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.”