Since the death of Mao and the establishment of the Dengist status quo which has defined the People’s Republic of China since the 1970s, there has been a stable, predictable succession of Chinese leaders. The complexities of the Generations of Leadership were not well-known to the western public but provided a level of constitutionalism and predictability to the Chinese political system.
After the First Generation, which broadly represents the leadership of Mao and lasted from 1949 to 1976 and the Second Generation, defined by the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, which lasted from 1976 to 1992, each generation has lasted a decade. The Third Generation is remembered for its ten productive but relatively tense years presided over by Jiang Zemin, who oversaw the Tienanmen Square Massacre and remains an active political force. The Fourth lasted from 2002 to 2012 under Hu Jintao. We are currently in the 5th generation of leadership which began in 2012 and, under normal circumstances, would hand off to a 6th at the 20th Congress of the CPC in 2022. Something has shifted in Beijing however. In late 2017, at what might have been the half-way point of his Presidency, Xi Jinping bucked tradition by failing to nominate a successor and instead moved to consolidate his power. The entirety of the 2017 Party Conference was unorthodox. Xi elevated his own, truthfully rather ill defined “Xi Jinping Thought” up alongside that of Mao and Deng; these three men are the only Chinese leaders whose thoughts are named in the Constitution of the Communist Party.
Most of this is dismissed almost out of hand by less educated Western observers and politicians; China is a dictatorship one way or another and like all dictatorships there will either be a strong man who seizes power in the wake of the current leader or a designated successor to step into the fold. But China has never truly been a dictatorship in the conventional sense; not since Deng has it functioned along the same highly centralised, personality focused absolutism of Ghaddafi’s Libya, Putin’s Russia or the Kims’ rule in North Korea. Indeed the absolute power in the PRC is not the President but the Party, much as had been the case in the Soviet Union. Whilst the leader holds an exceptional level of power compared to those in the west, they rely on the support of the Party bureaucracy and apparatus if their reign is to be effective. Should the Premier lose the support of their party, as happened to Krushchev in the USSR or Mao following the Great Leap Forwards, their influence can be greatly reduced or even destroyed. This is common knowledge to some and certainly not a remotely new observation of mine but it is a fact fundamentally misunderstood by many. It is also a fact that illustrates what makes the rule of Xi Jinping so unique; he has utterly captured the party.
In the wake of his 2012 election, Xi embarked on a sweeping anti-corruption campaign which not only clamped down on those flaunting their positions for personal gain but also on those poised to threaten the President himself. Whilst not truly comparable to the Cultural Revolution or the backlash that followed, this had much the same effect; eliminating factionalism and oppositionism in the party and centralising the CPC around its present leader. Via these attacks on potential threats – many of whom genuinely were corrupt – and by tactically managing the promotion, demotion and sidelining of those around him, Xi was able to do something that none since Deng have; recreate the CPC in his own image. Whilst Maosim was extremist and hyper-agrarian and Dengism was reformist and internationally minded, Xiism has no such well defined character, but it does have the same level of absolute allegiance. Xi Jinping has ended the autonomous power and judgement of the Communist Party of China, perhaps forever.
It is not wise, however, to trust entirely in any western commenter’s analysis, least of all mine. Throughout the Cold War, “Kremlinology” was an established field of political science and Anglo-American scholars spent months pouring over each and every issue of Pravda, listening to every Soviet radio broadcast in an attempt to garner hidden insight into the inner workings of the Soviet Government. It was nonsense, and the personal conflicts of Soviet politics were too fast moving and, at times, arbitrary, for any such spurious methods to bear fruit. Modern western analysis of Chinese politics is little better. Any conclusions this article might draw would be too heavily dependent on Western Media and English-language publications to come to any accurate conclusions. Though Chinese political commentary is difficult to access and critical Chinese political commentary even more so, it must be pursued.
There is one conclusion we can draw, however. The central answer to life after Xi is to recognise that there is no life after Xi. His mark on the political system of China is indelible. The changes to the political culture of China are, arguably, as great as those achieved under Mao Zedong and certainly as significant as those of Deng Xiaoping. Most of Xi’s political reforms require discussion in longer form elsewhere but his digitisation of the state, his successful resurrection of the cult of personality and his almost unchallenged cancellation of the generational system. If Xi chooses it, of course, the generational system could always resume 5 or 10 years after it had originally been planned to. The point, however, is that it is Xi’s decision, rather than that of the CPC, that will determine the future of China.
Michael Yahuda, Political Generations in China (1979)
Wang Jun, The Three Generations of the Communist Party’s Collective Leadership and China’s Industrialization (2003)