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Overlapping Transitions in China's Leadership

From: SAIS Review
Volume 16, Number 2, Summer-Fall 1996
pp. 21-42 | 10.1353/sais.1996.0038

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SAIS Review 16.2 (1996) 21-42

One reason frequently adduced to explain Beijing's show of force in the recent Taiwan Straits crisis is that the Chinese leadership is in transition. As Deng Xiaoping fades from the scene, according to this view, the leader in place to succeed him -- Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin -- is weak, enjoying a stature only marginally higher than his colleagues in the Party's front-line leadership and managing only a tentative command over the Party agenda. The author of a failed accommodating approach toward Taipei, Jiang was put on the defensive against hard-line Politburo colleagues and against assertive military leaders who will play king-making roles once Deng dies. In this treacherous political setting, Jiang was forced to adopt an ultranationalistic stance toward Taipei and Washington, and to authorize provocative military exercises as Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections approached. In short, the politics of leadership transition in Beijing explain the otherwise unaccountably rash and threatening posture of the People's Republic of China (PRC) toward Taiwan and the United States.

As inviting as this line of argument may be, it does not fit well with the picture that emerges from a closer analysis of China's leadership politics. China is indeed in the midst of a transition to a post-Deng Xiaoping leadership. But so far, the politics of this transition have been unusually well managed. Jiang Zemin does not appear weak or vacillating, nor does the top leadership seem severely divided. To the contrary, Jiang increasingly appears to have consolidated his position and worked out consensual relationships with the rest of the front-line Party leadership. The leadership especially appears united around the daunting list of domestic policy priorities it faces. Although there are suggestions of leadership differences over the assessment of American policy toward China, there is little evidence of conflict over Taiwan policy.

Beijing's posture in the recent Taiwan Straits crisis therefore cannot easily be explained by the commonly postulated uncertainties of leadership transition in China. Quite the opposite: Beijing's actions, however we may choose to characterize them, reflect consensus among a leadership that is increasingly confident of its ability to weather the uncertainties of Deng Xiaoping's passing. American policies toward China and Taiwan that do not take this reality into account risk serious miscalculation.

Overlapping Transitions

The present Chinese leadership is the product of several concurrent transitions. The first transition is generational. The leaders now at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and PRC state hierarchies rose to these positions as the result of a deliberate effort by Deng Xiaoping to retire the veteran leaders who dominated Party politics in the 1970s and 80s in favor of younger leaders who would continue the policies of reform that he began. This rejuvenation effort began at the Twelfth CPC Congress in 1982, where Deng instituted the Central Advisory Commission, a Central Committee-level body into which veteran leaders could retire, retaining a voice in Party politics without responsibility for the Party's day-to-day affairs. Significant retirements began in 1985 at a major Party conference, with most of the remaining Party elders withdrawing at the CPC's Thirteenth Congress in 1987. In 1990, Deng Xiaoping himself relinquished his last official post, as state Military Commission chairman. The CPC's Fourteenth Congress in 1992 consolidated the present Party leadership and abolished the Central Advisory Commission, removing the last official platform for veteran intervention in political processes.

The Party leadership that emerged from this carefully-managed transition is composed, mainly of men in their 50s and 60s -- men 20-25 years younger than the veteran leaders they replaced. By experience, they are the PRC's first post-revolutionary generation of leaders. The older members of this group, including Jiang Zemin, joined the CPC during the late 1940's civil war against the Nationalist regime. The rest had no direct experience in the revolution itself, as they joined the Party after the founding of the PRC. There is no reason to doubt the commitment of these leaders to the Party. The roots of their commitment, however, differ from those of the leaders who dominated Chinese politics...