So while the trend towards regularization has been evident since the end of the Mao era, when we look closely at the relatively small sample size of post-Mao successions, we see a great deal of volatility and non-institutional interventions. If it’s orderly, clean, and complete successions we’re looking for, we only have one (in 2012) in the entire history of the PRC or the CCP!
So China in 2016 is not the China of 1976 or 1977, but behavior at the top is still governed and dominated by the logic of communist/authoritarian politics, and as we think about the 19th Party Congress, we would do well to keep that in mind.
In attempt to help us make better sense of what we should and should not expect to know about the 19th Party Congress at this early stage, I’ve recreated the events of six Party congresses (encompassing 1987-2012) below. This is largely based on my reading of reporting and analysis preceding, during, and immediately after the Congresses, and is almost exclusively drawn from English language reporting, as I’m interested in the analytical lens of the foreign China watching community.
First, and very quickly: what is a Party Congress? Since July 23, 1921, the CCP has held a total of 18 Party Congresses at irregular intervals, but since 1977, they have occurred every five years.  According to the Party Constitution, the purpose of the Congress is:
1) To hear and examine the reports of the Central Committee;
2) To hear and examine the reports of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection;
3) To discuss and decide on major questions concerning the Party;
4) To revise the Constitution of the Party;
5) To elect the Central Committee;
6) To elect the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.
For our purposes, the important function is #5 – to elect the Central Committee, which in theory elects the Political Bureau (Politburo), which in turn decides the composition of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau (the PBSC). Strictly speaking, the Politburo, PBSC, and position of General Secretary are decided at the first plenary session of the new Congress. Thus, the process is, formally speaking, a bottom-up approach to determining the leadership of the CCP. In practice, not so much. Rather, the final membership of the Politburo, PBSC, and the positions of Premier and General Secretary are the result of protracted negotiations among the individuals, institutions, and interests that comprise the “selectorate,” or “those in society who hold the power to remove the incumbent and select her replacement.” While the composition of the selectorate changes from country-to-country (and differs from political system-to-political system), in China we might include the Central Committee, the retiring PBSC, powerful Party elders (Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin), and the top brass in the PLA. [This is an extremely truncated summary.]
Again, what follows is an attempt to retell the story of China's post-Mao leadership successions as they occurred in real time. There's still a great deal about this history I don't know, or have had to leave out for the sake of brevity (if you can call this blog post brief).
13th Party Congress
Date: October 25 — November 1, 1987
- 1987 began with the conservative purge of the reformist-minded CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang, but ended with his liberal ally Zhao Ziyang being elevated to take his position. Deng Xiaoping stepped down from all his official positions, apart from his chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – a move that required a revision of the Party Constitution. Deng also forced through an internal regulation requiring that he be given the final say over “crucial” decisions, despite his lack of gov’t and Party positions.
Our flat narrative of the pre-1989 period tends to gloss over just how volatile the 1980s were, and just how imperiled the “reform and opening” agenda was for most of its early history (or indeed, all of its history). The year 1987 is a case in point: it began with the sudden purge of Hu Yaobang from the position of General Secretary of the CCP in the wake of student protests that had swept across cities in China. Not wanting to let a good crisis go to waste, the more conservative members of the CCP establishment pounced on the protests has an example of the deleterious influence of “bourgeois liberalization” on nominally communist China.
At a January 16th Politburo meeting, the decision was made to force Hu – Deng’s onetime heir – from office. Of note for our story, also attending the Politburo meeting were 17 members of the Central Advisory Commission (a group of “retired”, yet powerful Party elders), who were also given a vote on Hu’s fate even though their official role was yo be purely consultative. Zhao Ziyang, another close ally of Deng’s and one of the driving forces behind economic and political reform, was chosen to be the acting General Secretary until the time of the 13th Party Congress later that fall.
With palpable divisions within the political elite, the National People’s Congress was used to project a spirit of unity, with Peng Zhen (Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee) declaring that the Party had neither “reformers” or “conservatives” but "only one faction, the Marxists." The intra-Party comity was scarcely believable, however, and throughout much of the spring and summer, the reformist camp (lead by Zhao Ziyang) fought to maintain momentum in the face of a powerful conservative camp. Deng Xiaoping, as usual, occupied a seat somewhere in the middle, intervening when he felt either side was reaching too far.
The period immediately preceding the 13th Party Congress provided no respite from the infighting. Demonstrations in Tibet on September 27, October 1 and October 6 turned deadly; reports at the time put the number of dead at 14 – five police and nine Tibetans. By the opening of the Congress on October 25th, everyone knew it would be historic, but few knew how.
When the dust settled, Zhao Ziyang had been confirmed as General Secretary, while almost all the revolutionary-era leaders retired from the Politburo (Chen Yun, Peng Zhen, Hu Qiaomu, Li Xinnian, Xi Zhongxun, and even Deng Xiaoping). This was to be Deng’s “Cincinnatus Moment” whereby he would voluntarily relinquish his seats on the Central Committee and the Politburo to set an example for future generations. This is, in small part, true. Deng did care about institutionalization, and the lessons of the Cultural Revolution and the Cult of Mao clearly weighed on his mind. Yet there was also an instrumental value in retiring (or semi-retiring, as we shall see), for in stepping down due to his advanced age, Deng essentially forced more than 90 others to follow suit – the sole exception being Yang Shangkun (then 80) who was moved to the Presidency, where he served until later purged by Deng in 1993.
Furthermore, despite his earlier promise to let younger leaders move into the limelight, Deng decided to cling to his position as the Chair of the Central Military Commission (which oversees the People’s Liberation Army), despite his exit from the Politburo, an organ he had first joined in 1956. While the Party Constitution mandated that head of the CMC must be drawn from the Politburo Standing Committee, a “unanimous” vote of the nearly 2,000 delegates of the Party Congress amended the Constitution to allow Deng to maintain his position. Also, according to Gang Lin, “an internal regulation [passed at the Congress] was stipulated, giving Deng the final say on critical issues.” Thus giving up power, except when it mattered.
Then there was the fate of Deng Liqun, aka “Little Deng”. One of the more orthodox conservative figures in the upper echelons of the CCP, Deng Liqun was a favorite of Chen Yun, and with his patron’s support, was gunning for a position on the 13th Party Congress Politburo, and according to Stuart Schram, even the Standing Committee. Yet Little Deng wasn’t well liked by his peers, and when the Congress cast its votes for the Central Committee (which had more candidates than seats), Deng Liqun received the lowest vote tally, and thus was not only denied a seat on the Politburo, but even the Central Committee. Chen Yun’s desperate attempt to secure Little Deng a place on the standing committee of the Central Advisory Committee failed as well, a stinging wound that Deng Liqun was to let fester for years to come. We can thus see that for all of Chen Yun’s power in the system, Deng Xiaoping was the only individual with enough juice to override decisions by the Central Committee and other top leadership bodies.
14th Party Congress
Date: October 12-18, 1992
- The Congress saw the re-election of Jiang Zemin as General Secretary, no small feat given that he had been promoted during the tumult of the Tiananmen Square.
- Hu Jintao is “helicoptered” into the PBSC, and while Deng usually gets credit for selecting Hu as Jiang’s future replacement, it was owing to the then-Organization Department head and PBSC member Song Ping that Hu was put on a short-list for Deng’s approval.
- The abolishment of the Central Advisory Committee was undoubtedly the most important development for the normalization of succession politics. Nicknamed the “sitting committee” owing to the advanced age of its members, for more than a decade the group had wielded massive amounts of non-institutional power.
This was the first Party Congress since the fateful events of June 1989, and it also came on the heels of Deng’s momentous “Southern Tour” that spring: his final, forceful effort to revive the flagging economic reform agenda in the wake of the post-Tiananmen conservative resurgence. Given Deng’s age and declining health (he was 87 at the time of the Congress), it was also his last meaningful effort to shape the composition of the Party leadership for the coming generation.
In terms of succession, while there were other candidates discussed by analysts and journalists (such as Qiao Shi), Hu Jintao emerged as Deng’s favorite to succeed Jiang Zemin in ten years’ time. In addition to his “helicoptering” into the PBSC, Hu Jintao is also given the top spot in the Party Secretariat. According to the leaked internal Party documents published in English under the title China’s New Rulers, PBSC member Song Ping and a group of several other senior Party officials were given the task of drawing up the list of candidates for Deng’s approval, and in addition to including Hu, Song Ping also pressed hard for Hu’s final selection as Jiang’s replacement. According to China’s New Rulers, “Song emphasized Hu Jintao’s record of never refusing an assignment from the Party and his willingness to serve in China’s poorest and harshest regions. The others agreed to recommend Hu, hoping to send a message to the Party ranks about the supreme importance of loyalty.”
The expectation that several “princelings” would see elevation to the Central Committee was thwarted, thus giving rise to talk of a new “norm” that the children of the CCP leadership would be excluded from politics (and it appeared at the time that they mostly favored the private sector anyhow). Those who didn’t see elevation to the Central Committee included Chen Yuan (son of Chen Yun), and Liu Yuan (son of Liu Shaoqi). Deng Xiaoping’s daughter was elected as a delegate of the Central Committee, but was not granted outright membership. As we know now from China’s New Rulers, Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping, themselves princelings, were to begin their leadership grooming just a few years later, so this "norm" didn't last very long.
Also notable was the final abolishment of the Central Advisory Commission (CAC), which had been created by Deng in 1982 to give a consultative voice to those Party members with 40+ years’ experience – eligibility requirements that neatly fit with profile of the “Eight Elders”. For much of the 1980s, the CAC had played a powerful (indeed, dominant) role in China’s domestic and foreign policy, albeit from behind the scenes. For much of that time, however, it had been a bastion of Party conservatism, which Tony Saich has called “an institutional base of support for Chen Yun's sniping at Deng Xiaoping.” The move to do away with it, while almost certainly an attempt to shut down the shop while Deng still had some political mojo, was also seen as a step towards institutionalizing political authority.
Finally, and to quote once again from Saich’s 1992 article, “…individual power relationships built up over decades continue to be more important than the rule of law and the formal positions people hold. Already pundits are searching for who will be the supreme leader capable of manipulating China's frontline leaders after Deng's death. This has prevented China from solving the problem of succession, an issue that has haunted all communist regimes.” The 1992 Party Congress clearly saw some important steps towards normalization, such as the dissolution of the CAC, the (temporary) inhospitable view on granting positions of power to princelings, and Jiang Zemin’s confirmation-by-vote as the undisputed leader of China. At the same time, however, Deng Xiaoping so dominated the process despite holding no official titles that meaningful institutionalization of succession would have to wait until the 15th Party Congress five years later.
15th Party Congress
Date: September 12-18, 1997
- Jiang Zemin, with an assist from Bo Yibo, creates a retirement age of 70 to push out political rivals.
- Hu Jintao begins taking official positions, which in retrospect, appear to be stepping stones on the path to power.
With the passing of Deng Xiaoping on February 19, 1997, the 15th Party Congress was to be the first big test of Jiang’s authority and legitimacy now that his patron was gone. On the explicit agenda of the Congress was the deepening of the reform agenda, this time into the morass of China’s sprawling SOE sector, and to push ahead this plan, Jiang “wrapped himself tightly in his late mentor’s mantle,” in the words of the Richard Baum, by having the Party Constitution revised to proclaim “the Communist Party of China takes Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory as its guide to action.”
The real action, however, was to be found in the lead-up to, and on the sidelines of, the Congress. The deposed Zhao Ziyang used the upcoming event to again bring the events of 1989 back into the political conversation by circulating a petition calling for a “reversal of verdict” of the protests -- which was summarily ignored.
In yet another indication of the prevalence of personal and political expedience trumping institutionalization, Jiang Zemin pushed to have the PBSC enlarged to nine members to make room for several of his allies and protégées, as well as to push for a new Politburo age ceiling of 70, which would require the ouster of PBSC members Qiao Shi and the 81-year-old General Liu Huaqing (the last military man to serve on the PBSC, to date at least). While the first gambit failed, the age rule prevailed, although this took some finessing, for Jiang was 71 at the time this new retirement age was announced at an enlarged meeting of the Politburo. After stressing the need for “rejuvenation” among the senior Party leadership, Bo Yibo (Bo Xilai’s father) quickly rose to declare that Jiang should “remain in office since you are the core of the third generation leadership, and the authority of this leadership corps is not yet totally secure.” Well OK, if you insist, replied Jiang. (I’m paraphrasing.)
Thus was the age retirement norm created to suit political exigencies.
What of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, the future General Secretary and Premier, respectively? Hu Jintao had been on the PBSC since 1992, and at the 15th Party Congress was promoted to the #5 position (up from #7 at the 14th Party Congress). He was still the head of the Central Party School, a position he was given in October of 1993, and he was still serving on the Secretariat, which gave him good exposure to the inner workings of the Party bureaucracy. Yet it wasn’t until the 9th National People’s Congress, held in March 1998, that he truly emerged as Jiang’s heir by receiving the title of Vice President of the PRC, which was soon followed by the title of vice-chair of the CMC at the 4th Plenum in September of that year. The Wall Street Journal (March 17, 1998) saw the elevation to the vice presidency as a sign that Hu was “the most obvious choice from among a new, younger generation of leaders to eventually lead the government of the world's most populous country.” Still, I think it’s important to note that while the move into the Vice President slot is now seen as an important and necessary step on the path to ultimate power, Hu Jintao stepped in to fill the shoes of none other than… Rong Yiren (a guy I have to admit I had to Google). Indeed, just one month later, the WSJ reported “some China watchers believe [the ascension to the VP position is] aimed at preparing him to eventually take over running the country.” Yet if we are to believe contemporary retrospectives on Hu’s career, it had been made absolutely clear to all in 1992 that he was to be the future leader.
Wen Jiabao had only just been given full membership into the Politburo at the 15th Party Congress (he had been made an alternate at the 14th Party Congress in 1992). While he was also a member of the Central Committee Secretariat, I can’t find much contemporaneous reporting indicating that he was a clear favorite to take over the position of Premier, as he was eventually to do. For example, I can find no references of Wen in The New York Times between January 1997 and May 1998, a period that would include the Beidaihe conclave, the Party Congress and the People’s Congress. There is one reference in the Wall Street Journal (April 7, 1998) mentioning that the “newly appointed vice premier, Wen Jiabao” will likely head a new “trans-ministerial work committee to set and coordinate financial policies.” The only pertinent reference I can find in the three major US newspapers is this from a The Washington Post report (March 19, 1998) just after the National People’s Congress: “One surprise was the appointment of Wen Jiabao to replace Zhu as one of China's four vice premiers. Wen is a considered a liberal and survived the purge of reformist party boss Zhao Ziyang in 1989. Wen was director of the general office of the party Central Committee under Zhao, a position akin to chief of staff.”
Where does the process of succession stand at the end of the 15th Party Congress? While we have an emerging leader in the succession competition (Hu Jintao), this is still largely because of the imprimatur of the late-Deng Xiaoping, whom even in death still held an enormous amount of prestige, as did his (and Song Ping's) succession plans. The positions of leadership Hu was to assume (PBSC in 1992, top spot at the Central Party School, vice presidency, head of the Secretariat) were still not clearly the institutional path to power. And yet, when compared to earlier Party Congresses, it’s clear that the 15th Party Congress keeps us moving along the path towards an acceptance that guidelines (i.e. stability) are desirable. What we don’t see, however, are clear, transparent, and enforced succession rules/institutions.
16th Party Congress
Date: November 8-14, 2002
- In our popular retelling, the 16th Party Congress is the "virgin birth" of leadership transitions. It was pure, clean, and enduring. In reality, it was fraught with infighting and replete with involvement from the Party elders, which has led Bruce Gilley to conclude that “the Sixteenth Congress appears to be more a fortuitous byproduct than a systemic outcome.” And some folks knew this at the time: one China analyst observed in September 2002, “The big question in China’s upcoming contest for leadership succession is not which candidate will win but whether the succession will occur at all.”
- While the choice of Hu Jintao had been made by Deng Xiaoping (a choice that was protected after Deng’s death by Song Ping), the selection of the remaining new leadership crop was dominated by three men: Jiang Zemin, Li Peng, and Zhu Rongji.
- Jiang Zemin remained on as Chair of the Central Military Commission, thus disrupting the emerging norm that the top leader of the Party (the General Secretary) should also “command the gun” (i.e. also control the PLA).
The 16th Party Congress is now widely praised as the first power transition since the founding of the PRC to transpire in a peaceful, systematic and orderly manner. Indeed, it often serves as the baseline for all future transition comparisons. The reality, however, was much messier.
While in retrospect we think of this as the moment Hu Jintao ascended to the pinnacle position in the Party and the government, coverage at the time focused on Jiang Zemin’s last-minute push to retain his position as General Secretary. To quote from the Washington Post in the lead-up to the 16th Party Congress, “Breaking with a long-standing succession plan, President Jiang Zemin appears to be angling to stay on as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and is campaigning from the shadows to bolster his claim to retain power, according to Party sources and other analysts in China.” Bruce Gilley confirms that “from 2001 until the Congress, Jiang allowed a number of military leaders, Party scholars, and close aids to float the idea of his breaching the rule again and remaining in office [as General Secretary].”