Why China’s communists struggle with succession planning
Intrigue and infighting still permeate the months and years leading up to any transition of power
The Communist Party’s rise to power shaped China’s history for most of the past century, but despite holding the reins for more than 67 years the world’s largest political party has yet to solve its succession issues.
While it may have moved on from its violent legacy of cruel and bloody purges under Mao Zedong’s dictatorship in the early decades of the People’s Republic, when the derailing of power transitions sometimes plunged it into chaos, leadership succession remains an extremely opaque and contentious process to this day.
Before the death of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1997, strongman leaders nominated heirs based purely on individual preference. Mao, and to a lesser extent Deng, made their own decisions to promote those they favoured and depose those they suspected of disloyalty.
In the post-strongman era, such decisions have been made by a very small circle of leaders, with analysts saying a level of intrigue and infighting still permeates the months and years leading up to any transition of power.
The party is now within striking distance of the record duration for a communist regime – the 68 years and 361 days achieved in the Soviet Union and Russia’s 74 years – but before it does its leadership faces another test in a major reshuffle at the party’s 19th national congress this autumn.
“Power succession has historically been the most tricky time in the history of the [People’s Republic of China], for that matter, for Leninist states or old-fashioned autocracies,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
Historians compartmentalise the party’s power transition history into four periods: from the establishment of the party in 1921 to the Zunyi conference in 1935; Mao’s rule between 1935 and 1966; the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976; and the post-Mao era from 1976.
Party historians say the first period marked Mao’s political rise, as he swept away his political rivals. The first to fall was the party’s founding chairman, Chen Duxiu, who was expelled in 1929 after being accused two years earlier of entertaining “revisionist” thoughts. Mao then purged the party leadership, which was headed by Soviet-trained Comintern politicians such as Wang Ming, Bo Gu and Zhang Wentian – the so-called 28 Bolsheviks – to rid it of Soviet influences.
Those early struggles ended with the confirmation of Mao’s leading status in the party-led Red Army at a crucial meeting in Zunyi, Guizhou province, during the Long March in 1935.
But Mao’s status as the party’s top leader was only confirmed when he was officially “elected” chairman of the Communist Party in 1943.
During the second period of leadership, between 1935 and 1966, the power structure remained relatively stable as the party and nation came under the sway of Mao’s personality cult.
However, after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Mao found it difficult to select his successor. Before his death in 1976, Mao failed to hand power to three successors he had chosen – Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao and Hua Guofeng.
Mao first decided that Liu should succeed him as party chairman but then launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to purge Liu and Liu’s supporters because he felt his supreme status was undermined. Liu died in squalor in prison in 1969. Mao then chose Lin, who died in a plane crash in 1971 after fleeing in the wake of a failed court coup.
After Lin’s death, Mao favoured Wang Hongwen, Deng, and finally Hua.
As the late American historian John Fairbank observed, in Mao’s China the continuity of dynastic absolutism was replaced by party dictatorship and a “personality cult”.
Cheng Li, director of the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Centre, said Mao treated succession as if it “were his own private business”. And during his reign, any discussion of the transition of power that would follow him was taboo.
After Mao, leadership succession and associated intraparty conflicts became much less intense and violent, and were no longer a matter of life and death. Li said that under Deng, political succession and generational change in the Chinese leadership became “a matter of public concern”.
Still, Deng first wrested control of China from Hua, Mao’s anointed heir, to become paramount leader. He wielded absolute, undisputed power from 1978 to his death in 1997, even though he held no party or government titles after his official retirement in 1989. Deng relaunched free-market economic reform during his famous South China trip in 1991, when he was nominally just an ordinary citizen, without any official title besides the honorary chairmanship of China’s bridge association.
However, Deng repeated Mao’s failures in the selection of successors. He selected two protégés, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, to head the party, but then deposed them after they expressed sympathy with students demanding democracy. Hu was forced to resign as party general secretary in 1987. His death two years later sparked student protests that turned into an occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Zhao was ousted just before the bloody military crackdown on the student-led demonstrations in the square on June 4, 1989.
Deng, himself a victim of Mao’s personal dictatorship, then came to realise the importance of institutionalised power succession and tried to put in place a tenure-based and age-limited compulsory retirement system to replace lifelong service for state leaders. Since his retirement, power has become more structured, with the leader holding all three of the most important offices: party general secretary, state president and chairman of the Central Military Commission.
Li said China’s leadership had survived and thrived over past three decades because it “has continually sought new mechanisms, institutional regulations, policy measures and political norms to resolve its inherent deficiencies and inadequacies”.
In 1992, Deng designated Jiang Zemin, who had replaced Zhao as general secretary in 1989, as leader of the third generation of party leadership and Hu Jintao, then 49, as head of the fourth, having billed Mao as the first generation and himself as the second. Deng promoted Hu Jintao to the Politburo Standing Committee that year to avoid future conflict over a succession scheduled 10 years later – the first time in the history of Chinese communism that such a decision had been made.
In preparation for his elevation to the party leadership, Hu Jintao was appointed vice-president in 1998, and vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, which oversees the People’s Liberation Army, in 1999.
Li praised Deng, saying he had made great contributions to the development of the party’s collective leadership – both in theory and in practice.
Deng’s death in 1997 marked the end of the era of individual dominance, the most important change in China’s political landscape.
Tsang said the important improvement made in the post-Deng era was the modification of the Leninist system to make it a consultative Leninist system, with the succession process increasingly institutionalised and therefore less unpredictable.
“Such an arrangement makes succession less tricky or potentially destabilising,” Tsang said.
In the post-Deng era, however, incoming leaders are still chosen behind closed doors at secret Communist Party gatherings. And any hint of uncertainty can spark an explosion of speculation, virtually ensuring that no leadership transition unfolds without drama.
The power transition from Jiang to Hu Jintao at the 16th party congress in 2002, put in place 10 years earlier by Deng, was the first orderly and uneventful transition in Communist Party history. However, it did not mean an end to power struggles between Jiang and Hu Jintao.
Although he retired from the most important party positions, Jiang remained chairman of the Central Military Commission for another three years. Jiang had also promoted associates to fill Hu Jintao’s cabinet, and seven of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee were Jiang loyalists, as were people in key positions in the central party apparatus.
The Jiang-Hu transition set a precedent for the power transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping at the party’s 18th national congress in 2012. After the 17th congress, five years earler, the “peaceful transition model” was applied, with two young leaders, Xi and Li Keqiang, appointed to the Politburo Standing Committee to prepare them to succeed Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao. But the selection of Xi as heir-apparent surprised many observers, most of whom believed Hu Jintao favoured Li, his protégé, to succeed him as party chief and state president.
The decision to opt for Xi might have been the result of an intense factional trade-off. Analysts said the peaceful settlement of the contentious matter showed the leadership, as a whole, realised that the party, faced with a variety of unresolved internal problems, risked regime collapse if it allowed an unconstrained internal power struggle to break out in the world’s last major communist-ruled nation.
Some analysts said the dramatic March 2012 downfall of Bo Xilai, a former Chongqing party chief and Politburo member who was seen as Xi’s main political rival, might have been related to the power struggle ahead of the party’s 18th national congress in November that year, along with the downfall of Bo-supporter Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member and security chief, the next year.
Xi appeared to confirm such speculation recently when he accused Bo and Zhou of involvement in “political conspiracies” and not just corruption. In a keynote speech to party leaders at the Central Committee’s sixth plenum in October, Xi said Zhou, Bo, generals Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, and Hu Jintao’s former top aide Ling Jihua had “all engaged in political conspiracy activities”.
The Hu–Xi power transition was the first test for the institutionalised succession framework envisaged by Deng in the absence of an all-powerful strongman. And while it went off smoothly, power succession remains the party’s most complex and difficult challenge.
Brookings’ Cheng Li said that by keeping abreast of changes and adapting accordingly, the party had maintained its grip on one-party rule.
But analysts said the power transition from Xi might prove more contentious than the previous two because Xi, an admirer of Mao, had amassed greater power than any post-Mao leader and might change some of the institutionalised arrangements and party rules laid down by Deng when he ponders the next generational change.
“All indications so far suggest that Xi will try to move away from the post-Deng norm,” Tsang said. “Then the politics of succession would become less predictable and, more importantly, less stable and more vicious.”
But Jiangnan Zhu, a China expert with the University of Hong Kong’s department of politics and public administration, said she believed the current leadership would be cautious because it would not want to see a repeat of the political turbulence that accompanied some power transitions in the past.
“Xi’s core status would be an important source to increase the authority of his decisions during the transition, and deter potential opposition,” Zhu said, referring to the Central Committee plenum’s anointing of Xi as the “core” of the party’s leadership in October.