The Shadow of Deng Xiaoping on Chinese Elite Politics


After Zhao Ziyang was made acting general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 1987, key party elder Chen Yun asked Zhao why the Politburo Standing Committee never had any meetings. Zhao was in a bind – while Chen wanted more opportunities to express his opinions, preeminent leader Deng Xiaoping wanted to simply tell Zhao what to do. Zhao told Chen, “I am just a big secretary. As for a meeting, we can have one after you discuss with Comrade Xiaoping.” Chen muttered to himself, “A big secretary…”

Anecdotes like this one challenge the narrative that Deng, who became China’s top leader a few short years after Mao Zedong’s death but never formally assumed the party’s top post, was the father of collective leadership and institutionalization in elite Chinese politics. According to this viewpoint, after Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, a radical political experiment that included the persecution of huge swathes of the Chinese elite, China’s leaders, led by Deng, are said to have introduced rules to deliberately prevent such a catastrophe from ever occurring again.

For example, Alice Miller has written of “a deliberate effort engineered by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s to establish an effective collective leadership system that builds in checks and balances among the leadership oligarchy against attempts by any individual member – and especially by the party general secretary – to assert dominating power over the others.” Carl Minzner has concluded that “The searing experience of the Cultural Revolution convinced [Deng] and other leaders of the need for deep change… Unlike Mao, Deng never exercised one-man rule.” According to Susan Shirk, “Xi is trying to live the antithesis of what Deng Xiaoping recommended.”

We can now see that this is a myth. New research based on previously unavailable documents and memoirs decisively shows that in fact Deng does not deserve credit for introducing real changes that would restrict the power of top leaders. Journalists, analysts, and scholars writing about Chinese leadership struggles should take note.

This might seem like a tiny footnote to the arc of history, but there is more at stake. Deng, who enjoyed an astounding level of authority, was probably the last leader who could have brought real change to Chinese politics. The 1980s in China are often portrayed as a time of introspection and change in elite politics, but that is not the case. The decade was instead defined by “old person” politics and a failure to truly come to terms with the lessons of the Cultural Revolution.

These findings suggest that even if elite Chinese politics later became increasingly shaped by traditions and principles in a relative sense, policymakers have reason to doubt the robustness of those rules a hypothesis supported by recent news from Beijing about current Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Without unambiguously legitimate rules guaranteeing both collective leadership and a stable succession, Xi may feel he has little to lose and much to gain by concentrating personal power in his hands.

The Evidence

Certainly, Deng never concentrated everyday decision-making in his own hands, and he did bring more institutionalization to the promotion of cadres. He never formally led the party or the government, and he even gave up his Politburo Standing Committee membership in 1987 and chairmanship of the Central Military Commission in 1989. But on the key issue of the power of the top leader, evidence for Deng’s own lack of respect for rules is ubiquitous in the historical record.

New evidence shows Mao Zedong’s initial successor, a man named Hua Guofeng, actually did embody a spirit of consensus and collective leadership. Marshal Ye Jianying described Hua as “modest, careful, sincere, he has a democratic style.” He was a figure fundamentally different in personality from Deng. In the words of the great China watcher Michel Oksenberg, while Hua was the “reconciler” Deng was the “asskicker.” Mao called Deng a steel factory, and Marshal Ye described Deng as a man that monopolized power and did not listen to the opinions of other people. According to party elder Li Rui, “Deng Xiaoping was half a Mao Zedong.”

Warren Sun and Frederick Teiwes show that no real policy differences between Hua from Deng on economic reform. However, Deng used mean-spirited political machinations and false charges to climb to the predominant position within the party. For example, Deng accused Hua of blocking old cadres from returning to work and maintaining a dogmatic political ideology – two charges that have now proven to be false.

Scholars who believe Deng took rules and norm-based governing seriously often point to a famous speech he gave to the Politburo in August 1980. Then, Deng said, “It is not good to have an over-concentration of power” and called for a solution to “the problem of succession in leadership.” According to Miller, Deng’s desire to channel competition “within institutional constraints” was explicit in this speech, which she calls “a text that bears continual re-study and so merits placement on analysts’ bedside tables.”

Yet taking Deng at his word fails to appreciate the political context. At the time, Deng was seeking to complete Hua’s political defeat and needed to provide a theoretical justification. The notorious leftist politician Deng Liqun wrote that “this speech by Comrade Xiaoping in actuality was directed against Hua Guofeng, it was preparation for Hua to leave his position, to find a theoretical justification.” When a friend of Zhao Ziyang pointed out that this speech was a reason many people believed that Deng supported real inner-party democracy and institutionalization, Zhao, then under house arrest, discounted this analysis: “At this time Deng was primarily addressing Hua Guofeng, he was struggling against Hua Guofeng.” In October 1980, a decision was made to no longer distribute Deng’s August speech because of the political instability in Poland caused by strikes and the formation of Solidarity.

The defeat of Hua Guofeng was not only a transition in authority. This historical moment also represented the closing of a different path for Chinese politics – one of collective leadership. Unlike Deng, individuals like Hua and Ye did learn the lessons of the Cultural Revolution and tried to honestly make collective leadership work.

Hua later told a group preparing his official biography:

After the destruction of the “Gang of Four” and when I was Chairman, collective leadership was very strongly emphasized, democratic centralism. It was not one or two people who could make decisions, collective leadership was needed. If collective leadership was good, matters would be dealt with well. The party center all lived at Yuquanshan together, stabilizing measures were all discussed collectively. All of my speeches were discussed by the Politburo collectively.

In fact, Hua was so democratic that he refused to fight for his position because he was afraid it would hurt the party:

If the party had another internal struggle, the regular people would suffer. I stubbornly resigned from all positions. I told Marshal Ye before I did it. Some said that I was a fool. Some said that I was too honest. I do not regret it.

Almost two years before Deng’s August 1980 speech, Hua had already spoken of the importance of collective leadership, both at the famous Third Plenum of the 11th Party Congress and preceding work conference in 1978. Deng’s only reference to collective leadership at those proceedings was negative: “Lenin said: using collective leadership as an excuse to avoid responsibility is the most dangerous disaster.” In Deng’s mind, the party could only have one “mother-in-law” – himself.

Deng also rejected attempts by Hu Yaobang, Hua’s replacement as general secretary of the party, to create a true system of collective leadership. Hu had wanted to create a “chairman system [主席团]” in which every individual was considered equal, had a single vote, and each would take turns running meetings.

In 1987, Deng removed Hu in a way that offended many party leaders, including Xi Jinping’s own father. The process was so obviously against party rules that when Jiang Zemin replaced Zhao Ziyang as leader in 1989, he refused to be installed in a similar process.

The protests in the spring of 1989 centered on Tiananmen Square ended with force, despite the personal opposition of a majority of the PSC, military leadership, the Chinese state legislature, and even many key revolutionary elders. In 1992, Deng flaunted his relationship with the military and threatened to remove the newly elected party secretary, Jiang Zemin, even though at the time Deng held no formal high-ranking position in the party or state.

Some scholars have argued that Deng’s power was limited because he had to compete with other formidable revolutionary figures like Chen Yun. Chinese historian Yang Jisheng, for example, describes Chinese politics in the 1980s as consisting of “twin peaks.”

However, the evidence suggests that Deng clearly dominated. Chen’s health was so bad that, after cancer surgery in 1979, he refused to plan his life any more than two years ahead. Through the early 1980s, Deng and Chen had no major differences on policy. But after reform deepened and their differences grew more important, Chen was unable to block Deng’s plans to expand the number of special economic zones, introduce price reforms in 1988, or prevent the reform process from starting again in 1992. Deng often refused to hold meetings to avoid giving Chen an occasion to argue with him. Shortly before the violent end to the Tiananmen protests in 1989, Chen even referred to Deng as the “boss” with a Chinese word that has mafia connotations (头子). This expression was so problematic that in official versions of the speech it was changed to “core.”

Deng’s behavior is especially important given the lively discussions during the 1980s at the elite level in China about how political reform within the party really could be achieved.

Before he was removed from the leadership because of his opposition to a violent solution to the Tiananmen Square protests, former party secretary Zhao had already complained: “Many of our rules and regulations are only principles, I’m afraid that it is necessary to create specific guidelines.” He concluded that “now we always over-emphasize a ‘core,’” and that it would be necessary to more clearly delineate the relationship among various decision-making bodies.

But Deng rejected the formalization of party rules, suggesting that it was too reminiscent of a “separation of powers” and would hurt the party’s advantage of centralized leadership. For Deng, collective leadership left a potential for disagreements to split the party and imperil the drive for modernization. Instead, Deng argued that “any leadership collective must have a core, without a core the leadership is unreliable… In actuality I was the core of the second generation.”

Serious discussions of real change ended after Tiananmen Square. Zhao Ziyang, the former general secretary of the party, believed that after Deng no one would have the power to accomplish real reforms of the party. Instead of using his special authority as a revolutionary elder and military leader to lay the foundations for truly collective leadership, Deng had instead continued to emphasize the importance of a single leader unchecked by “inner-party democracy.”

Recent news from Beijing supports the argument that norms shaping collective leadership and succession are weak. At the sixth plenum of the 18th Party Congress in October, Xi Jinping was elevated to the status of “core” leader – a title never given to his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Before the plenum, major Western news outlets were already reporting that next year Xi will change the age-ceiling for membership of the Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee  and refuse to name a successor. In October, one party official described as “folklore” the supposed rule that 68-year-olds must retire from the Politburo Standing Committee, thus raising the possibility that Xi ally Wang Qishan will remain on that body despite his age.

Ambiguous rules make judgments about the future difficult. The “institutionalist” school of Chinese politics may still be right. We may not see a drastic change in leadership norms in 2017. But if that proves to be the case, Deng does not deserve the credit. In the meantime, we can see his influence in what has happened already – the naming of Xi as “core” is not a rejection of Deng’s legacy but a return to it.

Doubts about the future are already a factor of instability. Zhao’s words from before his removal may therefore prove prophetic: “With the current system, when there is no crisis it is very good. But this system cannot guarantee there will be no crisis. Chinese people are disputatious behind the scenes but face to face they are polite. Therefore, Chinese politics is never predictable.”


Joseph Torigian is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He is researching the politics of China, Russia, and North Korea with a specific focus on power struggles.