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Each of the five leaders of the People’s Republic have their own legacy. Photo: AFP

From Mao to now: David Shambaugh compares and contrasts China’s leaders

  • What are the similarities and differences between Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong? Was Deng Xiaoping the People’s Republic’s greatest leader?
  • Political science professor Shambaugh gives his perspective
Daniel Kwan

China has had five major leaders since the founding of the People’s Republic, each of them distinctive and each with their own path to power.

In his new book China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now , American political science professor and leading China scholar David Shambaugh not only charts the rise of each man but does it in a way that is accessible to the general reader.
Here, Shambaugh talks about how he sees Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping – from their differences to their legacies.

Some China watchers have compared President Xi Jinping with Mao Zedong, highlighting Xi’s authority and Mao’s popularity in China today. Is Xi following in Mao’s footsteps to rule China as an autocrat?

Shambaugh: All Chinese leaders are authoritarian autocrats, but some more than others. Some are totalitarian despots. Of the five leaders I study in this book, Mao and Xi are definitely the most authoritarian and totalitarian.

There are many similarities between Mao and Xi – notably the sycophantic cult of personality and their “thought” that must be studied by everyone. But there are big differences too: Mao despised institutions of the government and [Communist] Party and attacked – and almost destroyed – the party during the Cultural Revolution – while Xi believes in strong institutions and rules through them. Mao also sought to attack traditional Chinese culture, whereas Xi values and venerates the past and traditional culture. Mao paid no attention to laws – Xi uses them as an instrument of rule.

Why, after decades of decentralisation of rule following Deng, China is now back to a dictatorial political system reminiscent of the Mao era, is both something of a mystery and a sad commentary.


Xi Jinping Thought to be introduced in China’s classrooms

Xi Jinping Thought to be introduced in China’s classrooms

Mao often leapfrogged the bureaucracy, encouraging the masses to take collective action. Can Xi ride the nationalist tide in China like Mao did? What are the differences between Mao and Xi?

Shambaugh: Xi has certainly tapped into the deep sense of nationalism in Chinese society, and this definitely accrues to his political advantage. We saw this from the audience reaction to his speech at the party’s centenary this summer.

I would observe, though, that the challenge of nationalism for Xi and the party is how to control it. Xi seems to stoke it, not control it, and it is in danger of getting out of control. This has potentially negative consequences for China’s neighbours and the world.

Within the Chinese political system today, are there enough checks and balances to keep Xi within bounds?

Shambaugh: There do not seem to be any check or balances on Xi’s power in China today. He is all-powerful. I do not see this as a positive situation for either the party or the country. Xi has rolled back four decades of collective and institutionalised rule that began under Deng and continued through Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and it is amazing that he has been allowed to do so. But in doing so, he has stimulated a lot of discontent among elites, although he does seem to be quite popular with the masses.

Among the five leaders, Deng’s rule was the shortest but his contributions were significant and his legacy would have been more profound if the Tiananmen Square crackdown was avoided. Would you agree that Deng was the greatest of the five leaders discussed in your book?

Shambaugh: Deng was simply a great leader. He had a profound impact on the entire society through his economic and social reforms, and he – with Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang – rebuilt the party and government following the destruction of the Cultural Revolution. His foreign policy was also very successful.

Thus, while Deng’s time in power was only a decade, his impact and accomplishments were huge. He turned China around and launched it on the path to prosperity and power that it enjoys today.


Deng Xiaoping’s role in transforming China

Deng Xiaoping’s role in transforming China

Do you think Xi has inherited Deng’s mantle?

Shambaugh: I think that Xi’s policies are very different from Deng’s. In economics, Deng made great efforts to remove the party-state from the economy and to allow the private sector to flourish – while Xi has strengthened the role of the state sector of the economy and inserted the party into the private sector.

Concerning the party, Deng sought to institutionalise various procedures – collective leadership, mandatory retirement and fixed terms, no personality cults, meritocratic recruitment and promotion, intraparty “democracy”, etcetera – whereas Xi has violated every one of these procedures. Deng tolerated dissent and [allowed] considerable freedom of speech among intellectuals – Xi seems to have zero tolerance for intellectual freedom, diversity of opinion, and dissent.

Deng’s foreign policy was based on the “hide your strength and bide your time” principle – Xi has abandoned it in favour of a much more assertive and coercive foreign policy. Deng placed military modernisation last among the “four modernisations” – Xi has made it a top priority. Deng was patient about Taiwan, Xi is not. Thus, overall, I see Xi as almost the exact opposite of Deng.

Jiang Zemin had virtually no power base when he was made general secretary in 1989. What were his secrets of his success?

Shambaugh: Jiang could have been a short-term transitional leader, but he stayed in power for 13 years. I argue in the book that he was able to build support through building bureaucratic coalitions. Jiang’s whole career had previously been in the government (industrial) bureaucracy – he knew how to cultivate, co-opt, and capture bureaucratic support.

This was true with respect to the military as well – he built strong ties to key People’s Liberation Army generals like Zhang Wannian and bureaucratic sectors of the General Logistics Department, General Staff Department, General Political Department, and so on. And Zhu Rongji, Qian Qichen and Zeng Qinghong were extremely capable leaders in their own right – and this accrued to Jiang’s benefit.

In the book, I detail how Zeng Qinghong catalysed and oversaw a number of political reforms in the Communist Party following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In retrospect, the Jiang era was politically progressive – especially when compared with today.


China's former president Jiang Zemin makes rare public appearance in Shanghai

China's former president Jiang Zemin makes rare public appearance in Shanghai

What is Hu Jintao’s most important legacy?

Shambaugh: Hu Jintao is often thought to not have had much effect on the country and to have been a very bland figure. At its end, his – and premier Wen Jiabao’s – period of rule was referred to as “10 lost years”. Yet this description may in fact be unfair. Some important policy initiatives were launched and some things were certainly accomplished under their watch – notably in social policy, party reform, and foreign policy. But the verdict of no accomplishments remains the prevalent perception both inside and outside of China.

Above all, Hu’s tenure was marked by a distinct shift in policy emphasis away from the growth-at-all-costs economic calculus and bias towards coastal China associated with the Jiang Zemin era, towards a new emphasis on the geographic prioritisation of the inland Chinese provinces and on issues of social equality, social justice, improving basic living standards and social services, environmental protection, poverty alleviation, reducing the burdens on farmers, public safety and anti-corruption, job retraining, and other “public goods”. It was a very commendable and progressive agenda, which was suitable to the time and stood in quite sharp contrast to the emphases during Jiang Zemin’s period of rule.

Even though it was publicly popular and well received during Hu’s first term, it simply faltered in its implementation during his second term. Perhaps with more retrospect and the passage of time, Hu Jintao’s historical reputation will be burnished for the better.

Do you see a link between Hu and Xi, with Xi’s emphasis on science-based policy and common prosperity?

Shambaugh: Yes, on first glance, I do see a commonality between Hu Jintao’s social policies and Xi Jinping’s recent emphasis on “common prosperity”. We will have to wait and see, however, how it plays out in practice.

As China continues to raise living standards, national prestige and strength, will Beijing succeed in its reform?

Shambaugh: I am not sure what you mean by reform in this context. I assume you’re referring to narrowing income disparity and social stratification. China currently has a Gini coefficient of 0.465, which is quite high by global standards. Xi Jinping is absolutely correct to be focusing on this problem. Having eliminated absolute poverty last year is a major accomplishment, but there still remains wide social gaps in Chinese society.

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Can the Communist Party find its own way to keep the party clean without adopting Western-style democracy? 

Shambaugh: I have my doubts that corruption can be controlled or eliminated absent an independent judiciary, free media, and active civil society. China doesn’t have to become a Western-style democracy, but these elements are all important to controlling corruption in other countries. Corruption in China is both “structural” because of the common phenomenon of “rent seeking” by cadres, and it is also socially rooted in the pervasive practice of guanxi.

China’s international reputation is at its lowest, according to a 2020 Pew Research Centre survey. What went wrong and what can China do about it? 

Shambaugh: China’s poor and deteriorating international reputation – as measured by public opinion surveys such as Pew or the BBC – is the result of several factors, but it is in part the result of the country’s poor human rights record, the incarceration of Uygurs, the recent handling of Hong Kong, its military build-up, its Wolf Warrior public diplomacy, its claims to the South China Sea, its pressure on countries like Australia and Sweden, and other actions.

The government in Beijing certainly should be concerned by the country’s poor image abroad – but the image won’t change until China’s behaviour in the above-mentioned areas fundamentally changes.

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When Henry Kissinger visited China in 1971, the Soviet Union was deemed a common threat to China and the US. Will China and Russia establish a close alliance targeting the US?

Shambaugh: The United States is already seen as a common threat in Russia and China, and it is one reason why China-Russia relations are so close. But I do not foresee the re-establishment of an alliance between Moscow and Beijing.

David Shambaugh is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs, and director of the China Policy Programme in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He is also the author of China and the World, The China Reader: Rising Power, China Goes Global: The Partial Power, and China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation.