolster their legitimacy, they should reflect on historical proof that there is a strong correlation between wealth creation and democracy.

In his celebrated 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratisation in the Late Twentieth Century, Samuel Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard University, summed it up, saying that most democracies are rich nations and most rich nations are democracies.