China owes it to the world to solve its succession problem

April 16, 2019 09:00
Xi Jinping last year lifted the presidential term limit put in the constitution by Deng Xiaoping, and has also sought to undo some other Dengist political reforms. Photo: Reuters

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and Beijing will have much reason to celebrate. But, as the lifting of term limits for president last year underlines, China still hasn’t resolved a problem that isn’t an issue in most capitalist countries: that of political succession.

Mao Zedong, the country’s first leader, served until his death in 1976. Mao’s rule was turbulent, and succession became an increasingly important issue as time went on. He named, and discarded, one successor after another.

Mao kept the country in turmoil with endless political campaigns, which had dire consequences. The Great Leap Forward led to the starvation of tens of millions. By the time of Mao’s death, China was one of the world’s poorest countries.

But decades of disaster should not be blamed on Mao alone. Mao and his comrades had embraced Marxism-Leninism, which preached the “scientific” virtues of socialism. In this connection, it is worth noting that the only countries in modern times to adopt the feudal practice of "mummifying" leaders were Communist ones, with the honors going to figures such as Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il in North Korea and, of course, Mao in China.

After Mao’s death, China’s new strong man was the reformer Deng Xiaoping, who focused on economic development. Forty years later, China is the world’s second largest economy and a leading player on the world stage.

Deng, in his wisdom, noted that China’s problem lay not with Mao but with the system. In a speech in 1980, at age 75, he called for reform of the system of party and state leadership. “We must,” he said, “solve the problem of the succession in leadership.” Lifetime tenure of leaders, he said, is linked to feudal influences.

Ironically, Deng quoted Mao as having criticized Stalin for not solving the Soviet succession problem. But then, Deng said, Mao himself did not solve the succession problem in China. People will ask, Deng said, why the socialist system cannot solve problems that the capitalist system has solved, in countries like Britain, France and the United States.

Deng was only partly successful in solving China’s succession problem. He got rid of his first two chosen successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, because they didn’t crack down on student protesters.

He then anointed Jiang Zemin as his successor and picked Hu Jintao as Jiang’s successor. For 20 years, it seemed, Deng had resolved the succession problem. Jiang and Hu served out their designated terms and stepped down.

It looked like the institutionalization of a succession mechanism, with the power-holder in effect designating his own successor after one five-year term, and stepping down after a second. Clearly, that wasn’t Deng’s preferred system since he told the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci that “for a leader to pick his own successor is a feudal practice.”

But after the massive Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the military crackdown, which was opposed by then party leader Zhao Ziyang, Deng evidently decided to live with a less than perfect system.

After getting rid of Zhao, Deng decided on Jiang as his successor and Hu as the successor’s successor. Other party leaders acquiesced.

Deng at one time argued against the concentration of too much power in one man, but he accepted Jiang wearing three hats at the same time: party leader, military chief and president. Since then, that has been true of each new leader.

When Xi Jinping became the new leader in 2012, it was generally assumed that he would follow the same pattern and unveil his own successor in 2017, who would take over in 2022. But Xi didn’t act according to the script. Instead, last year he lifted the presidential term limit put in the constitution by Deng and is undoing other Dengist political reforms.

Now, China again faces the succession problem. In fact, no autocratic society has developed a system to ensure a succession process that is peaceful and transparent, such as democratic elections.

This isn’t China’s internal affair. As Deng said, turmoil in China will have a serious impact on other countries. “If the political situation in China became unstable,” Deng said, “the trouble would spread to the rest of the world, with consequences that the world would find hard to imagine.”

Thus, every country has a stake in China’s stability. The Communist Party, specifically its leader Xi, has an obligation to establish a system for an orderly transfer of power.

If this is not done, the Communist Party may end up paying a very high price. After all, Deng warned back in 1980 that China may abandon socialism entirely if it is shown to be less progressive than capitalism.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.