Paramount Leadership in China

Paramount Leaders in ChinaThis year marks the 65th anniversary of the Communist Revolution in China. While the revolution abolished much of the previous 2,000 years of the imperial Chinese system of government, it didn’t completely abolish the notion of rule by a single paramount leader. We may not call him the emperor but he stands above all others in governing Communist China. 

Eras of leadership in the People’s Republic are still distinguished by the names of the most powerful men of their respective times: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping. Each “emperor” had around them a cohort of apparatchik mandarins who filled the important offices of state. Together they constitute “generations” of leadership.
 
 
What differentiates the generations of Chinese leadership is the issue of age (obviously). Each older generation makes way to the younger one as time passes and they either die or handover power. Generations are referred to by number (First – Fifth) but can also be referred to by significant periods of China’s post-1949 history (Long March, Anti-Japanese War, Socialist Transformation, Cultural Revolution, and Sent-down Youths).[1]
 
First Generation – Mao Zedong
The First Generation of Chinese leadership was led by Chairman Mao Zedong, the infamous Great Helmsman of the People’s Republic who led both the Communist Party to victory against the forces of the Kuomintang in 1949 and later was deified as a god by the Chinese people. Mao seemed to represent a new type of Chinese leader, one who was charismatic, strong, popular, and the people rallied around him like the new Americans did with George Washington; he was the great father of the nation and still considered such.[2]
 
Other important figures of this generation include the great Mandarin Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai, his mentor Liu Shaoqi, later purged by Mao for trying to blame the Great Famine – which may have resulted in the death of over 45 million people – on Mao’s ideological and unscientific methods of agricultural productivity. This generation, hardened by decades of guerrilla warfare, exile and isolation, continued their struggle for power and ideological purity into the way of governing. Many of the major policy reforms of this period like the Great Leap Forward, One Hundred Flowers Campaign, and agriculture reform were or remain fatal failures.[3]
 
However the summer of 1976 brought will it a terrible earthquake in Tangshan, north of Beijing killing over 240,000 people. Add to this in the same year the death of Mao Zedong, Zhu De[4] and Zhou Enlai, and Red China was arguably ruined as a nation, as an economy and as a major power in the world. Feudal superstitions of the loss of the “mandate of heaven” by the Communist Party were whispering around the country.[5] It was left to the next generation to lead a recovery and indirectly challenge the truths of the past; to save themselves, and the future of the world’s largest nation. 
 
Second Generation – Deng Xiaoping
The Second Generation of Chinese leadership was initially involved in a two year power struggle between the remnants of the First, led now by Mao’s widow Jiang Qing, and the protégé of Zhou Enlai, the little man from Sichuan: Deng Xiaoping. Using all the skills of political manoeuvring and persuasion he had learned as a young apparatchik in the Mao regime, Deng was able to form alliances with the key interest groups of post-Mao China and unite them against Madame Mao who would then be put on trial as part of “the Gang of Four” after a military coup d'etat staged by Deng’s allies in the People’s Liberation Army.
 
By 1978 Deng was now the undisputed paramount leader of the new generation and set about reversing the decline of China by adopting a more open diplomacy with the world and a more open economy that would bring glorious riches to the Middle Kingdom. He was paramount leader despite the fact that he held no former position of power above the level of Vice-Premier of the State Council; his authority came from his gravitas.
 
The Second Generation was less ideological than the First in terms of explicit Marxist thought but was no less committed to the idea of the Leninist state to control the people of China. The crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 saw the end of the progression of Western style liberalism in the People’s Republic of China when Deng decided to back the conservative elements in the Party over his own General Secretary (the new name for the Chairman of the Party) Zhao Ziyang.
 
By the early 1990s, age was catching up with Deng and the first peaceful transition to power of a new generation began with the rise of former Shanghai mayor Jiang Zemin who had put down the Shanghai protests of 1989 with little violence. Jiang still had to fight factional battles with his rival Li Peng now Premier who had pushed for the Tiananmen crackdown to uphold the supremacy of CCP rule in China.
 
Third Generation – Jiang Zemin
The Third Generation leadership of China was characterised by the consolidation of the regime of the conservative elements of the party who were now in the 70s and 80s. It took Deng Xiaoping again to pick the right moment to reinvigorate the reforms of the 1980s. He made his famous “Southern tour” of China’s industrial cities in the South-east where he praised the development of the Special Economic Zones, frothing with foreign capital, booming manufacturing plants, and a new wealthier working class.
 
What was to be feared was not that China was on the slow road to bourgeois capitalism but that a cautious economic policy would lead to stagnation and a return to the despair of the late 1970s when Deng had sort to treat the economy Mao had left in tatters.[6]  Deng was misattributed as declaring “致富光荣” (…to get rich is glorious). But this was the signal the Third Generation needed to restart the economic reforms, in order to avoid a factional fight with the conservatives, political reform was abandoned; dictatorship of the proletariat would continue, for now, but the definition of proletariat would expand to include the rising entrepreneur class. 
 
Deng’s death in 1997 and the return of Hong Kong and Macao to the People’s Republic, cemented Jiang Zemin as the paramount leader of the Third Generation. Jiang expanded the economic reforms through marketization of the state-owned enterprises, dismantling the so called “iron rice bowl of full urban employment” and codification of laws to encourage foreign investment from the West.[7] By 2003 it was time to once again give way to the younger cadres in the Party and a second peaceful transition of power occurred with the rise of a new political class of engineers, the Fourth Generation.
 
Fourth Generation – Hu Jintao
The Fourth Generation of leadership was led by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Hu Jintao. Hu also served as governor of several poor provinces in the west of China including Tibet where he put down an uprising there. Hu was from one of two political factions within the Communist Party that had developed with Deng Xiaoping’s tacit approval of twenty years.
 
Hu was leader of the Tuánpài (团派) faction that grew out of the party members who were in the Communist Youth League. This faction is considered the more traditionally left wing of the two factions and as a result large scale privatizations of state-owned enterprises were halted and big social policies like health insurance for rural people was introduced.
 
The Fourth generation were present during some of China’s most important moments in recent history including the SARS outbreak, the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and China’s rise in the world economy with an average of 10 per cent GDP growth during this period.
 
Hu was supported by Premier Wen Jiabao the token “liberal” left after most were purged after Tian’anmen square in 1989 (in fact Wen is standing in the background of a photo behind Zhao Ziyang as he gave his famous plea to the students to end their hunger strike). Wen was popular and charismatic and had a propensity to cry in public, often. Other members of this generation were holdovers from the Third generation and many were powerful allies of Jiang Zemin the former president and paramount leader. These people were from a part of the rival faction known as the Shanghai clique and are thought to have blocked Hu Jintao on some initiatives.
 
The transition from Fourth generation to Fifth generation in 2012 was the first transition of generational power in China that did not have the blessing of Deng Xiaoping who had approved both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao when he was alive. The candidates settled upon by the party were Xi Jinping to succeed Hu Jintao as paramount leader and Li Keqiang to succeed Wen Jiabao as premier. 
 
Fifth Generation – Xi Jinping
Currently the People’s Republic of China is led by Xi Jinping the paramount leader of the Fifth generation. Major reforms of the way leadership is conducted in China happened in 2012 when Xi, a member of the Tuánpài’s rival faction, the Princelings, was chosen to succeed Hu Jintao. The Princelings are Communist Party members who are the descendants of former leaders; Xi Jinping is the son of Xi Zhongxun the man who as governor of Guangdong province in the late seventies effectively invented Shenzhen. The Princelings are also considered more right wing or more pro-market than the Tuánpài. The standing committee of the politburo, China’s cabinet, was also reduced in size from nine members to seven.
 
The Tuánpài’s consolation prize would be the Premiership. Li Keqiang is a protégé of Hu Jintao and is in charge of the state bureaucracy and running the economy. Many scholars who study Chinese political leadership made predictions that the Fifth generation were likely to be more open than previous ones. Already after just over a year in power those predictions have been proved false. Purges of rivals in government under the guise of “corruption”, more restrictions on civil liberties and information, economic nationalism, a revival of territorial claims, and Japan bashing mean that the next decade will be a very interesting time to follow the leaders of the soon to be largest economy on earth. 

[1] Zang, X. (1991). Provincial Elite in Post-Mao China. Asian Survey, Vol. 31, No. 6 (Jun., 1991), pp. 564.
[2] Myers, J. T. (1989). Whatever Happened to Chairman Mao? Myth and Charisma in the Chinese Revolution. Falkenheim, V. C. & Kim, I. J. (Edts.) Chinese Politics from Mao to Deng. New York City, NY, USA: Paragon House, pp. 17.
[3] Falkenheim, V. C. (1989). Chinese Politics in Transition. Falkenheim, V. C. & Kim, I. J. (Edts.) Chinese Politics from Mao to Deng. New York City, NY, USA: Paragon House, pp. 5.
[4] Zhu De founded the People’s Liberation Army.
[5] Meisner, M. (1996). The Deng Xiaoping Era – An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism. New York City, NY, USA: Hill and Wang, pp. 61-2.
[6] Meisner, M. (1996). The Deng Xiaoping Era – An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism. New York City, NY, USA: Hill and Wang, pp. 478-9.
[7]  Baum, R. (2000). Jiang Takes Command: The Fifteenth National Party Congress and Beyond. Tien, H. & Chu, Y. (Edts.) China Under Jiang Zemin. Boulder, CO, USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, pp. 18-22.
 

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