Many unmurmured questions resonated at the heart of the recent decision during the surprise third plenary session of the 19th Communist Party Central Committee to lift term limits on the presidency amid the declaration of a new era under Xi Jinping “thought”. Three of the most important and taboo questions are: Can the system produce leaders? Does collective leadership work? And, to what extent are some of the key elements of Deng Xiaoping Theory being negated?
While Deng’s political reforms created a system that many non-Chinese observers have praised in hindsight given their dismay at the new reforms, the system didn’t work very well. Deng put in place four basic components: age limits, term limits, an intraparty election system and a talent cultivation scheme that groomed successive generations for leadership.
Nevertheless, this system did not produce a single top leader. Deng and the other senior party elders elevated Jiang Zemin directly in 1989, Deng tapped Hu Jintao to follow Jiang in 2002, and Xi rose 10 years later, a princeling who was, unexpectedly, a masterful politician. What did Deng’s system produce? It contributed to the rise of new factions and patronage networks, political gridlock and unchecked corruption.
Many have remarked that Xi’s status as a “ princeling” or the son of a former powerful official, helped him to circumvent the system Deng put in place. But most princelings avoid politics, which is difficult and dangerous. It’s safer and easier to use political connections to acquire fortunes in less-challenging arenas. In fact, being a princeling sometimes works against you. One of the truisms of Chinese politics is never let the competition know your ambitions or next moves; otherwise an incredible amount of opposition will organise to bring you down. Because princelings would be identified early on as aiming for top positions, it requires an incredibly deft hand to survive over the long term. Instead of guaranteeing success, being a princeling can make you a marked man.
Some years ago, there was a dinner party story circulating in Beijing among senior female cadres that the secret to understanding Xi’s success is best understood juxtaposed with another princeling and former adversary, Bo Xilai. The key to success, they argued, can be described as “wife and mother politics”. Whereas the latter’s mother died when he was young and his estranged wife’s criminal activities contributed to his downfall, Xi’s mother is still alive and his marriage to a savvy military celebrity appears strong and is the centrepiece of a “harmonious family” propaganda campaign.
It is well known that the mother in China is primarily responsible for the child’s education, and this is especially true when learning the art of politics. If we frame this in an older discourse, we might say that one is a princeling because of his father, but will rise as the emperor because of his mother.
There is a precedent for this in China’s dynastic history, sometimes called di shu zhi zheng, the “battle between the lines”, where the most politically astute empress or concubine would outmanoeuvre the others and assure her son’s and her own survival. Today, of course, things are different, but perhaps some elements of this culture remain. Additionally, there is the concept of xian nei zhu, which refers to women as “good helpers”, who capably improve their husband in all respects, including smoothing relations with the husband’s colleagues through grace and the wives’ network behind the scenes.
Concerns of misogyny and paternalism aside, Xi’s wife and mother are viewed by many as being masterful “helpers” and therefore central to his success. But the point here is that these elements, whatever their importance, were not part of Deng’s system. In fact, in the three generations before Xi, we rarely saw the women who were closest to the senior leaders, a legacy related in part to Mao Zedong’s public marriage to Jiang Qing, the vilified leader of the Cultural Revolution’s Gang of Four.
Is Deng’s system finished and is collective leadership a pipe dream? In part, both are being suspended, at least at the highest levels, but the talent cultivation system will continue to identify and groom capable leaders who, at the very least, will serve across generations as line managers, if not more. Quite possibly, breaking down factionalism and patronage networks will improve the meritocratic qualities of the system, especially if coupled effectively with proposed reforms aimed at hiring and supervision.
Meanwhile, the emphasis on Xi as the “core”, the canonisation of his thought in the party and state constitutions, the lifting of term limits and the fact that no successors have been named, all indicate that collective leadership has been suspended for the most part, at least at the top level. While many will view this as a tremendous step backwards, it is perfectly sensible all the same. After all, Deng’s system didn’t really work, and the extent to which it did, produced the very problems that have resulted in today’s reforms. Anyway, the party was never going to reform itself step-by-step into a multiparty system with check and balances, as some well-known scholars romanticised at the height of factional gridlock.
By elevating his thought above his predecessors’, even Deng Xiaoping Theory (in Chinese, “thought” outranks “theory” typologically), and by negating some of Deng’s key reforms, it’s clear that Xi is targeting Deng primarily. Critics will fret that this marks a return in some respects to the Mao era. Beijing, however, will rationalise these developments in Chinese Marxist terms, as the negation of the negation, as responding to changing conditions and new requirements.
Another truism in China is that political theory follows politics, and not vice versa. But at a recent high-level conference of Chinese Marxist scholars, one remarked that it is not yet clear that Xi’s break with Deng is decisive. He noted his work on a new book on Chinese Marxism, and his lack of conviction that Xi deserves his own chapter, the way Mao and Deng do. That’s all well and good because it’s too soon to draw conclusions. Indeed, a true Marxist imagines the possibilities but never prognosticates. And that’s assuming there are any true Marxists left at the table.
Josef Gregory Mahoney is professor of politics and director of the International Centre of Advanced Political Studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Great undoing