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 Cultural Revolution with the defense minister, Lin Biao, he destroyed the two fronts system and substituted what may be called a “best pupil” model. Lin’s selection as No. 2, confirmed by a constitutional provision at the Party’s Ninth Congress in 1969, was justified by his having been Mao’s devoted follower for almost forty years. Consequently, Mao’s disillusion with both person and process must have been all the greater when little more than two years later Lin Biao died in a plane crash, allegedly defecting to the Soviet Union after his plot to kill Mao had been uncovered.

Mao’s subsequent efforts to manage the succession were even less successful. Wang Hongwen, who briefly became heir apparent at the Party’s Tenth Congress in 1973, was a handsome symbol for two important constituencies, young people and industrial workers; but he was out of his depth and proved to be little more than a front man for the Gang of Four. Mao soon abandoned him for the mediocre but more acceptable Hua Guofeng, a provincial Party official who had managed to survive and profit from the Cultural Revolution; he became a member of the Politburo in 1973.

Three years later, after the death of Mao and the purge of the Gang of Four, Hua seemed impregnable. He combined Mao’s positions of chairman of the Party and its powerful Military Affairs Committee with Zhou Enlai’s office of premier; he was confirmed in these offices at the Party’s Eleventh Congress in 1977 and the National People’s Congress in 1978. Yet by December 1978, Deng Xiaoping had seized control of the leadership; and by the Party’s Twelfth Congress in 1982, Hua had lost all his posts and was relegated to mere membership in the Central Committee.

The fates of Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao proved that not even anointed successors had sufficient independence to resist Mao if he turned against them, just as no Soviet Communists were able to defy Stalin. In the same way, neither Stalin nor Mao could sustain chosen successors from beyond the grave. But the fate of Hua Guofeng indicates something even more important about the nature of power in China. Being appointed to the top position may create a convincing impression of power, but it cannot confer legitimacy. What matters is the authority derived from the record of a lifetime and personal connections.


Before the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping had been as close to Mao, and for as long, as Lin Biao. While never a field commander like Lin, Deng was political commissar of one of the five great field armies that conquered China for the Communists and was equally entitled to a marshal’s baton (though he declined it). He maintained his links to the military after 1949 as the only civilian besides Mao on the Party’s Military Affairs Committee. As general secretary of the Party from the mid-1950s, Deng developed ties with practically all the important Communist leaders. He was disgraced for being insufficiently Maoist at the outset of the Cultural Revolution, but he had to be brought back by Mao in the mid-1970s because he was the only immediately credible substitute for the dying Zhou Enlai. Mao ousted him again in 1976 in favor of Hua Guofeng, but the Chairman’s last major political act was a failure. The panoply of power Mao tried to confer on Hua did not give him the stature to retain its substance.

The ease with which Deng dispatched Hua Guofeng to a minor position illustrates why it has proved more difficult to pass on power than to seize it. No one in the generation following Deng’s has stature or connections comparable to his. Mao at least was surrounded by equally long-serving leaders of the Revolution. The only ones left in Beijing today are other octogenarians. Deng has been acutely aware of this problem since he returned to full power in December 1978. He deliberately avoided taking any top post that might give him a Maoist aura of supremacy and indispensability. He selected two potential successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, and placed Hu in charge of the Party and Zhao in charge of the government. As the years went by, he continually put it about that he participated in only one or two important decisions a year.

Deng’s formula as it finally emerged at the Thirteenth Congress last fall is a variation of Mao’s two fronts system, which might be called a “relay model.” A relay runner, when handing over the baton, continues running for a spell alongside his successor as he gathers speed, partly out of inertia, but more importantly to ensure that the baton has been firmly grasped and to give final encouragement for the next lap. Deng handed over the baton by withdrawing from the Politburo; but he kept running by retaining the chairmanship of the Military Affairs Committee.

In a relay, the runner who is handing over the baton is not allowed to seize it again if his successor stumbles. But Deng runs by his own rules. A year ago he apparently decided that Hu Yaobang was faltering, citing the student demonstrations as decisive proof. Having carefully provided himself with two successors, he simply dropped one. But the newly confirmed party general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, may suffer too if Deng disobeys the other rule of the relay and keeps holding on to the baton beyond a certain point. Zhao has to be allowed to run his own lap unaided.

Deng’s relay model faces up to one problem that the Russians have so far ducked: the importance of keeping the timing of succession separate from the moment of mortality. This ameliorates the atmosphere of crisis even if it does not dispel it. With luck, Zhao will be able to make his way alone; Deng obliged his octogenarian contemporaries to retire from the Politburo with him. On this next lap, Zhao’s rivals are of his own generation, men in their sixties and seventies who rose to prominence after the Revolution. But the enormous difficulties that troubled the choice of those colleagues as his fellow leaders illustrate the problems ahead.

Throughout last summer and early fall, right up to the last moment before the Thirteenth Congress in October, Deng and his more conservative comrades-in-arms were bargaining over the membership of the Party’s Politburo and its ruling Standing Committee. Zhao’s promotion from acting to general secretary was probably never in doubt, but the political inclinations of his future colleagues on the Standing Committee were. In the event, the balance is marginally less favorable to the Dengist reformers than before: there are two rather than three committed reformers out of five, with one swing vote.


But a strange thing happened at the Congress. A new democratic element was introduced into the election procedures. When voting for the Central Committee, delegates were allowed to pick from a slate of candidates 5 percent larger than the number needed. They chose not to reelect Zhao Ziyang’s key conservative rival, Deng Liqun—no relation to Deng Xiaoping—who is disliked for opposing greater ideological flexibility and for leading witch hunts against “liberal” intellectuals. This setback made Deng Liqun ineligible for the Politburo, even though Deng Xiaoping, during the pre-Congress wrangling, had agreed with his colleagues that Deng Liqun would be elevated to it.

Possibly anticipating just such a contretemps, the Congress Presidium, controlled by the elderly men of the Politburo, had carefully retained the right to approve and if necessary change the winning slate. The gerontocrats wanted to keep to their deal and seat Deng Liqun; their successors argued that the much-touted party democratization would be discredited if it were to fall at this first test. After some reflection, Deng Xiaoping declared that it would be wrong to upset the popular will.

Deng’s verdict may well have been delivered for the wrong reasons: he cannot have been unhappy that so prominent a critic had been laid low. Nevertheless, the result has far-reaching implications, for it was a victory for the electoral process over personal influence, and for the ballot box over a backroom deal. What is unclear is whether reformers understand that the democratic process does not always result in the triumph of virtue, and whether they still accept that it should prevail. Would they be prepared to tolerate the victory of a conservative if the reform program runs into trouble?

This is not an abstract issue of political science. With inflation possibly double the admitted 8–10 percent, and perhaps 25 percent of state enterprises losing money, the urban reform program started by Deng faces grave problems. If the economy falters, Zhao Ziyang’s more conservative successor as premier, Li Peng, may seek and obtain support for stronger government intervention and a diminished role for the market. Under such circumstances, the party’s Fourteenth Congress might be voting out reformers, not conservatives.

Deng Xiaoping has chosen to pass the baton to a spiritual heir, much as Mao had hoped to do. The next logical step would be to make the relay model a standard feature of Chinese politics. Deng has attempted to introduce a regular retirement system. Until now there has always been an exception for the exceptional leader, such as Deng himself: insofar as Deng’s successors are not seen as indispensable, that problem may fade.

But installing a new system would not deal with the proven inability of Communist leaders to choose successors with strong chances of survival. For that the Chinese need to allow the Party Congress, or at least the Central Committee, to elect rather than mechanically approve a nominee. This would give a general secretary an authority among colleagues in some ways comparable to that of a Western party leader. But it would be the end of democratic centralism, and Deng would never accept it. Will Zhao feel the need or have the nerve to do so? He is said to be a man who concentrates mainly on technocratic and managerial “fixes” by shifting officials and changing bureaucratic arrangements. Increasing Party democracy is a means for him, not an end. Could he be persuaded that a collegial mandate is valuable when bureaucratic solutions don’t work out?

All Chinese leaders know that changes in the system are needed if the Communist party is to be insulated from succession crises of the sort it has experienced seven times during the past twenty years. But can the succession process be made more democratic without bringing wider democracy to the Party generally? And can the Party be democratized without ceding democratic rights to the population at large? Zhao and his colleagues do not want to have to deal with disturbances like those in South Korea these past few months. It would be for them reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. But there is a lesson for China in the experiences of South Korea and Taiwan: as East Asian dictatorships develop economically, irresistible pressures for more democracy will arise. The problem for Zhao’s generation of leaders is to achieve East Asian growth rates while keeping such pressures under control and their own power intact.

This Issue

February 18, 1988