At some point during the 1995 calendar year, what had been a truism in Chinese politics from 1978 on became inaccurate: Deng Xiaoping was no longer the most powerful political actor in China. He was thought to have been near death in the spring, and though he has recovered enough to walk a little bit, he can no longer make his thoughts understood to others.(1) In a sense, succession to Deng Xiaoping, China's preeminent leader from 1978 to 1995, is already underway.
But if Deng is no longer the most powerful political figure in China today, it is not clear who is. Jiang Zemin holds most of the top positions in China and is the designated successor. But no designated successor has ever consolidated power in the People's Republic of China, and few have survived politically once the preeminent leader finally passes from the scene. The octogenarian Yang Shangkun is seen as the kingmaker after Deng dies, but his relations with Jiang Zemin are less than clear. The head of the public security system, Qiao Shi, is also seen as a strong contender, if only because it is hard to see anyone else who is institutionally powerful enough to challenge Jiang. The fact that no outside observers can say conclusively who is the most important leader says something very significant about China's political system. A case could be made for several figures, but as yet none have stepped to the fore. It seems to many observers that the Chinese political system is on autopilot, and those who seek to become the preeminent leader are waiting for Deng's physical demise before seeking power.(2)
Many in the West believe it matters profoundly who succeeds Deng Xiaoping. Others believe that whoever follows as top leader will not be capable of mobilizing the kind of political clout that Deng has. Some people in both camps, and still others holding more diverse views on succession and Chinese politics, believe that Deng's death will be the start of a Chinese collapse, analogous the fall of the Soviet Union. Recent issues of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, carrying essays with such titles as After Deng the Deluge" and "Why China Will Collapse," are only two recent examples of the range of material on China that has appeared since 1989 which suggests that the current system can not continue.(3) Yet, while many observers see the prospects for gross political instability in China growing or at least becoming the dominant trend, others point to the rise of China economically, expounding the hope that prosperity will likely lead to a peaceful democratic transition some time in the future. Still others see a rising China as a threat to international, Asian and U.S. security.(4)
It is all but certain that communism in China will evolve and become an even less effective ideology than it already is. Given that most other communist states are now formerly communist, it is likely that communism will not survive in China either. But the inevitability of collapse, whether that collapse is of the communist political system or national disintegration, may have little or nothing to do with succession politics. This paper will argue that most observers misread China; they do not recognize some of the major changes that have taken place within that society since the onset of reform, if they see a dominant or powerful leader as an inevitable outcome of China's succession process. A dominant leader may be a necessary condition for Chinese stability and prosperity, but the emergence of such a figure is not inevitable and, indeed, not likely. The real questions this paper seeks to address are why and how succession matters and why in a number of cases it does not. To state an extreme, though I think accurate, view of what succession might mean in China compared to the United States, it is likely that if a Republican were elected president in 1996, and the Republican Party retained a majority in both houses of Congress, that president could do more to change the United States than any potential successor could to change China's direction.
In the West, many people see China, and authoritarian political systems more generally, as leader- or individual-dominated systems. As a result, they see the question of who assumes power as critical. The assumption is that in obtaining power, authoritarian leaders will be able to exercise power in uncontrolled or unconstrained ways. In this context, many observers note that China is a system governed by individuals, not institutions, or in Chinese, a system of renzhi, not fazhi.(5) But authoritarian leadership is not necessarily absolute. Leaders can be strong or weak, more or less constrained by the overall legitimacy of the political system they head, constrained by the resources available to the government or by the clout of key organizations and constituencies within the political system.
Why Succession Matters
Most nondemocratic political systems do not have fully institutionalized systems of succession. This means that the death or overthrow of the nation's top leader throws the question of who rules into potentially explosive contestation. Different political systems have various methods of coping with this potential uncertainty. Some, like the Vatican Council of Cardinals choosing the next pope, elect successors. Designated hereditary patterns of succession are another method to try to ensure stability and authority for the successor. These mechanisms and others do not negate politics, but instead channel or restrain the influence of politics. In the Vatican case, a great deal of politicking goes on prior to the death of the incumbent pope, particularly if the pontiff gradually declines and dies, as opposed to death from sudden illness which often leaves a short-term power vacuum. On the other hand, with hereditary patterns of succession, those disadvantaged by the established pattern have been know to assassinate or otherwise force the heir apparent from power. A great advantage of democratic, compared to non-democratic, systems is that they confine the area of political contestation and render the process of succession and transition less dangerous to the health of the polity. The line of succession is set in law or the constitution, and even if the leader dies, constitutional principles govern who succeeds. Politics hardly disappear in the process of determining the succession, but certain means and outcomes are made illegitimate in consolidated democratic systems.
With China, outside observers, and presumably many Chinese political insiders, do not know how succession is determined. There has only been one succession in the history of the People's Republic of China, that is, Deng's eventual assumption of power following Mao Zedong's death. A number of succession arrangements have been made, and certain understandings and norms are part of the system of rule. Yet, no succession arrangement to date has ever gone completely as planned, and most have failed disastrously, particularly from the point of view of the putative successors. Two potential successors died as a result of conflict with the top leader: Liu Shaoqi, widely conceded to be the number two person in the Chinese Communist Party and Mao's likely successor, but died due to lack of medical attention in 1969 after being removed from power, during the early stages of the Cultural Revolution; and Lin Biao, commander of the military and the constitutionally designated successor to Mao, who failed in a plane crash while trying to flee China after a supposed failed assassination attempt on Mao in 1971. In 1976, Hua Guofeng appeared to succeed in assuming the top leadership position after Mao, but was outmaneuvered and forced from power by Deng Xiaoping by late 1978 after failing to consolidate power. Prior to Mao's death in September 1976, Hua was elevated to the premiership and the ranking Party vice-chairman. His legitimacy as successor was linked to Mao's support in the last year ormao's life, The policies of the final ten years of Mao's reign were detrimental to so many people that Hua's tie to Mao was a source of great vulnerability, as well as his mandate for succession. Two others were removed from the line of succession by Deng in the 1980s after holding the post of party general-secretary, formally the most important political position in China, though their subsequent falls from grace were not total. Hu Yaobang's removal in 1987 was more like Hua Guofeng's, with Hu losing out but not being subject to much political attack. The fall of Hu's replacement as general-secretary, Zhao Ziyang, was accompanied in 1989 by widespread vilification of Zhao and his policies in the wake of the Tiananmen demonstrations. Such a record among hopefuls to the top leadership position should give pause to the current designated successor, Jiang Zemin.
In terms of norms and procedures, the democratic centralism of the Chinese Communist Party suggests that the decision of who the successor will be is likely to be made by the very top leadership, namely the Party politburo, plus a number of aged leaders, and ratified by lower-ranking, though still elite, convocations, such as a plenary session of the Party's Central Committee. The view of the Chinese Communist Party that the "Party must command the gun" suclyests that the military should not have a direct say in the succession, though the army's leaders, as top Party officials, would perhaps parricipate in the succession process.(6) Whether the two norms -- democratic centralism and Party control of the military -- will be followed in the coming succession remains unknown. Arguments can be made either way. The view that they will not hold depends on the logic that power is everything and that contenders or involved parties will do all they can to win or influence the succession.(7) The other argument sees these norms prevailing, since all top leaders realize that the Chinese Communist Party's hold on power is...