Power Change in Shadow of Triumvirate

Times Staff Writer

A trio of elderly men stares out from billboards, paintings and statues, as political art across China heralds the upcoming change of leadership. The works depict the three men who, during their combined 53 years of rule over the People’s Republic, watched the comings and goings of 11 American administrations.

Intended to portray the authority of age and rightful succession, the images of Mao Tse-tung, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin are a visual bid to confer legitimacy on the hand-over of power to a new generation of leaders, expected at the Communist Party’s 16th National Congress, which begins Friday.

But the imagery also has dynastic overtones, suggesting to observers that, despite limited reforms, the transfer of power in China has not progressed far from the pre-modern days of patriarchs who enjoyed lifelong tenure and chose their own successors.

The influence of traditional political culture and the realities of how power works in China, analysts point out, make it unlikely that President Jiang Zemin, or any Chinese leader, would cede power of his own accord.


“As with imperial power, lifelong tenure has existed all along in China, especially for top leaders,” said Yu Haocheng, a visiting scholar at UCLA. “Despite the republican revolution of 1911 and the Communist revolution of 1949, up to the present day, this problem has still not been resolved.”

Transitions from one generation of leaders to the next have been periods of greatest instability for Communist states, none of which has found a reliable method for transferring power. Of the eight successors chosen during the first two generations of Chinese Communist leadership, six failed to hold on to power.

In China, generations served as natural divisions for clans in society and dynasties in government. The Chinese word for dynasty, chaodai, includes the character for generation. Confucian thought reinforced the patriarchal system by requiring obedience to emperors, fathers and husbands.

Following in this tradition, the first two Communist leaders, Mao and Deng, essentially ruled until they died. They relinquished official posts but not clout. For much of their rule, they were neither heads of state nor party; their power was too vast to be trammeled by any official rank or title. They designated and groomed heirs, only to replace them amid recurring doubts that successors would preserve their legacies.

“I, in fact, am the core of the second generation,” Deng reminded colleagues in 1989. “Because we have this core, the change of two leaders has not affected our party’s leadership,” he added, referring to his sacking of two party secretaries, both designated successors.

Successor Chosen

Deng not only picked Jiang as his heir but also selected current Vice President Hu Jintao as Jiang’s successor. The move, in effect depriving Jiang of a coveted prerogative, could create friction between the outgoing and incoming leaders and complicate the transition.

Jiang “feels a need to protect and consolidate his legacy as only he can do,” said Thomas Bartlett, a historian at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.


According to the Communist Party Charter, the National Congress elects the Central Committee, which in turn chooses the party chief. In fact, both organizations are reduced to rubber-stamping the chosen heir.

Under Deng, the party amended its charter to ban lifelong tenure for its leaders. Although the age of leaders has declined, no retirement age or term limits have been specified. A 1982 regulation stipulates that “among party and state leaders, we need to leave a few old revolutionaries who are over the age limit for retirement.”

At the 15th National Congress in 1997, party chiefs reportedly agreed that 70 should be the retirement age for members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the seven-member leadership. However, the rule remains sketchy and unwritten. Some party members say the age actually was set at 72 so that Jiang, then 71, could remain in power while ousting potential rival Qiao Shi, then 73.

One result of each generation’s clinging to power is that younger leaders cannot take control or launch major reforms while their elders remain alive. Accordingly, media here have made no mention of the fourth generation of leaders that is supposed to take power soon and continue to issue thinly veiled calls for obedience to Jiang in the name of stability and unity.


Some officials argue that the leadership is younger and better educated than past rulers and governs more by consensus. They predict that the upcoming transition will be smooth and orderly.

But to other Chinese, rule by consensus points more to Jiang’s weakness relative to his colleagues than to democratization at the top. The corruption-related downfall of several high-ranking officials with ties to leaders in Beijing further suggests that skirmishing behind the scenes continues.

“There have been changes in the country’s political culture, but these are very recent developments,” said Ma Qingyu, professor of public administration at the China National School of Administration.

In more modern countries, constitutional government “has tamed the despotic and brutal nature of power, while China, by comparison, still shows a predominantly traditional face in this respect,” Ma wrote in his recent book, “Farewell Sisyphus.” Ma cited the worship of power as an enduring feature of Chinese political culture.


Surviving Power

Analysts note that for Chinese leaders, clinging to power is not just a function of vanity or greed but also of survival. In power, officials must eliminate rivals to show their strength. In retirement, they must retain power to protect their lives, families and property against vengeful adversaries.

Wang Dongjing, professor of economics at the Central Party School, a training ground for officials, noted in a recent edition of Nanfeng Chuang magazine that in Chinese politics, “anyone who possesses real power, if he is not careful, will become the object of people’s plotting and be toppled when he least expects it.”