Journal of International Affairs
Succession Politics and China's Future
By David Bachman
At some point during the 1995 calendar year, what had been a truism in Chinese politics from 1978 on became inaccurate: Deng Xiaoping was no longer the most powerful political actor in China. He was thought to have been near death in the spring, and though he has recovered enough to walk a little bit, he can no longer make his thoughts understood to others. 1 In a sense, succession to Deng Xiaoping, China's preeminent leader from 1978 to 1995, is already underway.
But if Deng is no longer the most powerful political figure in China today, it is not clear who is. Jiang Zemin holds most of the top positions in China and is the designated successor. But no designated successor has ever consolidated power in the People's Republic of China, and few have survived politically once the preeminent leader finally passes from the scene. The octogenarian Yang Shangkun is seen as the kingmaker after Deng dies, but his relations with Jiang Zemin are less than clear. The head of the public security system, Qiao Shi, is also seen as a strong contender, if only because it is hard to see anyone else who is institutionally powerful enough to challenge Jiang. The fact that no outside observers can say conclusively who is the most important leader says something very significant about China's political system. A case could be made for several figures, but as yet none have stepped to the fore. It seems to many observers that the Chinese political system is on autopilot, and those who seek to become the preeminent leader are waiting for Deng's physical demise before seeking power. 2
Many in the West believe it matters profoundly who succeeds Deng Xiaoping. Others believe that whoever follows as top leader will not be capable of mobilizing the kind of political clout that Deng has. Some people in both camps, and still others holding more diverse views on succession and Chinese politics, believe that Deng's death will be the start of a Chinese collapse, analogous to the fall of the Soviet Union. Recent issues of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy,carrying essays with such titles as "After Deng the Deluge" and "Why China Will Collapse," are only two recent examples of the range of material on China that has appeared since 1989 which suggests that the current system can not continue. 3 Yet, while many observers see the prospects for gross political instability in China growing or at least becoming the dominant trend, others point to the rise of China economically, expounding the hope that prosperity will likely lead to a peaceful democratic transition some time in the future. Still others see a rising China as a threat to international, Asian and U.S. security. 4
It is all but certain that communism in China will evolve and become an even less effective ideology than it already is. Given that most other communist states are now formerly communist, it is likely that communism will not survive in China either. But the inevitability of collapse, whether that collapse is of the communist political system or national disintegration, may have little or nothing to do with succession politics. This paper will argue that most observers misread China; they do not recognize some of the major changes that have taken place within that society since the onset of reform, if they see a dominant or powerful leader as an inevitable outcome of China's succession process. A dominant leader may be a necessary condition for Chinese stability and prosperity, but the emergence of such a figure is not inevitable and, indeed, not likely. The real questions this paper seeks to address are why and how succession matters and why in a number of cases it does not. To state an extreme, though I think accurate, view of what succession might mean in China compared to the United States, it is likely that if a Republican were elected president in 1996, and the Republican Party retained a majority in both houses of Congress, that president could do more to change the United States than any potential successor could to change China's direction.
In the West, many people see China, and authoritarian political systems more generally, as leader- or individual-dominated systems. As a result, they see the question of who assumes power as critical. The assumption is that in obtaining power, authoritarian leaders will be able to exercise power in uncontrolled or unconstrained ways. In this context, many observers note that China is a system governed by individuals, not institutions, or in Chinese, a system of renzhi, not fazhi. 5 But authoritarian leadership is not necessarily absolute. Leaders can be strong or weak, more or less constrained by the overall legitimacy of the political system they head, constrained by the resources available to the government or by the clout of key organizations and constituencies within the political system.
Why Succession Matters
Most nondemocratic political systems do not have fully institutionalized systems of succession. This means that the death or overthrow of the nation's top leader throws the question of who rules into potentially explosive contestation. Different political systems have various methods of coping with this potential uncertainty. Some, like the Vatican Council of Cardinals choosing the next pope, elect successors. Designated hereditary patterns of succession are another method to try to ensure stability and authority for the successor. These mechanisms and others do not negate politics, but instead channel or restrain the influence of politics. In the Vatican case, a great deal of politicking goes on prior to the death of the incumbent pope, particularly if the pontiff gradually declines and dies, as opposed to death from sudden illness which often leaves a short-term power vacuum. On the other hand, with hereditary patterns of succession, those disadvantaged by the established pattern have been know to assassinate or otherwise force the heir apparent from power. A great advantage of democratic, compared to non-democratic, systems is that they confine the area of political contestation and render the process of succession and transition less dangerous to the health of the polity. The line of succession is set in law or the constitution, and even if the leader dies, constitutional principles govern who succeeds. Politics hardly disappear in the process of determining the succession, but certain means and outcomes are made illegitimate in consolidated democratic systems.
With China, outside observers, and presumably many Chinese political insiders, do not know how succession is determined. There has only been one succession in the history of the People's Republic of China, that is, Deng's eventual assumption of power following Mao Zedong's death. A number of succession arrangements have been made, and certain understandings and norms are part of the system of rule. Yet no succession arrangement to date has ever gone completely as planned, and most have failed disastrously, particularly from the point of view of the putative successors. Two potential successors died as a result of conflict with the top leader: Liu Shaoqi, widely conceded to be the number two person in the Chinese Communist Party and Mao's likely successor, but died due to lack of medical attention in 1969 after being removed from power, during the early stages of the Cultural Revolution; and Lin Biao, commander of the military and the constitutionally designated successor to Mao, who died in a plane crash while trying to flee China after a supposed failed assassination attempt on Mao in 1971. In 1976, Hua Guofeng appeared to succeed in assuming the top leadership position after Mao, but was outmaneuvered and forced from power by Deng Xiaoping by late 1978 after failing to consolidate power. Prior to Mao's death in September 1976, Hua was elevated to the premiership and the ranking Party vice-chairman. His legitimacy as successor was linked to Mao's support in the last year of Mao's life. The policies of the final ten years of Mao's reign were detrimental to so many people that Hua's tie to Mao was a source of great vulnerability, as well as his mandate for succession. Two others were removed from the line of succession by Deng in the 1980s after holding the post of party general-secretary, formally the most important political position in China, though their subsequent falls from grace were not total. Hu Yaobang's removal in 1987 was more like Hua Guofeng's, with Hu losing out but not being subject to much political attack. The fall of Hu's replacement as general-secretary, Zhao Ziyang, was accompanied in 1989 by widespread vilification of Zhao and his policies in the wake of the Tiananmen demonstrations. Such a record among hopefuls to the top leadership position should give pause to the current designated successor, Jiang Zemin.
In terms of norms and procedures, the democratic centralism of the Chinese Communist Party suggests that the decision of who the successor will be is likely to be made by the very top leadership, namely the Party politburo, plus a number of aged leaders, and ratified by lower-ranking, though still elite, convocations, such as a plenary session of the Party's Central Committee. The view of the Chinese Communist Party that the "Party must command the gun" suggests that the military should not have a direct say in the succession, though the army's leaders, as top Party officials, would perhaps participate in the succession process. 6 Whether the two norms -- democratic centralism and Party control of the military -- will be followed in the coming succession remains unknown. Arguments can be made either way. The view that they will not hold depends on the logic that power is everything and that contenders or involved parties will do all they can to win or influence the succession. 7 The other argument sees these norms prevailing, since all top leaders realize that the Chinese Communist Party's hold on power is relatively tenuous and that elites must make key decisions, or risk mass political uprisings. 8
As suggested above, the process of succession in China is really two different processes: succession, the process by which one comes to hold the top position(s) in the political system after the incumbent leader's death; and consolidation, the ability of the successor to acquire authority within the political system so that he can replace rivals, secure his own power, articulate a more or less coherent justification for his rule and put forth what the Chinese call a "general line" that addresses major societal needs in a relatively effective way. 9
It is likely that Jiang Zemin will be the successor, though his ability to consolidate his position is far from clear, if not totally unlikely. While Jiang holds the formal positions that would seem to guarantee that he will become the successor, there is little in his personality or exercise of power to date that indicates he has the combination of vision, political skill and ruthlessness that would allow him to consolidate power and make him more than the top ranking leader in a constellation of basically equally powerful and largely colorless figures.
Obviously, one reason succession matters in China is that both who rules and who has supreme power become open questions. Uncertainty about political power and leadership prevails. For countries with nuclear weapons, such uncertainty is particularly dangerous. China specialists know little about the command and control procedures for China's nuclear weapons systems. Presumably, the chairman of the Military Affairs Commission of the Communist Party has control over the arsenal, which is a position currently held by Jiang Zemin. But if a power struggle were to break out, who actually exercised control over China's nuclear weapons could be quickly called into question.
The successor -- whoever it is and however he (all contenders being male) comes to power -- matters also for the following reasons. More than any other individual, the top leader with authority, in most political systems, sets the tone for the state in its external relations and also in the way the regime governs internally. In explicitly ideological systems, the top leader also has the last say on ideological questions. His ability to manipulate the existing corpus of symbolic and ideological systems is often a key source of power. However, succession also matters in terms of how the change in leadership comes about. Is the arrangement of a quid pro quo necessary to the succession process? Are certain policy options favored or eliminated, or certain individuals removed from power as part of the process of succession? Do fierce struggles for power or deadlock encourage contenders for power to expand the arenas of political mobilization, allowing lower-level officials or even the people to participate in the process? All of these questions reflect the inherent uncertainty succession brings to the political system when the means of succession are not institutionalized. They suggest that any and all means, and all relevant actors may influence outcomes of succession if succession is a protracted, highly conflictual process. This does not mean they necessarily will affect the outcome, but in the realm of the struggle for power anything is possible, and the unintended consequences of succession processes can fundamentally change political systems. For example, the death of the reform-minded Hu Yaobang in April 1989 and the perception of many intellectuals that a conservative backlash against reform was imminent, coupled with widespread popular dissatisfaction with the regime, precipitated the democracy movement of 1989. Uncontrolled struggles for power might open up a similar ability for urban society to take to the streets in support of one candidate, or in opposition to the entire regime. Since, as noted, there has been only one true succession in the history of the People's Republic of China, it is hard to give concrete examples from history of what might happen during the forthcoming succession.
Succession and consolidation of power provide the opportunity for a fundamental rethinking of policy directions, the "general line," of the state. Again, this does not mean that new policy directions will necessarily follow, but succession processes open up a wider window of opportunity for policy and directional changes than any other occasion. 10 Clearly, Deng Xiaoping's ability to supplant Hua Guofeng in the 1977 to 1978 period was in part caused by Deng's willingness to push China in a number of new policy directions. Hua moved only modestly away from Maoist directions of development and politics, but he did move away, especially from those policies most closely associated with Mao in the last ten years of Mao's life. However, because the preferred method in China for trying to handle the succession issue is to make arrangements before the top leader dies, the putative successor is often closely linked with his sponsor. This might work if the loyal successor has independent standing with the party, as was the case with Liu Shaoqi, Mao's presumed successor until, that is, Mao had Liu removed from power in 1966 to 1967.
When the potential successor has limited authority within the Party-state, the difficulties are considerable, and the new potential leader faces what has been called the dilemma of the successor. 11 On the one hand, the potential successor must maintain the support of the top leader; otherwise the top leader might withdraw his patronage, and the potential successor could, at a minimum, be displaced from his position of privilege. This requires that the successor be loyal to the top leader personally and to his policy commitments. Thus, before and after Mao's death, Hua Guofeng spoke of the need to "continue the revolution," meaning destructive policies of class struggle. But the potential successor lacks the types of political resources associated with the top leader, and of course, the successor will not have the top leader's support to fall back on when the top leader dies or otherwise disappears from the political scene. In order to be able to govern after the death of the top leader, the potential successor must begin to cultivate his own independent bases of political support alongside the incumbent. Such activities may draw the suspicion of the top leader, leading the latter to conclude that the successor is disloyal, causing the top leader to rethink his original decision about the successor.
If the successor is actually able to succeed, he must go about building authority, through policy changes and other ways. In Hua Guofeng's case, perhaps by default, he was named successor so close to his time of accession that Mao could not retract his decision and remove him, though the Gang of Four, led by Mao's apparently estranged wife Jiang Qing, may have tried to do so. Similarly, Jiang Zemin may succeed simply due to Deng's waning health. However, it does not appear that Jiang is the type of leader who believes in major changes, nor are many of the fundamental policy issues in China today conducive to easy, distinctive solutions with rapid pay-offs, these being the kinds of policy results that would strengthen Jiang's political position. Jiang's entire career is that of the bureaucrat-technocrat. He served in machine building factories, studied in the Soviet Union, rose in the hierarchies of the ministries of machine building and the Ministry of Electronics, becoming minister in the early 1980s, and then became head of the party in Shanghai in 1987, after serving as mayor. In 1989, he became the Party's general secretary. It is hard to think of a distinctive policy or attribute to associate with him except general colorlessness. It is the combination of difficult policy problems, the relative success of many of Deng's policies, the changes in China since 1978 and Jiang Zemin's personality that suggest that succession matters much less now than it did in China in the mid to late 1970s.
Why Succession in China Today Does Not Matter
In a number of ways, China has changed fundamentally since Mao's death. This is particularly true in the economy and the realm of private life, but even in politics and international relations. In addition to the changes brought about by economic growth and the development of capitalism in China, the legacy of the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations has the effect of constraining or limiting aspects of succession politics. The Party-state has little or no legitimacy especially in urban areas and particularly in Beijing. Most Chinese leaders at local and central levels, if not at the very top, are very aware of the limited support they have from society. They can not rely on ideological or other forms of charisma to legitimize the Party-state, with the partial exception of official nationalism, nor does traditional or rational-legal authority provide much legitimacy for the regime. To the extent the regime has any legitimacy, that legitimacy is based on performance, particularly in terms of maintaining high rates of economic growth. This, in turn, requires the preservation of the current policy environment for the economy. This affects not just the domestic environment, but also limits China's activities vis-à-vis Hong Kong and Taiwan, since they are the major sources of foreign investment in China. In short, the regime's lack of legitimacy makes it highly unlikely that it can return the Chinese economy to a more traditional socialist path. Centralized planning and state ownership of most economic activity would be physically impossible and would generate widespread opposition. Even if successfully undertaken, tighter central control would delay China's modernization and race to develop on par with more advanced economies.
But the survival of the regime is not only dependent on continued economic growth. It is also quite clear that the power of the central government in China to project a unified front to the rest of the political system has declined. Some of this decline is a direct outcome of the success of economic reforms. The fundamental movement away from the planned, physical allocation of goods in the economy to market decentralization greatly changes the nature of the center's role. 12 The impact of interest rate changes, for example, are very different than was the case when the center might allocate or withhold allocation of goods required for production. The center's authority becomes somewhat less arbitrary or maybe less powerful; in theory, it also is more efficient in the sense that market mechanisms would play a broader role in economic allocation than would the more fallible choices of politicians. It also takes less effort to conform to market-based signals than to impose the preferences of central planners.
Decentralization and special policies for regions and provinces were fundamental components of Deng's reform policies. They lead to massive growth in industrial output and exports. To an indeterminate degree, these successes have heightened provincial ability to resist some central directives, if not allow provinces to run themselves on increasingly autonomous lines. 13 As long as these areas with very high economic growth rates continue to grow, their relative freedom of action is likely to remain unchallenged by the center. The longer this relative freedom of action exists, the harder it will be to circumscribe it later. In short, certain sets of governmental relationships are relatively stable and increasingly institutionalized. The clout of certain regions and provinces is so great that central leaders can only try to reverse the decentralization of these regions at their peril. Re-centralization would undoubtedly require coercion. It would cause growth to slow and have profound effects on policies toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, because of alliances between overseas Chinese entrepreneurs and local officials in the most decentralized regions of China.
What is true of regional administration is also true of some of the major bureaucracies and interests in Chinese politics and economics, particularly the military. From the successor's point of view, the military may be the most important organization in China. While the Party is in theory supposed to command the gun, with command and control procedures existing to make local military commanders subject to central military and political control, the People's Liberation Army has the potential to use its military power for or against the successor and the regime. Obviously, in the final analysis, it is the People's Liberation Army and its subordinate organization, the People's Armed Police, which keeps the party in power, as demonstrated on 4 June 1989. 14 As a last resort, China's leaders must do what they can to ensure that the forces of organized coercion are willing to obey orders to suppress potential internal enemies.
The People's Liberation Army's control over military force also poses the threat of the military or units within the military playing the decisive role in determining the successor. All candidates for succession are aware that in 1976, a combination of military, security and civilian leaders combined and mobilized forces to arrest the Gang of Four and end their effective political role. 15 While the history of successful coups in all current and former communist states is very limited in number, the possibility of a coup can not be totally discounted. One way to avert the possibility of a coup is for contenders to bid for military support, by promises of increased defense spending, procurement of more capable weapons systems, either domestically or from abroad, and enhanced operational and professional autonomy for the military within the basic, or minimal, parameter of party control. In fact, increased defense spending, more high-tech weapons and growing autonomy have been clearly visible since 1989. 16 Given the obsolete nature of the vast majority of the army's weapons systems and China's claims to Taiwan and the South China Seas, there are other reasons for the increase in resources devoted to the military, but certainly succession politics is at work here as well. At the very least, the People's Liberation Army can sit back and allow the politicians to compete for its support or at least its neutrality.
Another way in which the army's backing matters is the fact that the People's Liberation Army, similar to most military establishments worldwide, is one of the major supporters of, and contributors to, official nationalism. The military and its leaders are thus poised to intervene in politics and especially in succession if they feel that the political leadership is betraying the officially sanctioned version of nationalism. It appears that China's hard-line stance on the Taiwan issue since Taiwan's president Lee Teng-hui visited the United States in an unofficial capacity in June 1995, is directly related to complaints by the military that Jiang Zemin and Qian Qichen, China's foreign minister, did not act forcefully enough to prevent Lee's trip. In turn, this reinforces a very rigid position by the People's Republic of China on its disputed territorial claims and issues related to Chinese sovereignty.
While the military and, to a much lesser extent, domestic police and security organizations have unique attributes that give them great leverage in the political system, the ability of units of all types to lobby for preferred policy options, to evade policies they find inhospitable to their activities and otherwise act on their interests has greatly increased since Mao's death in 1976. Much of this, in fact, is the result of the passing of Mao. The system is no longer sharply polarized by ideology. Pursuit of individual and organizational interests are no longer defined as prima facie evidence of selfish behavior, and thus labeled capitalist and anathematized, with potentially severe political consequences. Broad purges associated with Maoist rule from the late 1950s onward have all disappeared within the Party-state system. The post-Tiananmen Square "Party rectification" indeed removed a significant number of officials from power, at least temporarily. But the logic of the choice of targets was discernible, and with a few exceptions, removal from power did not seem to be based on personal connections, as opposed to actual behaviors. But purge or its threat has not been a major tool of organizational or bureaucratic control in the Deng period.
Finally, Chinese society as a whole is much more complex now than when Mao was alive. There is much greater physical mobility throughout China. Moving to a potentially more hospitable environment is now an option, one that did not exist from about 1960 to the early 1980s. Alternate modes of employment, housing, access to health care have all developed over the last decade. These come with costs, but many Chinese citizens are much less dependent on the state system and the state economy than they once were. In most cases, the state finds it more difficult to exert direct control over its people, with the notable exception of family planning, which is at least as totalitarian as any of Mao's policies.
But this general loss of the ability to control people as extensively as before is coupled with the weakening of ideological and other means of trying to extend hegemony over the population in the realm of culture and ideas. The agents of socialization -- schools, the family and others -- are much less effective in conveying the party's message about its right to rule. To be sure, propaganda continues, but its effects are limited. Alternative sources of information, new leisure opportunities, prosperity for some, smaller family size and the lavish attention paid by urban parents to their single child, in addition to new conspicuous levels of consumption, all limit if not undermine the claims which the regime makes on the people of China. In short, the regime weighs less heavily on its people than before. It would take extraordinary amounts of coercion to revert to more extensive control over individuals. Such coercion would likely undermine all important economic growth levels and would remove the last limited prop for regime legitimacy. This limited strength of the regime constrains what leaders can do and makes the issue of who succeeds less important than in early years of communist party rule.
For the People's Republic of China, Mao was the unique ruler. He had charismatic authority and ideological vision. The party system was largely unified and believed in itself and its mission under Mao. Consequently, attempts were made to institute elements of Mao's vision in the years he was alive. Many of these attempts, however, led to great disaster, disillusionment within the population and the Party and subsequently the creation of widespread factionalism within the Party. As a result of Mao's death, charisma and ideology played declining roles in Chinese politics. China moved from totalitarianism with all the power for the leader that this implies to a more common form of hard authoritarianism, where the ruler must bargain with other powerful forces within the political system. Deng had significant political resources, experience and prestige. With his passing, it is likely that his successors will be even more ordinary, non-democratic rulers. 17
The nature of the issues confronting the regime and its leadership are also not amenable to the types of quick, easy and positive results that would encourage policy innovation, in turn contributing to the creation of authority for the successor. The ever-present issues on the agenda include how to reform state-owned industrial enterprises, how to deal with inflation, how to limit and control corruption, how to respond to growing inequalities, how to control the population, both in terms of social order and the rate of natural increase, and how to overcome popular resentment toward the regime and its leaders. All of these issues are complex, involve trade-offs, often making many people worse off in the short run than before the advantages of the policies have begun in the longer term, and may in fact not be fully susceptible to government social engineering. These difficulties are ultimately compounded by the government's lack of authority and self-confidence.
Several brief examples illustrate these points. In recent years, and briefly during the summer of 1995, Chinese leaders with clear encouragement from Deng Xiaoping have tried to move forward on housing reform, basically trying to privatize government-owned and state enterprise-owned apartments. Prior to reform, these apartments were heavily subsidized, and rents were typically under five percent of total household income. Low rents failed to pay for simple maintenance, and of course never came close to amortizing the cost of construction. For narrow financial reasons, the state wanted to shed this burden. But there is an additional powerful reason for housing reform as well. There can not be true economic reform until there is a real labor market, and there can be no real labor market unless people can obtain housing on the open market. The development of a private housing market is thus a precondition for a true factor market for labor. The problem, of course, is that privatizing housing means sharply higher prices for residents, in an already inflationary situation. Those who have benefitted from subsidized housing protested, staged sit-ins and otherwise made implementation of the reform difficult. Moreover, at virtually the first sign of social unrest, the local government units responsible for implementing these changes quickly retreated and halted the reform for fear of social disorder and outright opposition. 18
The singular issue of housing reform is dwarfed by the problems of state-owned industrial enterprises. The roughly 100,000 state-owned enterprises were the heart of the planned economy, with approximately 10,000 large and medium state enterprises still critical to the output of many commodities and still a significant portion of government revenues. A large fraction of these enterprises are in the red -- officially about 30 percent, unofficial estimates as high as 60 percent. Many are kept alive by loans from the banking system, which only contribute to the system's financial woes, with over half of all loans from state banks thought to be effectively non-performing. State-owned enterprises are also characterized by gross overstaffing, functioning as welfare and social organizations, as much as employers and production units. Reform, in other words, aims to emphasize the economic aspects of enterprises and downplay, if not eliminate, their social functions.
The state has repeatedly broached the issue of state-enterprise reform, and every time it seems ready to get serious, it retreats in the face of opposition or anticipated opposition. To be sure, there is creeping reform in the system, with the occasional state-owned enterprise going bankrupt, but a fundamental change in the condition of state enterprises has not occurred and will not likely occur until millions of redundant workers are fired or laid off and many enterprises close. The implications of this for social order are negative and enormous with the regime becoming particularly sensitive to incipient signs of labor activism. Chinese, perhaps even more than other peoples, equate political regimes with the leaders running the country. Thus, bad policy implies bad people in charge, and Chinese political tradition has always had some room within it for opposing bad rulers. Moreover, whatever vestigial claims socialist ideology has in China are linked with the job security associated with state industry. What does this say about the system if state-owned enterprises in large numbers literally go bankrupt?
Thus, on many policy issues, the regime and its leaders appear locked in a vicious circle. The party is unwilling or unable to move forward with reforms because of their complexities, interconnections and most especially because of the opposition they would engender. Yet, pushing through these further reforms would be a minimum step necessary to enhance the legitimacy of the state and improve its ability to guide development. In short, the policy issues faced by the leadership and the regime are so complex and threaten so much societal opposition that they are not likely to be resolved by some sort of dramatic policy initiative.
Finally, the personalities of the likely candidates for succession, with the two leading candidates being Jiang Zemin, the putative successor, and Qiao Shi, a shadowy figure with ties to internal security affairs, do not give much indication of the chance of any major new initiatives after Deng Xiaoping's death. Neither Jiang nor Qiao, nor any other top leader, has a major following among lower-level leaders and society at large. A number of them, especially Premier Li Peng, are positively detested. Few have demonstrated any political imagination, willingness to take risks or any ambition to take individual responsibility. From both within China and from abroad, it is impossible to read the men who wish to be Deng Xiaoping's successor and/or China's next paramount leader. Few indeed have any sense of who among these people has the burning desire, ruthlessness and cunning it takes to rise to the very top. Maybe they themselves do not know. Because the potential successors seem so dwarfed by the generation of leaders that preceded them, it is hard to believe that even if any of these figures became the paramount leader the basic direction of central policy would be very different. In sum, I believe Jiang Zemin will likely be the successor, but not the paramount leader in the way Deng is. China will be led by a collective leadership, which is fundamentally conservative in its policy directions. Bargaining, negotiation, least common denominator approaches to policy issues and other types of bureaucratic politics will be the dominant forms of intra-leadership politics in post-Deng China. However, since the history of Chinese governance is not replete with examples of prolonged and stable collective leadership, the stability of such a form of leadership can not be taken for granted. Since there are almost no precedents for collective leadership, it is hard to make projections into the future.
Any successor faces profound constraints on his freedom of action; he must maintain high rates of growth in the short term, even at the expense of long-term economic stability, with growth typically more important that systematic attempts to control inflation. This does not mean increased state intervention in the economy. On the contrary, it means basically leaving the economic system alone. He must, however, appease the military. He will maintain a heavy hand toward political opposition, partly out of regime weakness. The legitimacy of the regime is so limited and the Chinese Communist Party so corrupt that any lifting of the lid on dissent could quickly snowball into widespread societal opposition, threatening the leadership and the Party. Moreover, it is not clear that even if the leader wanted to push political reforms, his colleagues would let him or that the system would implement the reforms. He will lack the clout it takes to make really hard choices and make them stick. The leader will be in no position to make fundamental changes in the official nationalist position of the Chinese state. Taiwan and Tibet, from Beijing's perspective, remain parts of China. The South China Sea is essentially Chinese territorial waters. Thus, unlike the succession struggle after Mao Zedong's death, there will likely be much less policy change after Deng Xiaoping's death for the reasons discussed above. In short, the current policies of the central Chinese state will basically continue in the near term, for approximately the next three to five years. Whoever China's new leader is, he will have to retain power through adroit and repeated political deal making. He is more a hostage of key regime interests than he is capable of enacting a vision for China's future. In short, he is likely to be a broker.
As I hope this essay shows, it is doubtful succession to Deng Xiaoping will mark a fundamental shift in Chinese politics or policy. The interests associated with the present distribution of power are sufficiently strong to prevent an individual emerging who will challenge the system and accelerate its transformation. Except to a few observers, history is not the result of deterministic law or rules. Human choice matters profoundly, and social science has always had a great deal of difficulty relating the individual actions and roles of leaders with broader social processes. It is easy to say that the leader represents or is a product of certain social forces. It is much more difficult to relate innovation and basic changes initiated by individuals to the workings of macro-societal processes.
Yet, two recent examples suggest how, in a reform context and a Chinese cultural context, we can not ignore the hidden potential of individuals to rise to the fore and fundamentally alter the pattern of social change. The first is the case of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union faced the pressing need for a variety of reforms, but seemed to many observers to be incapable of change. Many see China in a similar position today. Gorbachev emerged out of the Soviet agricultural sector, not an area of success, to put it mildly. He was not well known outside of elite circles and was not thought to have much clout within the Party-state. Nonetheless, Gorbachev's initiatives allowed for social forces and processes to be rearranged, with the result being the collapse of the Soviet state. This was certainly not Gorbachev's intention; quite the contrary, he wanted to bolster Soviet power. Yet, this seemingly non-distinctive apparatchik profoundly altered the course of history.
The second example is perhaps even more relevant to China. In 1984, Chiang Ching-kuo, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan) made Lee Teng-hui his vice president. Lee was seen as a figurehead, a native-born Taiwanese who could legitimize the Chinese Nationalist or Kuomintang party to the majority Taiwanese population. Real power would be in the hands of the Kuomintang secretary general, Lee Huan, and in the military headed by Hau Pei-tsun. Lee Teng-hui was a colorless technocrat with no real political base in the Kuomintang or society at large. Yet, since Chiang's death in 1988 and Lee's succession, Lee has outmaneuvered all of his rivals, pushed Taiwan's democratization and is likely to be the first democratically elected president in any Chinese society when Taiwan goes to the polls in March 1996, despite having promised some of his rivals that he would only serve as a one-term president. 19 Lee has used democratization as his ticket to power. In the meantime, he has also indirectly, though Beijing believes he has directly, fanned the flames of Taiwan independence. Thus, from his prior experience, Taiwan observers had no real idea of what an effective and powerful politician Lee appears to have become.
These cautionary tales are simply guidelines. If or how potential successors will grow in office, or will reveal hidden strength and drive is impossible to know. None of the Bolshevik intellectuals expected Stalin to rise to the top. Simply because Jiang Zemin appears politically weak does not mean he is. Arguably, he has done more to strengthen his position prior to actual succession than any other designated successor. The closed nature of the political elite makes confident forecasting of succession nearly impossible. In addition, we tend to assume that the system is in some sort of equilibrium, and that the basic status quo policy environment can be maintained into the medium term future. Given the tremendous changes that have taken place in China over the last sixteen or so years, it is heroic speculation to believe that some sort of stasis has been achieved and that the system can continue on its present path. This may, in fact, be the case; however, pollution, corruption, crime and alienation all continue to weigh heavily on policy options. Ecologically, China may not be sustainable; politically, great resentments lie just below the surface. These underlying seismic forces of social change can be activated by poor decisions by new leaders, by the new leaders failing to grapple with these and other difficult issues, or by extraneous events that trigger developments that can not be fully anticipated. One such event might be an invitation for Lee Teng-hui, after he has been directly elected president of Taiwan to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. By their nature, extraneous and exogenous developments are usually beyond our power to predict and are even harder to integrate into our scenarios of China's future. Yet, it is precisely the appearance of sudden, major and unanticipated developments that often links the quality of leadership and underlying social processes, sometimes creating cascading failures for the regimes and other times providing the opportunity for policy breakthroughs. Maintenance of the status quo for three to five years after Deng Xiaoping's death is the single most likely outcome in this observer's mind, but I would not be terribly surprised to be wrong.
Note 1: Benjamin Kang Lim, "China's Paramount Leader in Improving Health," Reuters, 6 August 1995, electronically disseminated, reviews Deng's health on the eve of his 91st birthday. Rumors of Deng's impending demise were provoked by his daughter, when in an interview with The New York Times' Beijing correspondent, she stated that her father's health was deteriorating day-by-day. See Patrick Tyler, "Deng's Daughter Opens a Long Shut Door," The New York Times, 13 January 1995. Back.
Note 3: Arthur Waldron, "After Deng the Deluge," Foreign Affairs, 74, no. 5 (September-October 1995), pp. 148-153 and Jack A. Goldstone, "The Coming Chinese Collapse," Foreign Policy, no. 99 (Summer 1995), pp. 35-54, which made the case more from a social-demographic perspective than from a political one. Back.
Note 4: Some of the stronger statements of the collapse or instability viewpoint are found in Willy Wo-Lap Lam, China after Deng Xiaoping (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995) and W.J.F. Jenner, The Tyranny of History (London: Penguin Books, 1992). On the more optimistic side, see William Overholt, The Rise of China (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993). On the rise of China as a threat, see Nicholas D. Kristof, "The Real China Threat," New York Times Magazine, 27 August 1995, pp. 50-51. Back.
Note 5: Fazhi is an ambiguous term. It can be translated as rule by law or rule of law. Rule of law is what we think of when we see democratic institutions making laws that the citizenry see as binding and legitimate, because of the procedures followed in their formulation. Rule by law can be understood to mean that the state uses the law as a means of social control without reference to the process of its formulations. It can thus be harsh or strict, and implies nothing about citizens rights or legitimacy. Rule by law has existed throughout much of China's history and is reemerging in China today. Rule of law, however, has not been a part of China's legal and political history to any significant degree. See the discussion in Bill Brugger and Stephen Reglar, Politics, Economics and Society in Contemporary China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 176-183. Back.
Note 9: I develop this distinction and its implications, along with the process of transformation much more fully in my paper "Succession, Transition and Consolidation in China's Future," paper presented at the 24th Sino-American Conference on Contemporary China, Washington, D.C., 15-17 June 1995. This codification of what consolidation means owes a debt to Susan Whiting. Back.
Note 10: There was a lively debate on this issue, particularly reflecting Soviet developments. See Valerie Bunce, Do New Leaders Make a Difference? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Myron Rush, How Communist States Change Their Leaders (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1974); and George W. Breslauer, Khrushchev and Brezhnev as Leaders (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982). Back.
Note 11: Lowell Dittmer was the first person in the field of China studies to call attention to this. See his article "Bases of Power in Chinese Politics," World Politics, 31, no. 1 (October 1978), pp. 26-60. See also his analysis of succession arrangements before the leader's death and the importance of new general lines for successors in his China Under Reform (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), chapter 3. Back.
Note 12: There is great debate among China specialists on just how much power the center has lost during the course of the reforms. For a state of extreme central weakness, see Jia Hao and Lin Zhimin, eds., Changing Central-Local Relations in China (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994). A more mixed picture is found in David S.G. Goodman and Gerald Segal, eds., China Deconstructs (London: Routledge, 1994). In the past, China has demonstrated the worst of what politicians' or planners' preferences can do, as evident in the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to1960, resulting in approximately 25 million deaths, or the Third Front of defense industrialization, which had enormous negative economic effects. For the Great Leap Forward, see Roderick MacFarquhar, The Origins of the Cultural Revolution: Volume 2: The Great Leap Forward, 1958-1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). On the Third Front, see Barry Naughton, "The Third Front: Defense Industrialization in China's Interior," China Quarterly, no. 115 (September 1988), pp. 351-386. Back.
Note 13: See Goodman and Segal, ibid., which is perhaps the best of a spate of recent works on central-provincial relations. While most of the authors in this collection see greatly expanded roles for provincial-level units, none really sees demands for provincial independence. On relative autonomy and power for local officials, see Jean Oi, "Fiscal Reform and the Economic foundations of Local State Corporatism in China," World Politics, 45, no. 1 (October 1992), pp. 99-126; and David Zweig, "Developmental Communities on China's Coast," Comparative Politics, 27, no. 3 (April 1995), pp. 253-274. Back.
Note 14: This is not to say that the Chinese Communist Party was in imminent danger of being overthrown in 1989, but that the prolonged crisis of governance was shaking the foundations of the regime. The best examination of the military's role in 1989 is Timothy Brook, Quelling the People (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). Back.
Note 15: This is described from a different viewpoint in Fan Shuo, Ye Jianjing zai 1976 (Ye Jianjing in1976) (Beijing: Zhonggong Zhongyang Dangxiao Chubanshe, 1990). See also Keith Forster, "China's Coup of October 1976," Modern China,18, no. 3 (July 1992), pp. 263-303. Back.
Note 16: Two studies that address these issues are Jonathan Pollack, "Structure and Change in the Chinese Military System," in Kenneth Lieberthal and David M. Lampton, eds., Bureaucracy, Politics and Decision Making in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 151-180; and Richard H. Yang et al., eds., Chinese Regionalism: The Security Dimension (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994). Back.