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. …