Passing the Baton in Beijing

Zhao Ziyang
Zhao Ziyang; drawing by David Levine

Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment of succession is the midnight of the state; in Taiwan, the midnight hour has just struck. Where a change of leaders is accompanied by a change of system, as in South Korea, violence may pose a threat to otherwise hopeful prospects of continued economic advance.

Small wonder that some countries, such as India and Taiwan, have had recourse to the old dynastic solution based respectively on the families of Nehru, and, until recently, Chiang Kaishek, and that others—North Korea, perhaps even Singapore—show interest in it. The dilemma for China is that both the dynastic solution and change to a more democratic system are unacceptable to its leaders.

China entered the new year with a leadership that had been recently installed with much domestic and foreign fanfare. Deng Xiaoping and his aging colleagues have stepped aside and a younger group led by Zhao Ziyang has taken over. But Zhao’s staying power remains to be tested. Despite four thousand years of expertise in statecraft, the Chinese have had at least as much difficulty with succession as any other country in Asia.

The Chinese Communist leaders set out to deal with the problem by naming a No. 2 man to Mao Zedong even before they seized power: the late Liu Shaoqi emerged as Mao’s successor as early as the Party’s Seventh Congress in 1945. But the post-Stalin struggle for power in the Soviet Union, in which Khrushchev ousted the successor blessed by the late dictator, showed that choosing an heir was not enough. Mao concluded that it was necessary to give potential successors a chance to prove themselves and gain general acceptance. He devised a succession formula which he called the “two fronts.”

According to this scheme, the supreme leader retreated to the second “front,” leaving his senior colleagues to govern the country and establish their authority. Mao seems to have been sincerely committed to this process. At the Party’s Eighth Congress in 1956, a constitutional amendment was introduced that would have enabled him eventually to retire to an honorary chairmanship. In January 1958, he told his colleagues that he would no longer serve as head of state, and he indeed handed the post over to Liu Shaoqi at the next constitutionally appropriate moment in April 1959. In the early 1960s, Mao usually absented himself from meetings of the ruling Politburo Standing Committee, leaving Liu, Premier Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and others in charge.

The trouble was that Mao considered the person of his successor more important than the process he had devised to produce him. When he became disenchanted with Liu Shaoqi as insufficiently revolutionary, and replaced him at the outset of the…

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