Wang Huning’s Neo-Authoritarian Dream

In late July of 1994, Wang Huning was nearing the end of a brilliant – and relatively brief – career as a political scientist at Shanghai’s Fudan University. That summer, he was in the beach resort of Beidaihe, 300 kilometers east of Beijing, to join China’s leadership elite for their annual seaside conclave.  

According to Wang’s journal entries from the trip, it was the topic of official corruption occupying the 39-year-old academic, specifically what he called “ultra-corruption,” a phenomenon that posed a distrinct threat to the CCP. “High-level corruption is rare," he wrote, “but if it occurs, its influence towers over petty corruption, and so it should be the focal point of anti-corruption work.”  


With the twin conflagrations of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union no doubt fresh on his mind, this reflection on the toxic nature of corruption was perhaps unsurprising. Wang, however, focused on the subject at a much deeper level than most. “What is trust in government?” he wrote in his diary just a few months before his trip to Beidaihe. “Trust in government means that a governmentcan fulfill its basic pledge to govern the people,” he wrote. His conclusion was clear – without a foundation of trust, China’s political system remained vulnerable to the same forces of change that had torn apart the Soviet empire.  

Now, more than twenty years later, Wang Huning is at the core of a decision-making apparatus which, in the eyes of many, is finally eradicating high-level corruption, and thereby safeguarding trust in the Party-state.  Since being summoned to Beijing in 1995 by then-General Secretary Jiang Zemin, effectively ending his academic career, Wang has become the “pen” of the Communist Party of China (CCP), the driving force behind the major ideological slogans of China’s top leaders, from Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents”, to Hu Jintao’s theory of “Scientific Development”, and most recently Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” As head of the CCP’s highest-ranking think tank, the Central Policy Research Office, he has also become one of the closest confidantes of General Secretary Xi Jinping.  

Before his move to the capital, Wang Huning’s scholarly output was prolific.  He was the author of at least a dozen books, and had published more than 50 academic articles. Since 1995, and his transition to Beijing, this number has dropped to near-zero, a casualty of the “black box” which renders Chinese politics a whirl of mystery and rumor to us outsiders.  While we don’t know much about the debate taking place within the walls of Zhongnanhai, fortunately, we do have the paper trail left by Wang Huning before his journey to the capital.  

Regardless of Wang Huning’s future career prospects, one thing is clear: if we want to understand we the ultra-conservative political moment China is now in, we need to understand Wang Huning’s theory of “neo-authoritarianism,” which he helped develop in the years before his disappearance into the Party.

Born in Shanghai in 1955, his poor health kept him largely isolated from the high Maoism of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which, in a 1988 interview, Wang would condemn as “an unprecedented political catastrophe.” One of the first students to take advantage of the re-opened universities after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Wang entered Fudan University’s international politics department in 1978, graduating three years later with a Masters’ degree. He would spend the next 14 years at Fudan, authoring books and articles on comparative politics and governance.   

By the mid-1980s, Wang began to focus on the relationship between the central government in Beijing and the local governments who nominally answered to it. Specifically, he was concerned with how the “reform and opening” policies were contributing to a hollowing-out of Beijing’s control over its far-flung territories. 

Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the rise of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the relative autonomy of the local authorities had increased in tandem with the dismantling of the planned economy. The newly found flexibility and permissiveness helped propel a rapid rise in living standards as peasants moved out of the collective economy and into individually-managed farm plots and the fledgling market economy.  Yet from Beijing’s perspective, economic and political decentralization had downsides. As control was relaxed, the propensity of the localities to protect their interests at the expense of Beijing-dictated policy increased, a phenomenon derided by Party mandarins as “policy above is met with countermeasures below.”  


This dynamic was captured in a 1984 analysis by the CIA: “Although Deng [Xiaoping] and his allies have placed supporters in key central and provincial positions, their political and economic reforms remain controversial and have been implemented unevenly. In Beijing’s analysis, the main locus of resistance is at the middle and lower levels of administration. Through political connections and long, undisturbed tenure in office, many local officials are immune to central discipline; consequently, they often defy Beijing without fear of retribution. Unless local officials are absolutely certain that the national leadership is united beyond a measure, they often respond to central initiatives in ways that suit their own personal interests.” 

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which would serve as a constant thorn in the side of the economic reformers throughout the 1980s, was also unenthusiastic about the side-effects of economic reforms. As opportunities in the countryside increased, many existing soldiers wanted to return to their hometowns to help their families work the land. Likewise, recruiting new solders became more difficult as economic opportunities expanded. Those households with children serving in the military were likewise disadvantaged relative to those without any serving members, and thus the pressure on sons to leave the low-paying PLA was great. As one PLA political commissar remarked in 1980, “the new rural policy has caused consternation in the ranks."    

As he watched the atrophy of Beijing’s authority increase along with the reforms, Wang Huning worried that if the decentralization of power continued apace, it would usher a return to a “feudal economy,” with localism and anarchy of the kind that typified the “warlord period” of the 1920s and 30s. In a August 1988 article, he warned of China being split into “30 dukedoms, with some 2,000 rival principalities" owing to the decentralization of authority following reform. While reform of the economy was undoubtedly needed, he argued, it created a dilemma for China’s rulers. According to Wang, “If power is not transferred to the lower level it will be impossible to invigorate the economy and move it toward modernization; but the transfer of power to the lower level brings with it extremely great difficulties to the regulation and control by the political system.”   

This was not a new problem, of course.  As a Yuan Dynasty-era (13-14th century) saying notes “the Emperor is as far away as the sky is high.” But after the disorder and chaos of the Cultural Revolution, many in China, Wang Huning included, were determined to finally draw the Emperor much nearer.  

This was to become one of the central questions for the CCP as it navigated its post-Mao era: how to balance openness (of ideas, goods, and people) with the requisite political control needed to ensure stability and, most importantly, the CCP’s monopoly on power. Wang was determined to find a balance, and in a series of articles in sparsely-read academic journals and popular newspapers, he began to tease out a new framework of governance, one that allowed for the requisite flexibility needed for bottom-up initiative with the imperative for oversight and intervention needed by a central authority to ensure economic and social stability coupled with political unity and authority.

To begin with, Wang argued, one needed to look past the reform-era mentality of seeing the principle struggle as one between the government on the one hand and the market (or enterprises, 企业) on the other. As he said in a 1995 interview with Exploration and Free Views (探索与争鸣), because the Center abandoned so much of its direct intervention into local government affairs and management of the economy, “although there was no real plan to expand the role of local governments, the actions of local governments resulted in the de facto expansion of their roles, and even ‘role inflation.’” Local governments had become empowered in the wake of Beijing’s withdrawal from local life, a result that made it harder for central government planners to push national-level policy down the system. This was not just a matter of policy implementation. “Unity of leadership is the prerequisite for the existence of any country,” Wang argued in the same interview, “Where there is no central authority or where the central authority is in decline, the nation will be in a divided and chaotic state.”  

Wang’s writings of the 1980s were to form the foundation of what came to be known as “neo-authoritarianism” (新权威主义). The doctrine held that political stability provided the structure for economic development, and that considerations such as democracy and individual liberty were to come later, when the conditions were appropriate. As Wang wrote in a 1993 article entitled, “Political Requirements for the Socialist Market Economy,” (社会主义市场经济的政治要求) “The formation of democratic institutions requires the existence of specific historical, social, and cultural conditions. Until these conditions are mature, political power should be directed towards the development of these conditions.”  

Others joined Wang in fleshing out this strong-state theory of governance. One of the most forceful advocates was Wu Jiaxiang, an economist at the CCP Central Committee General Office. “Before democracy and freedom ‘get married’,” he observed, “there is a ‘flirtation period’ between autocracy and freedom. If one says democracy is the life-long partner of freedom, then autocracy can be seen as freedom’s ‘lover’ before marriage.” Writing in the Beijing Youth Daily, an important organ of the neo-authoritarians, Liu Liqun, a researcher at a State Council think tank, argued, “Without social order, there can not be freedom or democracy. If one pursues freedom and democracy without first establishing order, then society will go backwards.” Even more radical intellectuals, such as humanist Marxist Su Shaozhi, argued for forceful leadership, albeit one that provided space for intellectual experimentation. As he told the Robert Sullivan in 1986, “What China needs today is a strong liberal leader.” 

One source of inspiration for the neo-authoritarians was the other developing East Asian nations (Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong), which seemed to show that economic modernization necessitated (or at least could co-exist with) an iron-willed political system. Moving to such a system was not, the neo-authoritarians argued, a return to China’s authoritarian past, but rather represented a transition phase, wherein an enlightened governing elite with reformist tendencies would oversee the development process in the belief that the “masses,” if left to their own devises, would wreck the entire project.  In other words, modernization needs stability and order, but all in the name of good governance and, ultimately, some form of democracy.  

By early summer 1989, neo-authoritarianism was one of the hottest intellectual trends around as many came to question the direction and speed of the economic reforms. (One poll from 1988 reported that 60% of respondents felt the reforms were moving “too fast,” up from 20% in 1987.) So hungry were people for answers that in April 1989, nearly 2,000 students, intellectuals, and faculty crammed into a lecture hall at People’s University in Beijing for a four-hour debate on the topic. One account from Hong Kong reported that Zhao Ziyang told Deng Xiaoping in March of 1989, “there is a theory about neo-authoritarianism in foreign countries, and domestic theoretical circles are now discussing this theory.” To which Deng replied, “This is also my idea.”  

After the June 4th crackdown and the purge of Zhao Ziyang, however, neo-authoritarianism needed a brand makeover. Its call for a “transition” to a more democratic form of political system (albeit vaguely outlined) was jettisoned, leaving only the call for strong and unchallenged leviathan in the form of the CCP.  Neo-authoritarianism thus lived on, reborn as “neo-conservatism,” which remained a dominant ideological force in 1990s. One influential promoter of this new ideology was the princeling Chen Yuan (Chen Yun's son), who called for the CCP to ditch Marxism (which few seemed to believe anyhow) and instead anchor its legitimacy to more primal forces – nationalism and political order. “We are the Communist Party,” Chen once said, “and we will decide what communism means.” 

The legacy of Wang’s neo-authoritarianism and its cousin, neo-conservatism, lives on today under the reign of Xi Jinping.  Look at the first five years of Xi Jinping’s administration through the neo-authoritarian lens, and we see a consistent theme: clawing power back to Beijing. State-owned enterprises, which in many cases had become economic empires unto their own, have been pulled back into the Party’s embrace. Highflying private companies, such as Anbang and Fosun, now pay heed of Beijing’s commands. Cadres throughout the country now pay homage to the “core” of the Party’s Central Committee, Xi Jinping.  

Wang Huning hasn’t written anything on neo-authoritarianism in more than twenty years, but then again, why would he need to? Order and stability have triumphed, and while the sky may still be high, the emperor is now closer than ever.

Making (some) sense of CCP statutes

We typically describe the Communist Party of China (CCP) as opaque, mysterious, and as a "black box." This is with good reason. There's a lot about the structure and operational processes of the Party that we just don't/can't know.

Fortunately, there's also a lot we can know thanks to the CCP's obligation to communicate to its 89 million members. Over the course of its 95+ year history, the CCP has developed by design and necessity into a secretive organization, yet in the end, it's a massive bureaucracy that has many of the same attributes and imperatives as any other bureaucratic entity.

Keeping its membership informed about what's going on is one of the most important. Much of this occurs through internal channels, naturally, but a great deal of it happens on public websites and hard copy publications that are designed to explain to the membership various aspects of Party operations.

Thus, if a new Party pronouncement, document, rule/regulation is made public and you're thinking "what the heck does that mean?", there's a darn good chance that a large chunk of the membership has the same question. And fortunately for us trying to make sense of the CCP, much of it is publicly available.

One issue that's bugged me for a while is the rank-ordering of Party rules and regulations. There seemed to be a lot of them, and they came in a wide assortment. What, for example, was the difference between a rule (规则) and a regulation (条例)? Who could issue them? How many where there?

Fortunately, in May of 2013, the Central Committee (中央) promulgated the "CCP Intra-Party Regulation Formulation Regulations" (中国共产党党内法规制定条例) which clarified the types and rankings of the various rules and regulations that govern Party members. All of this is very helpfully laid out in a piece on Sina (in Chinese) explaining how the statues fit into an overall structure the Party refers to as the "Four Beams and Eight Pillars". 

The Four "Beams" and Eight "Pillars"

Since Xi Jinping took power, the Central Committee has created or amended more than 50 intra-Party statutes, or nearly 1/3 of the total number currently in force. And with the CCP playing a more active role in just about all areas of Chinese society, I think it's important that we start to better understand how the Party works.

According to the 2013 Regulations, there are seven types of official Party statues, which are here ranked from most important to least. (A full list can be found here and here)

  1. The CCP Constitution - This, like the US Constitution, is the law of the (Party) land and stands on a peak all its own. It stipulates fundamental provisions on the nature and purpose of the Party, the political line, the guiding ideology, organizational principles, and Party discipline.
  2. Standards (准则) - These regulate the basic provisions of political and organizational life and the behavior of all Party members. There are only three Standards on the books, and as with the Party Constitution, additions or amendments to Standards can only be made by the Central Committee.
  3. Regulations (条例) - There are 21 Regulations in total, and they too must be approved by the Central Committee. Regulations are comprehensive provisions over certain important areas of Party work or relations. Last year's 6th Plenum, for example, passed the "Regulations on Inner-Party Supervision of the Communist Party of China," which focused on resolving the weakening of the Party's leadership and deficiencies in "Party building."
  4. Rules (规则) -The next four categories of statues occupy a lower level of authority, and can be created and approved by the CCDI, Central Committee departments, and Party committees , autonomous region, and Party committees at provincial-level cities can formulate the remaining policies.
  5. Provisions (规定) - The following three categories cover much more detailed and specific rules and regulations covering, for example, requirements for new Party members, intra-Party promotions/demotions, examinations, "democratic evaluations" (民主评议).
  6. Measures (办法)
  7. Detailed rules (细则)

I hope in the coming few posts to dig a bit deeper into how the Party "strictly governs", as it's one thing to see these rules on paper, but the real interesting stuff is to see how they are interpreted and enforced up and down the hierarchy. If anyone has ideas/thoughts -- or if I've gotten something wrong in the post above --  please let me know.

Leadership Succession in the PRC: What's past is prologue

“The answer to most questions about the party congress unless you're a member of the Politburo is ‘I don't know.’” 
-    Jeff Bader, former Senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council

 “I cannot escape the feeling that, after 31 years of following Chinese leadership politics on a day-to-day basis, I know a lot less about how leadership politics works than I used to.” 
-    Alice Lyman Miller, Hoover Institution

Uncertainty is the defining feature of contemporary Chinese political analysis. 

This holds particularly true in 2017.  Here in China, as we await the 19th Party Congress later this fall, rumors swirl of broken retirement norms, purges of a standing State Council Premier, of a General Secretary looking to serve for life, of a return of the title “Chairman”, and even the abolishment of the Politburo Standing Committee. 

But maybe this shouldn't surprise us.

As Bruce Dickson once observed, “In one form or another, the succession issue has been the central drama of Chinese politics almost since the beginning of the People’s Republic in 1949.”  Mao, for one, knew there would be a problem after he died. In 1961 he told Field Marshal Bernard (“Monty”) Montgomery that Liu Shaoqi would succeed him as supreme leader of the country, but “after Liu, they could fight over the leadership.” And fight they did. Consider: Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang – they were all anointed to lead the Party, and they were all eventually purged, either by their patrons or by their colleagues in the uppermost echelons of the Communist Party of China.

China is not alone. In general, authoritarian governments struggle with succession. As the University of London’s Zeng Jinghan concluded in a 2014 paper, “A challenging task for authoritarian regimes is to prevent a leadership split during the process of power succession. The relevant studies suggest that the majority of authoritarian regimes have failed because of their inability to settle disputes among ruling elites via institutional channels. A smooth leadership transition without violence rarely proceeds in authoritarian regimes.” [My emphasis.] 

Communist systems, in particular, handle the orderly transfer of power even more poorly. Exhibit A is the Soviet Union: “No Soviet leader succeeded to the top through a process of planned leadership transition.  Instead, every paramount Soviet leader died in office except Khrushchev, who was overthrown in a leadership power struggle in 1964, and Gorbachev, who presided over the demise of the USSR itself.  Every successor to the top position -- from Stalin through Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, and Chernenko to Gorbachev -- emerged out of a sometimes prolonged struggle for power.” 

The DPRK has managed to “solve” the problem, for now at least, by ensuring that they produce more Kim family male heirs and thus continue the rule of the “Paektu bloodline”.  Family ties alone, however, are no guarantee of survival in the ruling elite, as Kim Jong-un’s decision to execute his uncle-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, and the suspected assassination of his older half-brother in Malaysia underlines. In condemning Jang to death, the official statement said he “had desperately worked for years to destabilize and bring down the DPRK and grab the supreme power of the party and state by employing all the most cunning and sinister means and methods.”

The Cuban model features power-sharing between brothers, but it’s unclear what the future will hold once Raúl Castro “goes to see Marx”. This does not seem to be a long term fix.

Given the historically-poor track record of authoritarian states (including China) in selecting, and successfully transferring power to, future leaders, one would think we’ve priced this uncertainty into how we evaluate succession politics in the PRC. Yet over the past decade, and certainly since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, the opposite seems true, and we often talk about leader succession as if it's found some sort of sweet spot. 

“The very odd thing about the Chinese system in the last two decades,” writes Kerry Brown of King’s College, “has been how predictable, rather than unpredictable, it has proven. Hu [Jintao] and Xi [Jinping] were the clear favorites years before they were finally elevated. In this respect, China has a better record than any major democracy at delivering predictable top leadership outcomes.” A 2014 paper in the journal Contemporary Politics concludes "power succession in contemporary China has demonstrated a high degree of stability in the past two decades." Wang Zhengxu and Anastas Vangeli write in The China Journal, “Xi Jinping…was anointed heir five years ahead of the anticipated succession, and in 2012 his succession took place as had been planned five years before, some political drama notwithstanding. That, to us, is sufficient evidence of institutionalization and the acceptance of particular rules by the political elite.” 

After spending the better part of the past month reading through the contemporaneous reporting on China’s post-Mao era Party Congresses, I have a hard time agreeing with the above perspectives, which I call “retrospective institutionalism.” While patterns of leadership succession can be located after the fact, they seem much less clear as we watch the events unfold in real time. The selectivity with which China’s leaders have invoked “institutionalism” tells us something about the stickiness of these dictates. When it suits their political agenda, or more often when then need to lean on “rules” to outmaneuver political opponents, senior officials can wax eloquent on the need for clear and predictable rules, such as set retirement ages. Deng Xiaoping famously told the journalist Oriana Fallaci in August 1980 that he would soon retire form the post of Vice-Premier to make way for younger leaders. If we old comrades remain at our posts,” he told her, “newcomers will be inhibited in their work.” 

When disadvantageous, however, these rules can quickly be forgotten or amended. As he approached his agreed-upon retirement from his positions of power, Jiang Zemin had a change of heart. At a July 9, 1999 luncheon with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, Jiang noted that there is no retirement clause for the position of General Secretary in the Party Constitution. And of course we know that Deng spent the 1980s and beyond ruling China from behind the curtain rather than letting the “newcomers” get along with their work “uninhibited.”

But there can be no doubt that the CCP is far more institutionalized and regularized than it was in the aftermath of Mao’s death in 1976. For example, a Party Congress has been held every five years without fail since the 11th Party Congress in 1977, just one year after Mao’s death. (For comparison, nearly 11 years passed between the 7th and 8th Party Congress, and nearly 13 years between the 8th and 9th, which convened in 1969.) Likewise, the National People’s Congress has been held annually since 1977, another impressive feat considering its sorry shape during the Mao era (between 1965 and 1974 there were zero NPCs).  The argument here is not that Chinese politics is totally unpredictable, but rather that the degree of predictability (under the banners of “norms” or “institutionalization) has been given a weight it does not warrant. This is what Prof. Joseph Fewsmith calls “expectations being taken as an indication of institutionalization.” 

The selectivity with which China’s leaders have invoked ‘institutionalism’ tells us something about the stickiness of these dictates. When it suits their political agenda, or more often when then need to lean on “rules” to do an end-run around political opponents, senior officials can wax eloquent on the need for clear and predictable rules, such as firm retirement ages.

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. [1] 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].” 

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

This was a severe deviation from the understood succession plan for Hu Jintao – which had appeared to be a plan that Jiang himself had endorsed beginning with the 15th Party Congress in 1997. One argument goes that Jiang had simply adopted this “Trump-like” maximalist position in order improve his initial bargaining position and either secure a packed PBSC or make his move to hold onto the CMC keys look more reasonable. Who knows. While Jiang obviously did end up handing over the keys to the General Secretary’s office, it was clear from the outset that Jiang would not be receding completely from power. Indeed, at one of his first closed-door speeches after taking over the reins of General Secretary, Hu Jintao told Party officials that he would “seek instruction and listen to the views” of Jiang, according to two Party officials present at the meeting.  The partial transition left China dealing with an “apparent fuzziness in executive authority”, in the words of then-NYT bureau chief Erik Eckholm.  
Many analysts had correctly predicted that Jiang would remain as head of the CMC after passing the Party and State baton to Hu Jintao at the 16th Party Congress and subsequent NPC in 2003, respectively. Indeed, this prediction appears to have been fully priced-in to the discussion in the year leading up to the transition. So certain was the move that there was vocal concern about Jiang’s “half-retirement” and what it might mean for the Party’s control of the the PLA. To many Party hardliners, the person holding the supreme position in the Party should also sit atop the military via the Chair of the CMC.  While it’s true that Jiang would be traveling down the same road as Deng (who only held the title of Chair of the CMC between 1987-89), Mao held both positions between 1949-1976, Hua Guofeng between 1976 1981, and Jiang Zemin from 1989 until 2002. 

When Jiang did finally step down from the CMC in 2004, his resignation letter (made public by Xinhua on September 19) copied much of its language from Deng’s 1989 resignation letter. Among the reasons Jiang stated for his retirement, he included “the institutionalization,  standardization, and proceduralization of the succession of new high-ranking party and state leaders.” Of course, it’s one of the features of the Chinese political system that a belief in institutionalization is inversely proportionate to the degree to which it threatens one’s position of power.  After all, who is prepared to take the risk that they – or more importantly their family –   might be punished for political transgressions or slights after they step down?  “Norms” are a tool to assuage such concerns. In his speech to the CMC in September 2004, Jiang stated that the “three-in-one leadership system under the party general secretary, state president, and CMC chairman” was “not only necessary” but “the most appropriate method.” As we’ll see at the 18th Party Congress, Jiang’s words seemed to resonate. 

Yet another realm of intrigue surrounded Jiang’s rejigging of the age retirement “norms” he had helped put in place at the 15th Party Congress in 1997. Then, the age limit had been set at 70 (Jiang notably exempted) to push out Jiang’s rival, Qiao Shi.  Now, however, it needed to be notched down to 68 to bump Li Tieying and Li Ruihuan out of the Politburo and PBSC, respectively. It’s interesting that the retirement age was adjusted rather than outright abandoned – in other words they still paid lip service to the rule, thus indicating that it served some functional purpose, or perhaps that abolishing it altogether was too politically costly. 

In retrospect, we needn’t have been surprised at Jiang’s antics, for like Deng, he had been a conditional institutionalist. “Jiang Zemin promoted the institutionalization of political leadership because it was in his own political interests to do so,” observed Susan Shirk. She continued, “[Jiang] introduced the retirement-at-70 rule in 1997 to shunt Qiao Shi, his only potential rival, off the Politburo Standing Committee. He consolidated his power by sidelining the few remaining elders and by shifting authority to formal bodies that he chaired, such as the Politburo Standing Committee and the leadership small groups. And by exploiting the international visibility of the presidency, a position that previously had been purely ceremonial, he was able to dominate foreign policy and enhance his domestic authority.”

As Joseph Fewsmith observed in the aftermath of the 16th Party Congress (which he described as a “sweeping victory” for Jiang Zemin), “institutions are taking on greater force in Chinese politics, but Jiang has proven a master of working — and dominating — the institutions.” Likewise, Cheng Li of the Brookings Institution concluded “The leadership selection of [the 16th Party Congress] seemed like a traditional game, in which the ruler decided the rules and manipulated the outcomes.” 

As well as the intrigue over Jiang’s last-minute effort to scuttle the Hu Jintao succession plans and his retention of the CMC Chairmanship, the other big surprise coming out of the Congress was the expansion of the PBSC to nine members, up from the Deng-era average of five and seven. In retrospect, it appears as those at least two additional persons (Jia Qinglin and Huang Ju) secured seats in the PBSC at the last moment – perhaps mere days before the opening of the 16th Party Congress. At nine members, six of whom had close ties to Jiang Zemin, it was clear that Hu Jintao’s power would, at least for the first few years, be highly circumscribed. 

So what did “succession” look like in 2002-03? We’re clearly moving towards a more rationalized political succession process, but as the re-jigging of the age norms, the controversy over Jiang’s last minute campaign to stay at the top of the Party, or his lengthened tenure at the helm of the CMC, there’s still a great deal or informal bargaining and black box maneuvering determining the political pecking order. 

Our retrospective lens has thus placed far too much emphasis on the “normalcy” of this succession. As one China observer recently wrote “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.” [Emphasis added]. 

Orderly when compared to past successions, sure. But uneventful?

17th Party Congress
Date: October 15-21, 2007

  • The Congress also marked the first time the future leader of the PRC and CCP was to be nominated from out of the shadow of either Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, and as such, there was a high degree of scrutiny of the process of selection and promotion. According to The New York Times, writing on October 22 2007, a complete list of the PBSC was “submitted secretly to the party elite at the opening of the congress 10 days ago.”
  • Also notable was the enforcement of the retirement age “rule” of 68, which saw the retirement of Zeng Qinghong, the powerful princeling and close ally of Jiang Zemin. It appears likely that in exchange for accepting the enforcement of the rule, Zeng was able to add He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang to the PBSC. Thus did earlier reports that Hu Jintao would be able to “stack” the Politburo and PBSC with “loyalists” prove inaccurate, something that’s worth bearing in mind today. 
  • The clear path to power for Xi Jinping was called into question after he failed to gain the #2 spot at the Central Military Commission at the same stage that Hu Jintao had in his rise to power. Of course he did get the promotion a year later, but it’s a telling hiccup on succession sweet spot story line. 

 The two future leaders of China – Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang – were both “helicoptered” into the PBSC (they had not previously served on the Politburo). Prof. Fewsmith wrote at the time, “The promotion of Xi was something of a surprise. Nobody mentioned his name as a possible candidate for promotion until early summer; after all, Xi had come in dead last on the list of Central Committee alternates 10 years ago at the Fifteenth Party Congress, when there was a strong reaction within the party against the promotion of ‘princelings’”. Looking back at the major English media coverage of Xi leading up to the Congress, this seems to be correct, in part. It was only after Xi was sent to Shanghai in March 2007 to replace the Party Secretary Chen Liangyu that mainstream reports of Xi’s future began to go public, but even then, it wasn’t clear just where he would be headed. For example, a March report from the WSJ notes “The 53-year-old Mr. Xi is widely seen as an eventual contender for a senior central-government post.” The Washington Post, in reporting the dismissal of Chen Liangyu, had only this to say about XI: “Xi Jinping, Chen's replacement, came from outside Shanghai but is regarded as a champion of Shanghai-style market reform.” 

However, as my friend Trey McArver has pointed out to me, while there wasn’t much media discussion of Xi, many had known that Xi was a contender for several years. And indeed, in consulting China’s New Rulers, the leaked Party dossier of future leaders from 2001, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Bo Xilai were all featured as the core of the 5th generation of leaders.

(Incidentally, there’s a great footnote in Rulers about Xi: “When a Reuters correspondent asked [Xi] about his chances for promotion during a news conference in Fuzhou on July 1, 2002, ‘he came close to choking. His eyes went wide, he flushed, he nearly spilt his drink.’ He then replied: ‘Are you trying to give me a fright?” before declining further comment.’”)

Xi took up the 6th slot in the 9-man PBSC (one spot ahead of Li Keqiang), but more importantly for many observers at the time, he was placed as the head of the Central Secretariat, which has responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the Politburo and the PBSC, as well as installed as the head of the Central Party School. These positions were to give him prime access points to the heart of the Party system. 

Still, even as he took the pole position in the two-way leadership race, there was still further intrigue after Xi failed to gain appointment as vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission at the 4th Plenum in September of 2009. This was the big “non-event” of the year, and threw the succession plans into question. As Simon Elegant of Time magazine wrote, “the Plenum…is being compared to the Sherlock Homes storyline in which the most significant clue is something that did not occur — the guard dog that didn't bark on the night of the murder.”   This led to speculation that Hu Jintao, like his predecessor, would remain on as the head of the CMC. As Willy Lam observed as the time, “[Xi] will not assume full control of the army possibly until possibly the 19th Party Congress of 2017.” Reporting immediately after the non-announcement, John Garnaut reported that “Palace intrigue has swept Beijing following the failure of President Hu Jintao's assumed successor to receive a crucial promotion.” Those closer to the action were off in their prognostications as well. As one of the State Department cables made public by Wikileaks shows, just after the 7th Plenum, Guangming Ribao Senior Editor Dong Yuyu told an embassy official that a move to move Xi into the CMC “would not be revived until 2011 at the earliest.” (Xi was installed as vice-chair of the CMC in October 2010.)

18th Party Congress
Date: November 8-14, 2012

  • Xi Jinping, after mysteriously disappearing for several weeks (Coup? Surgery? Sporting accident?), reemerged to take over the mantle of leadership from Hu Jintao, and as a parting gift, Hu stepped down from all three offices: Party, military, and State. 
  • Yet while this is now thought of as an indication of the traction that succession norms had gained, at the time it appeared more that Hu Jintao had lost his mojo with the PLA (assuming he had any) and his battle to move allies into the PBSC. He saw the writing on the wall and threw in the towel, to mix metaphors. 
  • Likewise the move to shrink the PBSC from nine to seven was perceived by some as an indication that political reform was on the agenda, while others saw it as a way of eradicating the Hu-era policy inaction.  

2012 was one of the most tumultuous years for Chinese politics in modern history. Starting with the fall of Bo Xilai, the demotion of Ling Jihua after his son’s tragic car crash, the two-week unexplained disappearance of Xi Jinping, followed by his ascension to power at the Party Congress. It’s thus no surprise that the Congress occurred relatively late in the year – November, as opposed to post-Mao era historical pattern of September or October. 

The big news was the “clean” retirement by Hu Jintao. In handling over all his positions of power – Party, State, and military – Hu was seen by some to be strengthening the norms of power succession. Again, small sample sizes make for bad extrapolations, and this is really the only time in the CCP’s history that such a clean power handover has occurred. Was Hu also having a “Cincinnatus moment,” or was he unsuccessful in his bid to retain control of the military by remaining on at the CMC? Given that six of the seven new PBSC members were clearly not Hu’s picks (only Li Keqiang fit that description), he clearly lacked the power Jiang could muster at the 16th Party Congress when he stacked the PBSC with allies. Thus Prof. Fewsmith appears to be correct when he observed, "Having lost the battle to promote his protégés to the PBSC, Hu subsequently declined to stay on as chairman of the Central Military Commission, a decision that has been presented as a move toward institutionalization rather than the political defeat it apparently was.” Sometimes something that looks like institutionalization is just plain politics. 

Zheng Yongnian of the National University of Singapore saw a new age norm emerging with the retirement of Hu Jintao. “Politically, Hu stepped down at the age of 70 and has reinforced the unwritten age rule for Political Bureau members to retire at 70, and extended it to the very top. Even if the rule remains unwritten, this precedent will have a binding effect on his successors,” speculated Zheng.  Current day speculation as to the future of Wang Qishan clearly stumps Zheng’s then-prognostication.

Leading up to the 18th Party Congress, there was a great amount of speculation about the size of the new PBSC. As Cheng Li wrote in the months before the November Congress, there were " two contending views" on the size of the PBSC: one group held that it would remain at nine “because of the need to follow the political norm of the two most recent Party Congresses,” while the other group predicted that it would increase to 11 because of the “increasing difficulty of cutting deals for membership between a growing number of ambitious political heavyweights.” As the Congress neared, however, the consensus converged around a PBSC of seven, and according to Cheng Li again, "The decision to eliminate those two positions and reduce the membership from nine to seven is closely linked to political reform." Others saw the shrinking PBSC as a move to tackle the problem of gridlock. According the Hoover Institution’s Alice Miller, in the Hu Jintao era “evidence that Standing Committee policymaking had become paralyzed is circumstantial but compelling.” 
With the selection of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang as General Secretary and Premier (respectively), some saw the “balance of interests” between different factions (or interest groups) within the Party working effectively to distribute power between, say, the Princeling faction (Xi) and the Communist Youth League (or Hu Jintao) faction, with Li Keqiang as its representative. While this may have been true, strictly speaking, it was also apparent to many at the time that this mechanism of ensuring elite-level stability might come at the expense of effective policy making. For example, Xi and Li were both known to be gunning for the top position in the lead-up to the 17th Party Congress (when it began to emerge that Xi was in the lead), and thus the two had been rivals for some years now. Would they be able to put aside their differences and work effectively in their new positions? (The answer, we now know, is no). Did it make sense to install Wang Qishan, one of the CCP bureaucracy’s most knowledgeable and experienced economic hands, at the CCDI rather than in the top economic policymaking slot?  

The 18th Party Congress raised as many questions as it answered.


After reviewing past Party Congresses, what are the lessons we can draw from the above genealogy of succession? 

1.    Messy successions are the norm. Hu Jintao’s handover of the full set of car keys to Xi Jinping in 2012-13 is the outlier here, not the norm. Both Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin adopted a phased retirement, with the CMC being the last title to be abandoned in both cases, as a means of assuring that all their hard work would not go to waste (or to ensure that they weren’t attacked in retirement.) Having another “clean” succession would certainly be a good thing in terms of institutionalization, but we should recognize just how rare it would be.

Having another ‘clean’ succession would certainly be a good thing in terms of institutionalization, but we should recognize just how rare it would be.

2.    Heir to the throne is a dangerous position to occupy. Again, Hu Jintao’s lengthy tenure as heir (in retrospect 10 years) is rather unique. If we zoom out to the entire history of the PRC, we see how precarious is the position of next-in-line: Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang…all of them met an inglorious end. There are many reasons for this. As Tony Saich pointed out, “The system of patron-client relations makes it very difficult for younger leaders to develop their own bases of support and policies.  Attempts to extend the power base to ensure survival after the patron's death often brings the two into conflict. The patron often interprets such behavior as disloyal or even as betrayal and can dump the client.” In other words, as soon as you’re publically declared the heir, you become a real or perceived competitor for power and attention with the existing leader as clients lower down the Party apparatus jostle to gain your favor. Holding out on identifying a successor can yield important benefits.

3.    If the heir is not “your guy”, then working to delay his ascension might be even more important. As mentioned above, if the system knows who’s coming next, a realignment begins. Yet the incumbent also begins to roll up their sleeves and do actual work. As has been the case for Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao, this included marquee positions in the government, Party, and military bureaucracies at the Central level. If the outgoing leader still has unrealized goals and isn’t in sync with the incoming leader, this can cause problems. Thus, if you know in advance that your eventual replacement isn’t on the same page, fighting to delay his accession as long as possible might make sense.

4.    Yet you can’t wait too long. If Xi Jinping waits too long to announce his replacement, risks emerge. For one, we know from previous PRC history that a blessing from the current leader alone is no substitute for strong organizational ties and loyalties. As Zhengxu Wang and Anastas Vangeli have written, “in domestic governance and Party, military, and foreign affairs, the heir is given important tasks in order both to hone his political skills and to enable him to build support bases and political capital, especially if he delivers results in these tasks.”  Hua Guofeng, for one, was unable to last more than a few years at the top before he was pushed aside by Deng Xiaoping. After Mao’s death in September 1976, Hua’s opponents began to de-legitmize his rule, and although he had support from Minister of Defense Ye Jianying, Vice Premier Li Xiannian, and some military support from the commander of the Beijing Military Region Chen Xilian, he lacked a solid support base at the Party Center and its attendant organizations. Relying almost exclusively on Mao’s April 28, 1976 intonation “With you in charge I am at ease" (你办事我放心), the power of this Maoist amulet began to evaporate with the campaign to de-Maoify the CCP leadership beginning just after Deng’s 2nd rehabilitation in 1977.

5.    The norms of succession are sticky, but more like a Scotch Tape sort of sticky and less a Duct Tape-strength sticky. Take retirement ages for Politburo members. Clearly these have some teeth, and we know from leaked conversations over the years that there is an expectation within the Party that leaders must retire at some appointed age. But as Deng Maosheng’s comments last November reminded us, it is the CCP leadership that will determine just how robust these “rules” are, not outside academics or even Party members lower down the ranks. Jiang Zemin changed the retirement age for Politburo members twice (expending political capital along the way, to be sure), and even the much-lauded Deng Xiaoping was happy to make an exception for himself when it was expedient. To again quote Susan Shirk, “Political actors design and redesign institutional arrangements to enhance their own power and influence.” Indeed. We should expect this to continue into the future.

6.    Our initial understanding of the new leadership group will likely be wrong. Many of us expected Xi Jinping to be a market-friendly and moderate/pragmatic leader, given his tenure in Zhejiang province and his experience during the Cultural Revolution. One of the reasons we misread him is structural – up and coming leaders often hide or disguise their true policy preferences as they climb the slippery pole of intra-Party politics.

7.    Most changes, innovations, and violations of the existing norms and rules (formal and informal) have occurred using the discourse of further institutionalization or normalization. No one wants to be accused of breaking the rules, and so we should expect any actions to weaken or amend/bend the existing norms to be couched in holier-than-thou language about further strengthening or modernizing the system.

8.    While the composition of the PBSC is important, it’s not everything. There seems to be a fixation on determining who will be in the upcoming PBSC. I get it, but I frankly don’t think this Fantasy PBSC League is as important as we make it out to be. Put another way, knowing who is in the PBSC doesn’t always tell you that much about what policy will look like. Imagine that you had been given a list of the 18th Party Congress PBSC members one month before everything else. Do you think you could have made an accurate prediction about what politics under Xi Jinping would eventually become? I sure know I wouldn’t have been able to.

9.    Lastly, for all its progress and reform, China’s political system is still run by a Leninist, communist Party and we need to do a better job of watching how the system actually works rather than how we want it to work. The starting point for this is reading Party documents.  While strange mixtures of rhetoric and guidance for non-Party outsiders, they do offer insights to what matters more than personalities: policies.  Some are intended to inform lower cadres, some are intended to layout policy priorities, and some are intended to bring “misunderstanding” Party members back in line.  But at a minimum, read the NPC, plenum, and Politburo meeting communiques. How to read them is a topic for another day.

Many thanks to Katie Stallard, Danny O, Andrew Polk, and Trey McArver for the careful read-through and super comments.


[1] According to Article 18 of the Constitution, “The National Congress of the Party is held once every five years and convened by the Central Committee. It may be convened before the normally scheduled date if the Central Committee deems it necessary or if more than one third of the organizations at the provincial level so request. Except under extraordinary circumstances, the Congress may not be postponed.”


Leadership Succession in China: These aren’t the norms you’re looking for

I never thought I’d write this, but I think it’s time we cut Xi Jinping some slack.

First, there was criticism that Xi was building a “cult of personality” in an effort to become the new Mao Zedong.  Now, there’s a growing consensus that Xi is steering the good ship China towards the rocks of dictatorship by preparing to flout the “unwritten rules” that govern leadership term-limits and mandatory retirement ages.

In the last few weeks I’ve read two smart pieces on this question by journalists I respect greatly. Xi, according to one, “appears prepared to defy the Communist Party’s established script for transferring power and delay the designation of his successor until after a party congress next year, unsettling the party elite and stirring speculation that he wants to prolong his tenure.” According to the second piece, “there is increasing speculation [Xi] may try to dispense with the retirement convention entirely.”

The FT editorial page has a follow-up today framing the issue in even more dire terms: “Hanging on to power would send an unequivocal signal that China is lapsing back into a system under which personal power trumps established procedure. The insidious effect of this would probably be felt in several political and economic spheres, inside and outside China.”

In effect, if Xi isn’t Mao already, as many argue, then he’s looking to drag the country back to its Maoist past of one-man arbitrary rule. Such speculation doesn’t strike me as “wrong” per se, so much as it seems premature, or more importantly, overwrought.  

But before I get into that, I’d like to first pose a few questions: in the entire 95-year history of the Communist Party of China (CCP), how many General Secretaries (or “Chairman”, as the position was known until abolished in 1982) have served exactly two terms (ten years) in the top post?

Answer: exactly one – Hu Jintao.

Second question: how old is the “unwritten rule” rule of “7 and up, 8 and out”, which stipulates mandatory retirement for top leaders if they are 68 at the start of a new Party congress period?

Answer: it was instituted in 2002 by Jiang Zemin to block Li Ruihuan (then 68) from remaining on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).

Sub-question B: Prior to this 2002 re-jigging, when was the previous alteration to the retirement age status quo?

Answer: 1997, when Jiang Zemin set it at 70 to push his political rival Qiao Shi (then 72) out of power. 

I think of these facts every time I read about the potential for a “rule shattering” 3rd Xi term as the General Secretary of the CCP, or the possibility of Wang Qishan staying on past the “mandatory” retirement age of 68. While we speak of an increasing “institutionalization” of the norms of leadership succession in the post-Mao era, the reality is that these “norms” are neither “institutionalized” let alone “mandatory.”

·       When the FT editorial page states that Xi “may ignore the age and term limits that the ruling Communist party has worked hard to institutionalise in recent decades,” I think this drastically over-estimates how fickle and malleable these “limits” are.

·       When it writes of the “unwritten rules painstakingly introduced by China’s collective leadership since the 1990s”, I think this gives an entirely misleading perspective on just how natural it is for Chinese leaders to amend “rules” to meet their own political needs.

The rhetoric and speculation on the length of Xi’s tenure will undoubtedly heat up over the next year as the CCP enters a key twelve month period, book-ended by the 6th Plenum of the Central Committee which begins on Oct 24th and the 19th Party Congress, set for the fall of 2017. There are thus two ways we can think about next year’s 19th Party Congress and the 20th Party Congress beyond:

·       This is potentially a moment of crisis as Xi Jinping unravels the norms of leadership succession and retirement that have evolved in the post-Mao era, or;

·       The so-called “norms” were never particularly well institutionalized and have been frequently changed or amended by the top leadership to suit their exigent needs. Thus, the Hu-Wen smooth transition represents an anomaly, not the baseline. In short, we shouldn’t necessarily freak out just yet.

Given the dimly-lit box that is Chinese elite politics, such speculation is unavoidable. But like the concept of “legitimacy”, I think the term “unwritten rules” is far too elastic and overused. Consider a few recent examples:

[Normal disclaimer: I have an immense respect for journalists covering China and think they do a fantastic job given the difficulty of operating here.]

1.     “The unwritten rules of succession politics in China require Mr Xi to keep his policy preferences close to his chest at the beginning of his term in office, and to stick to the guidelines laid down by his predecessors.” The Economist, May 4th, 2013  

2.     In ordering the investigation [against Zhou Yongkang], Xi has broken with an unwritten understanding that members of the Standing Committee will not be investigated after retirement.” South China Morning Post, December 11, 2013

3.     “For decades, there has been an unwritten rule within the Communist Party that members of the Politburo Standing Committee should always act as a cohesive unit, or at least maintain a facade of unity to prevent chaos and preserve the stability of the party.” Pin Ho and Huang Wenguang, Politico, August 1, 2014

4.     “[I]n China, there's an unspoken rule that Chinese leaders should step out of the public spotlight when they step down from office.” BBC, March 13, 2013

5.     “An unspoken rule in the [CCP] empowers retired leaders to influence the selection of the next generation's core leadership, both helping to extend their power through personal connection and serving as a means of ensuring the CCP's authority.” Stratfor, July 6, 2011

As you can see, there seem to be a lot of “unwritten rules”, and they can be asserted anytime we believe the CCP is drifting away from established (if equally unwritten) norms. The problem isn’t that we want to see further steps towards institutionalizing a system of leadership succession, rather it’s that we’re imposing a degree of institutionalization on the actual, existing system that doesn’t yet exist.

I call this “fictional institutionalization” – a term I just coined after mis-reading “future institutionalization” in a 2003 Bruce Gilley article.  By this I mean a norm or rule that we outsiders have decided is unbending and unyielding when in fact it’s far more malleable than we require.  Thus we begin speculating on palace coups where we see deviations from the norm, when in fact the “norm” is quite weak and much less sacred than we care to admit (or more likely, than we remember). 

Placing too much faith in such a fictional institutionalization has led to vast overconfidence in the regularization of the succession system. Based on the precedent of the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping transition, a 2014 academic paper concluded that over the past 30 years, the CCP has developed “a seamless transfer of power that rarely proceeds smoothly in authoritarian regimes.”  

Yet by my (admittedly amateur) reading of recent leadership transitions, the process looks far from “seamless.”  

Take the supposed limit on term-length for CCP General Secretary. First, there’s absolutely nothing in the CCP Constitution that forbids Xi from remaining on in the post indefinitely. I’m not saying it’s the preferred outcome, just that in and of itself, there’s no legal or organizational prohibition on the move. When FDR ran for a third term as US President, he was violating the norm, but not the law. And that was a norm that had existed for the previous 31 Presidents!

One of the recent succession pieces states that, “Two terms as party leader has evolved as the standard since the 1990s, and an heir apparent is usually clear by the start of the second.” But consider this: there have been five CCP chiefs in the post-Mao era (excluding Xi Jinping) and only one, Hu Jintao, has followedthis “rule” of two five-year terms. Some may quibble and say that Jiang Zemin doesn’t count, but the start of his term happened under such unusual circumstances that I don’t see how his case helps bolster either side of the debate.

Or consider the path to power for Xi Jinping. Although his appointment to the PBSC in 2007 seemed to confirm his ascent to the position of General Secretary in 2012, there were still “norms” that “should” have signposted his rise that were missed. One important posting, for example, was to be his appointment as the vice chairman of the CMC at the 4th Plenum in 2009.  This had become a “norm” simply by virtue of the fact that Hu Jintao had traveled the same road on his way to the top of the PBSC. Yet when this move failed to materialize at the 4th Plenum in 2009, some speculated that this “outcome deals a blow to the prevailing theory of leadership succession.” And as Bill Bishop pointed out in the latest issue of the Sinocism newsletter, "at the the start of the 17th Congress five year period it was not a done deal that Xi would be Hu Jintao's successor, though it was obvious he was very much in the running."

Rewinding to the 16th Party Congress in 2002, it’s worth remembering that Jiang Zemin turned over only two of the three keys to power, holding on to his position as the head of the CMC until 2004. Writing in the months after Jiang’s partial retention of power, James Mulvenon of Defense Group, Inc. wrote that the move represented an “institutional retrogression driven by [Jiang’s] unattractive personal ambition” and that it “throws a spanner into the evolving mechanisms of inner-party democracy.”

Media coverage from the time painted the move in much the same way that the rumors about Xi are now playing out. A NYT piece from around the time of the 16th Party Congress reported that some experts “think [Jiang] is planning to stay on longer [than the 2003 NPC meeting], at the possible risk of fostering divisions at the top during a military crisis.”  

What about the “mandatory” retirement age for top leaders – “7 and up, 8 and out”?

Deng Xiaoping was certainly an active proponent of age limits for cadres and government officials, and in 1982 both the CCP and the State constitutions were amended to limit the upper working age. But I think it’s important to point out that Deng wasn’t doing this out of fealty to institutionalism or to a rules-based politics. Rather, he was, in large part, trying to force out the older, “redder” cadres who were standing as conservative barriers to the “open door” policy that was Deng’s lodestar.  Working largely from behind the scenes for much of his uncontested rule in the 1980s and early 1990s, Deng never had a problem with reaching down from on high to influence the policy process, institutions and “norms” be damned.

His successor, Jiang Zemin, didn’t have a problem with this either. As mentioned above, Jiang twice changed the retirement age convention to serve his political goals, first to sidestep Qiao Shi and later to end-run Li Ruihuan. Writing in the New York Review of Books in the lead-up to the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Bruce Gilley and Andrew Nathan observed that the battle between Jiang and Li “may have been the first succession battle fought according to agreed-upon rules. But a battle it was, and one that is not over.” Indeed.

None of this means that we should be nihilists about leadership succession or the importance of institutions and norms.  They certainly matter.  Rather, I think we’ve created an ideal type of Chinese politics that doesn’t actually exist.  Wang Qishan may well stay on past the 19th Party Congress. Xi Jinping may remain for a 3rd term as General Secretary. We can argue about what this means, and whether these are benign or malign moves, but one thing we shouldn’t do is to claim that any of this is unprecedented.


Where's the "official" verdict that Mao was 70% correct, 30% wrong?

We’re in a Mao Moment. The proximate cause being the 50th anniversary of the “start” of the Cultural Revolution and the “back to the future” feel of the Xi Jinping era. As Andrew Browne declares in his big, new piece in the WSJ this weekend, “Contrary to expectations, a half-century after the Cultural Revolution began, the ‘Great Helmsman,’ as he styled himself, is again the most potent force in the country’s political life. What part of his legacy, exactly, is Mr. Xi claiming?”

I think the comparisons between Mao and Xi now in vogue are overblown, but it’s important that we're beginning to take seriously the historical legacies of the country’s not-so-distant past after neglecting them during the heady years of 10%+ economic growth. For too long it was asserted and assumed that China had “buried Mao,” to borrow from the title of the late-Richard Baum’s wonderful 1996 book, but the events of Chongqing in 2009-2012, and the shifting ideological winds of the Xi regime, have exposed the shallowness of that conceit.

Mao Zedong, we now know, still matters and maybe now more than at anytime since his death. The question, then, is how much and in what ways? My research only focuses on those who remain sympathetic to Mao and his vision, but obviously there are many voices in this discussion, and there is no one answer to these questions anymore then there’s one answer to the question of Thomas Jefferson’s or Lenin’s legacy. (Please note that I’m not equating the three, but for the US and Russia, as with China, founding leaders and founding legacies still matter and countries never stop wrestling with them, even if they are less-than-glorious).

As we try to navigate the question of Mao’s legacy in contemporary China, a good place to start is with the Party’s own evaluation of Mao. And here I’d like to briefly discuss one assertion that repeatedly crops up: the official Party consensus holds that Mao was 70% correct and 30% wrong.

Except there is no “official” 70/30 evaluation on Mao. Or at least I can't find one.

Let’s first look at how the 70/30 evaluation (known as the 三七开 in Chinese) is used evoked in English-language discourse. (I should hasten to add that I’m not criticizing anyone cited below — I didn’t know any of this until about three months ago, and I’ve been researching Mao for 5 years!)

A few examples, and notice that there’s usually no source given for this “official” verdict:

  • “It's been nearly 35 years since the death of Chairman Mao, and the official verdict is that Mao was 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong.” NPR, 2014
  • “…the official verdict remains that Mao was 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong.” NYT, 1989
  • “Officially, Mao lost his godlike status when, in 1981, Deng Xiaoping, then China's leader, announced Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong.” Al Jazeera, 2009
  • “In 1981, five years after Mao's death and the end of the Cultural Revolution, Deng pronounced that Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong.” Eric Li, SCMP, 2013
  • “Not long after Mao's death the party announced that he had been 70% right, 30% wrong.” BBC, 2006

You get my point. The source of the "verdict" is often vague, or the year 1981 is mentioned, or the source of the verdict is Deng Xiaoping, but it's never stated where he made this announcement.

Others go further and specifically point to the "Resolution on Certain Questions in Our Party's History since the Founding of the PRC," which without a doubt is the “official” Party evaluation on Mao (and a bunch of other things), as it was passed unanimously by the Central Committee in June 1981 and published in its entirety in the People’s Daily. Tariq Ali, for example, writes that “...the official view is that Mao’s achievements far outweigh his mistakes—by a ratio of 70:30, according to the official Central Committee report of 1981.” Rebecca Karl of Duke University, in her book Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World, likewise states that the "verdict" of the 1981 Resolution was that "Mao was 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong." (pg. 166)

The problem is, the 1981 Resolution doesn't contain any such verdict, statement, conclusion, or announcement. But don’t take my word: do a keyword search of the document (here in English, here in Chinese). (I'd say read the whole thing, but it's loooonnnnggg.) Some point to the fact that the ratio of positive to negative statements about Mao in the document is 7-to-3 (according to one analysis (footnote 54) there were 91 positive mentions, 34 negative), but this strikes me as too Da Vinci Code for the CCP. Deng himself made the quite sensible point that some mistakes are more egregious than others, so how could you possibly talk of 30% "bad" as if all "bad" is qualitatively and quantitatively the same. Deng, when referencing Mao's own evaluation of the Cultural Revolution, said "And when [Mao] referred to the 30 percent of mistakes, he meant ‘overthrowing all’ and waging a ‘full-scale civil war.’ How can anyone reconcile this with the idea of 70 percent achievements?”

Still another theory, offered by Paul Gewirtz of Yale Law School, holds that “It was shortly after this [1981] Resolution was released that Deng Xiaoping made his famous comment that Mao was ’70% right, 30% wrong.’” Again, no source is offered, and I can’t find any post-Resolution comment to this effect. (If anyone does know, please let me know.)

 So why the persistence of this "official" meme?

For one, Deng Xiaoping almost makes this evaluation of Mao himself. In his 1977 speech entitled “The Two Whatevers Do Not Accord to Marxism,” Deng states “[Mao] said that if one's work was rated as consisting 70 percent of achievements and 30 percent of mistakes, that would be quite all right, and that he himself would be very happy and satisfied if future generations could give him this ’70-30’ rating after his death.” Deng does not say if he agrees with this formulation of Mao’s or not, merely adding “This is an important theoretical question, a question of whether or not we are adhering to historical materialism.”

In his autobiography, Deng Liqun also records Deng invoking the 70/30 rule, although he doesn’t mention where or when: “邓小平说:毛主席说,能够有三七开就很好了,很不错了;毛主席说,我死了,如果有人能够给我以三七开的估计,我就很高兴,很满意了” (邓力群自述,十二个春秋,第90页,香港博智出版社). You can see, however, that Deng is quoting Mao’s own self-evaluation as opposed to making a new one himself. Similarly, in 1979 Chen Yun said "毛泽东同志说他是三七开,所以他的像还挂在天安门广场," but again, Chen is referencing Mao's own self-evaluation.

Indeed, there’s even evidence that Deng Xiaoping expressly opposed the 70/30 formulation for Mao. According to a 1980 report by Jonathan Kaufman that appeared in the New Republic, “A poster appeared [on November 25, 1979] declaring that Mao was ’70 percent good and 30 percent bad’ — the same judgment Mao had once placed on Joseph Stalin. This was too much even for Deng Xiaoping, Mao was much better than 70-30, he told an American journalist, “and I myself am only 60-40.”

(Ironically, Mao had slapped the 70/30 label on Deng, or at least that’s what Deng told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in 1980: “[Mao] said that my mistakes were only 30 percent, my merits 70 percent, and he resurrected me [brought Deng back into the government] with 30/70.”)

But while there is no “official”  三七开 for Mao, the formulation was a regular feature of Chinese political discourse during the Mao era.

Indeed, Mao had himself used the 70/30 formulation to evaluate the Cultural Revolution, commenting “When it comes to the Cultural Revolution, my overall opinion is that it was basically correct, and only partially unsatisfactory. What we need to do know is research the unsatisfactory portion. 70/30 split — 70% positive and 30% mistaken. This opinion will not necessarily be uniform.”

In his 1956 essay “On the Ten Major Relationships,” Mao stated for Stalin, an “assessment of 30 per cent for mistakes and 70 per cent for achievements is just about right.” In October of the following year, Mao told the CCP Central Committee “As for Stalin himself, you should at least give him a 70-30 evaluation, 70 for his achievements and 30 for his mistakes. This may not be entirely accurate, for his mistakes may be only 20 or even 10, or perhaps somewhat more than 30. All things considered, Stalin's achievements are primary and his shortcomings and mistakes are secondary.

Italics and bold added, and here’s why. In the 1981 Resolution, the Party (Deng, really) had this to say about Mao: “His merits are primary and his errors secondary.” Sound familiar? The Resolution, long thought of as the document that buried Mao’s historical legacy, basically plagiarized Mao himself.

There are other instances of the 70/30 ratio being invoked in China (see 中共历史上的“三七开” by 贺朝霞 for a further list), but it was never “officially” used by the CCP or by Deng to evaluate Mao.

Does that mean that the formulation is garbage? The Global Times asserts that it "represents the mainstream ideas about Mao," or at least what the Global Times hopes is the mainstream. I doubt this is true, or more accurately, I doubt that the Global Times actually knows this to be true.  But it clearly is the case that the CCP has "unofficially" adopted the 三七开 in regards to Mao. As a 2012 Global Times editorial states "官方从邓小平时代就有了对毛的“三七开”评价态度..." A 评价态度 is important, and indicative, but it's not "official." Likewise, in 2001, Xi Jinping, then the governor of Fujian, gave an interview in which he stated "年轻时,我对主席和小平同志为什么对自己的评价不理解,三七开,那么低!现在明白了,作为一个领导干部能争取到人民和自己都打出及格分已经很不容易了." What's notably here is that Xi is accurately referencing Mao and Deng's own self-evaluation of 70/30 as opposed to any official document or pronouncement.

So, in summary, the 三七开 is important and, in many ways a helpful shorthand for thinking about the CCP's evaluation of Mao.

But it's not "official."