Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, April 08, 2011

Generations of leaders

Now that we've been introduced to the next president and the next premier of China, it's a good time to reflect on the leadership of the Peoples Republic and the ways China has been changed since 1949.

I am grateful that someone sent me the link to the Brookings Institute article below by Cheng Li and John L. Thornton. I am ashamed that I've lost the e-mail and the name of the person who found the article. It's good. (And the Wikipedia article that's linked following it was pretty good when I read it on April 5. Of course, no one knows what it looks like now or will look like when you see it.)

China's Leadership, Fifth Generation
In the often-contradictory foreign analyses of China’s 17th Party Congress, there was a surprising level of consensus that the composition of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC), especially its Standing Committee, is a crucial factor in determining the political trajectory of the country. This explains why considerable media attention has been given to personnel changes in these leadership institutions. In fact, one notable phenomenon at the Congress is Chinese authorities’ growing emphasis on “collective leadership.” As General-Secretary Hu Jintao stated in his report to the Party Congress, the CPC should improve the system of “collective leadership with division of responsibilities among individuals” in an effort to “prevent arbitrary decision-making by an individual or a minority of people in the Party.”

The most important development coming out of the 17th Party Congress is the new succession model with two candidates rather than one designated “heir apparent.” Two front-runners in the so-called fifth generation of leaders, 54-year-old Xi Jinping and 52-year-old Li Keqiang, were elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee. Meanwhile, another six members in their 50s obtained seats on the Politburo and/or the Secretariat. These eight rising stars collectively have formed a “succession team” set to take over from the fourth generation of leaders in 2012-2013. All of these developments seem to indicate that the country has entered a new era of collective leadership. Consequently, the rules and norms of Chinese elite politics are likely to change profoundly. What does collective leadership mean for China’s future? Is it a cause for celebration or anxiety?

The transition in China from an all-powerful single leader to collective leadership has been a gradual process. Mao Zedong wielded enormous power as a god-like figure, especially during the Cultural Revolution, treating succession as if it was his private matter. During the Deng Era, political succession and generational change in the Chinese leadership became a matter of public concern. Yet, because of his legendary political career and his formidable patron-client ties, Deng Xiaoping maintained his role as China’s paramount leader even when he did not hold any important leadership position following the Tiananmen incident. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are technocrats who lack the charisma and revolutionary credentials of Deng, but both have had broad administrative experiences and are good at coalition-building and political compromise. Nevertheless, both Jiang and Hu had the endorsement of Deng. The evolution of the four generations of Chinese leaders illustrates a consistent trend towards a more collective leadership, and away from “strong-man” politics.

The profound shift in the source and legitimacy of leadership becomes even more salient for the emerging fifth generation of leaders. Many of the rising stars of the new generation share similarities in terms of leadership credentials, but differ significantly with respect to socio-political backgrounds and career paths. For instance, frontrunners Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang both joined the CPC in the mid-1970s, hold Ph.D. degrees, have been on the Central Committee of the CPC for ten years, and have served as Party secretaries for two provincial level administrations. Yet, Xi was born into the family of a prominent Communist veteran leader whereas Li comes from a humble family background. Xi made giant strides in his career through urban economic administration while Li advanced his political career largely through the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL). While Xi ran some of the most advanced economic regions in the country such as Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai, Li’s provincial experiences were spent first in poor and agricultural Henan and then in rustbelt industrial-base Liaoning…

Chinese elite politics is no longer a zero-sum game. China’s collective leadership is crucial not only because it prompts concrete direction about the so-called intra-Party democracy, but also because it reveals how the governance of the most populous country in the world is changing and evolving. Given China’s long history of arbitrary decision-making by one individual leader, collective leadership represents a big step forward.

Generations of Chinese leadership
Because both the Communist Party of China and the People's Liberation Army promote according to seniority, it is possible to discern distinct generations of Chinese leadership. These groups of leadership have each promoted an extension of the ideology of the former, which in some cases influenced the direction of national development…

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