This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and major celebrations are planned. But, as the lifting of term limits for the 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. It’s worth noting that the only countries in modern times to adopt the feudal practice of mummifying leaders were Communist ones. Those leaders included Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il and, of course, Mao.
After Mao’s death, China’s new strongman 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.
Mr. 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 systemic reform 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, Mr. Deng quoted Mao as having criticized Stalin for not solving the Soviet succession problem. But then, Mr. Deng said, Mao himself did not solve the succession problem in China. People will ask, Mr. Deng said, why the socialist system cannot solve problems that the capitalist system has solved in countries like Britain, France and the United States.
Mr. 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 Mr. Jiang’s successor. For 20 years, it seemed, Mr. Deng had resolved the succession problem. Mr. Jiang and Mr. 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 Mr. 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 subsequent military crackdown, which was opposed by then-party-leader Zhao Ziyang, Mr. Deng evidently decided to live with a less-than-perfect system. After getting rid of Mr. Zhao, Mr. Deng decided on Mr. Jiang as his successor and Mr. Hu as the successor’s successor. Other party leaders acquiesced.
Mr. Deng at one time argued against the concentration of too much power in one man, but he accepted Mr. 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 Mr. Xi didn’t act according to the script. Instead, last year he lifted the presidential term limit put in the constitution by Mr. 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 Mr. Deng said, turmoil in China will have a serious impact on other countries. “If the political situation in China became unstable,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Deng warned back in 1980 that China may abandon socialism entirely if it is shown to be less progressive than capitalism.