Cheng Xiaonong: Is China on the brink of another succession battle?

July 1 of this year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and this upcoming anniversary is highly anticipated. As Chinese President Xi Jinping nears the completion of his two terms, will he continue to be re-elected? Is there a logjam in the succession of the Chinese Communist Party?

The 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will be held next year, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is about to complete his two terms of office and ten years in office. There is starting to be a lot of talk within China and overseas about Xi’s successor. Many people, for various reasons, hope that China will maintain the “ten-year rule” in accordance with the consensus reached at the top under the collective leadership. In fact, the leadership model of the Communist regime has a “pendulum rule” that swings between collective leadership and individual dictatorship, and this “pendulum” in China has swung to individual dictatorship model several years ago. The rule of “ten years to change” has in fact been abolished.

Succession dilemma in communist countries

Succession dilemmas occur from time to time in communist countries. Mao Zedong had this dilemma, and so did Stalin. In totalitarian communist states, the succession process is often the trigger point for years of grudge fighting at the top, a fatal weakness of the Soviet model. The first of these is the fact that Mao Zedong chose his successor as a last resort in view of the current situation, in order to balance the forces of various factions and to try not to have a political flip-flop after his death, but he did not know before he died, what would be the situation behind him. The result was a political reversal immediately after his death, as Mao Zedong lost to his chosen successor, Hua Guofeng; and Hua Guofeng lost to a group of Chinese Communist Party patriarchs who opposed the Cultural Revolution.

After the death of an autocratic dictator in a communist country, the handover and succession of supreme power is often accompanied by a bloodbath. In addition, the death of an autocratic dictator in a communist country is often followed by criticism from his former subordinates, and the general policy of the country is often changed as a result. After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev, who took over as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, received the support of the Politburo and launched a critique of Stalin’s brutality and cult of the individual in the Soviet Union; after Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun similarly launched a critique of Mao’s policies and rejected Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” line.

The inevitable succession crisis of the Soviet model is due to the fact that the basic feature of this system is to serve the personal dictatorship of the leader; and the dictatorship of the leader is often the very meaning of this system. The totalitarian state has two main means of control, one is the political surveillance of the whole society under the command of the secret police, and the other is the mechanism of universal brainwashing under the command of the party propaganda machine. The political surveillance of society as a whole is top-down, and even those in high positions in the Party are still monitored at all times, both in Stalin’s time and in Mao’s time. The entire political surveillance apparatus was controlled by the supreme ruler personally, and if he failed to do so, he would be killed by his colleagues; whoever completely controlled the political surveillance network became the real supreme ruler. On the other hand, in order to achieve effective brainwashing of the whole population, the easiest way is to promote personal worship of the leader, because once the people accept and get used to the personal worship of the supreme leader, their minds will be “aligned” with the “main theme” of the propaganda machine. It is then very easy for the authorities to control their thoughts.

Since an autocratic dictator can never give up his political control over the whole party and the whole country while he is still alive (otherwise his subordinates would have a chance to overthrow him), and personal worship cannot be naturally transferred from one living autocratic dictator to another (unless, as in North Korea, personal worship is transferred to a son), autocratic dictators are almost always appointed for life. But autocratic dictators always die, and their deaths create a partial vacuum in the supreme authority of the totalitarian state formed under a long period of leader dictatorship. The new successor, while taking over the command of the political surveillance machine, may not necessarily be able to effectively command this surveillance machine that used to take orders only from the former dictator; at the same time, for the new successor in power, the immediate creation of a personal cult of himself or herself often faces the resentment of former colleagues and retired patriarchs. Even more dangerous is the fact that the formerly trusted bureaucrats of the dead dictator not only hold all kinds of power in their hands, but also hold leverage that can be fatal to the new leader and the new members of the Politburo, and if things go badly, a high-level coup can happen. This is the root of the succession crisis in the communist state.

The “Pendulum Law” of the Communist State Leadership Model

The succession dilemma is only one feature of the political rule of the Red regime, and another feature that has received little attention is the “pendulum rule” of its leadership model. The “pendulum rule” refers to the fact that the top power structure of the communist state has two modes of power: individual autocratic and collective leadership, with the leadership pattern oscillating between the two at different stages of history. This oscillation is not random, it has a clear pattern. This “pendulum law” can be found if we analyze it from the full range of political and economic perspectives, instead of focusing only on the power struggle between individuals.

In both the Soviet Union and China, the “pendulum law” has four stages, with the two ends of the pendulum being collective leadership and individual centralization, and the top power structure of the Communist Party swinging regularly between these two ends. collective leadership, then individual centralization, then collective leadership, and finally individual centralization. In the first stage, the Communist Party tended to be collectively led at the beginning of its political establishment, as was the case in the Soviet Union during Lenin’s time and in the Chinese Communist Party in the early 1950s. In the second stage, the political atmosphere at the top of the party determined that the top leaders could not tolerate criticism of themselves, and purging top members who disagreed with them was bound to become the norm. The top leader’s personal authority depended on his absolute control over the military and intelligence services, and also on promoting the cult of the individual and creating momentum for personal authority in public opinion, as Stalin and Mao Zedong did by consolidating their personal authority and thus replacing the collective leadership. In the third stage, after the death of the leader with personal authority, there was a return to collective leadership, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, from Hua Guofeng, Deng Xiaoping to Hu Jintao, basically. In the fourth stage, the individual authority of the top leaders was reestablished.

“The “swing” of the pendulum, of course, involves a struggle for power, but to a greater extent the “swing” of the pendulum was closely related to the needs of the Communist Party to rule. The reason for the shift from collective leadership to individual dictatorship was that both Stalin and Mao were anxious to complete industrialization and build a strong military industry, which required maximum concentration of resources while minimizing the livelihood of the people and cracking down on party officials who petitioned for the people and eliminating any dissenting voices, so a model of rule was established that relied on personal worship of the leader and widespread political purges, i.e., political The model of rule with the highest pressure and lowest economic cost.

The shift from individual dictatorship to collective leadership is due to a power vacuum after the death of the top leader of individual authority. To stabilize the political situation, the successor usually reverts to the collective leadership model, allowing the top leaders to share power collectively while winning the hearts of the people by vindicating past wrongs and spending money to buy political stability, including allowing corruption in exchange for the loyalty of officials, a situation that for a period of time seems to be long-term This situation seems to be stable for a long time. This is a “high-cost model of rule” for such regimes.

The question of whether collective leadership is then transformed into individual centralization is triggered by the fact that “paying for stability” consumes the economic resources controlled by the authorities, which is the Achilles’ heel of the collective leadership model. When the “high-cost model of rule” is about to deplete the economic resources of the authorities, it may force reforms, or centralization. Under the collective leadership model, there is usually some resistance to reform from the top, as was the case in the Hu-Zhao and Gorbachev eras; the collective leadership model also inevitably prevents anti-corruption. Both types of resistance are rooted in the opposition of interest groups in power to changes that are detrimental to them. Gorbachev changed his leadership model to a presidential system because his push for political reform was blocked; Xi Jinping began centralizing power to cope with the power struggle that erupted at the top, and ended up on a path to restore personal centralization because he was blocked from fighting corruption. Therefore, Xi Jinping’s rule is not comparable to that of Zhao Ziyang and Wen Jiabao because they are at different stages of the “pendulum rule”.

The way power is controlled at the top in China

Many people imagine whether senior figures who are dissatisfied with their personal dictatorship could launch secret arrests like the ones Hua Guofeng did, or collectively dissuade the current top leaders from their positions. To answer this hypothesis, one needs to understand how power is controlled at the top in China. China’s top leaders’ power is based on control of the military, while day-to-day power control is exercised through direct control of the Central Office’s security, secret and health care departments to monitor the rest of the top brass.

The Central Office during Mao’s era was responsible for three major parts of the business: the first part was secretarial and confidential, including the Secretary Bureau, the Bureau of Secretarial Communications, the Bureau of Secret Transportation, and the Archives Bureau, which were involved in such things as paperwork processing, secrecy, archives management, meeting organization, correspondence, and visits; the second part was the life services of the top leaders, with the Health Bureau responsible for the health and medical care of the top personnel; and the third part was the top leaders’ personal The third part is the security guards and residential guards of the senior leaders.

The Bureau of Secret Communications was responsible for the two telephone systems of the top brass. One was a confidential telephone system, known as the red telephone because of its red casing, which was installed mainly in the offices of ministers and above, with a separate four-digit telephone number and was not connected to outside lines. The other telephone system was known as the “39” bureau until the 1980s, where the first two digits of the six-digit telephone number were 39, mainly installed in Zhongnanhai, the Great Hall of the People, the Diaoyutai Hotel and the Yuquanshan Guest House. The Bureau of Machine Communication monitored all calls from the Red System and the 39 Bureau system, so that high-level officials could not communicate with each other by secret phone without being detected.

Mao Zedong, through his close friend Wang Dongxing, the director of the Central Office, was in charge of the three departments of the Central General Office, namely, the secret service, health care, and security, which were in fact the core components of China’s high-level power control system. After Deng Xiaoping took control, he reassigned the guard, security and health care departments that had belonged to the Central General Office to the Central Military Commission, which he controlled directly. Because Hu Yaobang was the general secretary at that time, Deng Xiaoping put these three departments of the Central General Office, which directly controlled other top personnel, under his control of the Central Military Commission, so that the personal activities of Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang and Li Xiannian, the top personnel, were completely under Deng Xiaoping’s control.

Who controls the three departments of the Central General Office – security, secret service and health care – reflects not only who has the highest authority, but also whether the Central General Office is in a state of real or virtual power. These three departments are not under the control of the Central General Office, the Central General Office is a virtual power, such as Hu Zhao era; these three departments back to the Central General Office, it means that the Central General Office has become a real power again. After Deng Xiaoping’s death, Jiang Zemin and later the top leaders returned these three departments to the Central Office. Regardless of whether China’s leadership model is one of collective leadership or individual dictatorship, each change of top leaders replaces the security chiefs left behind by their predecessors. Xi Jinping waited until two years after he took office to find an opportunity to use the security bureau to smuggle ivory from Africa on Xi Jinping’s plane, first leaking information to the New York Times and BBC, and then using the foreign media to expose the matter.

Under this system of high-level power control, no one can seize power unless Xi Jinping himself wants to retire.

Xi Jinping’s Military Control

When Xi Jinping took office, he directly seized specific command and control of the military, in addition to his usual roles as general secretary of the Communist Party, president and chairman of the Central Military Commission. The control of the military is of paramount importance to the solidity of power of China’s top leaders.

Historically, the military system after the CCP established power was a two-headed system with the Chief of the General Staff and the Director of the General Political Department holding the core authority of the military, with these two individuals specifically commanding and controlling the entire military system. The General Staff Department was responsible for military order operations, the General Political Department was responsible for political work and personnel, and the Ministry of National Defense was effectively a fiction. This military system of unity of military orders and and military politics is the Soviet model, which is completely different from the military management system of the United States, Britain and Japan, where military orders and military politics are separated.

When Xi Jinping came to power, he found that the Chief of General Staff and the Director of the General Political Department had become a system of their own during the Hu Jintao era and were beyond his grasp, so he was determined to take the military system first and re-establish his personal control over the military. He first arrested the Chief of General Staff and the Director of the General Political Department for corruption and replaced a number of senior army generals; at the same time, he abolished the “Armed Police Force”, a relatively independent military service that had become a self-contained system, and dismantled this force.

On this basis, Xi Jinping further revolutionized China’s military management system by splitting the General Staff, General Political Department, General Logistics Department and General Equipment Department into 16 ministries, abolishing the original General Staff, General Politics, General Logistics and General Equipment Department, and abolishing the posts of Chief of General Staff and Chief of General Politics. The military command is the highest military commander who is actually in charge of military command and military administration.

In the past, the chairman of the military commission had no control over the military, as he was not responsible for maintaining the daily operation of the military, but only for appointing the chief of general staff and the director of general administration, relying on the personal allegiance of these two individuals to the supreme leader to control the military. Xi Jinping has turned the chairmanship of the military commission into a position that actually controls the day-to-day operations of the military, directly taking the military into his own hands through the “Joint Command Office of the Military Commission. This situation is almost a return to Mao’s direct control of the military, a pattern that has never been seen during the era of successive collective leaders.

“Ten years must change”?

According to a recent report by Richard McGregor, a China expert at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia, and Jude Blanchette, director of the China program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank, “Xi Jinping has consolidated his authority at the expense of the past The most important political reform of the past 40 years: the regular and peaceful transfer of power. In doing so, he has pushed China into a potentially destabilizing succession crisis, with far-reaching implications for the international order and global commerce.” This may be an inappropriate judgment. They mistook the “ten years to change” rule, which is internalized at the top, for political reform. The “change in ten years” is an internal Zen transfer within China’s top echelons, a process that can also create a succession crisis. The arrest of Bo Xilai was related to this. If it is considered political reform when the top leadership of China is changed by internal discussion, then it is also considered “political reform” when Khrushchev, the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, was ousted by a coup d’état?

Xi Jinping is militaristic externally and increasingly politically repressive internally, and of course many people hate him. One group of people is in the Chinese officialdom, and it is not surprising that many of them hate Xi Jinping in their hearts as their corrupt hands and feet are tied, their money transferred abroad is out of reach, and they cannot slip out even after getting a foreign green card. Another group of people is those who want China to democratize. They believe that under Xi Jinping’s political oppression, it is difficult for China to democratize and there is no chance to wait any longer because the younger generation is becoming more and more cynical.

Will Xi Jinping voluntarily end his personal dictatorship? The likelihood seems slim. The collective leadership model of the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao era before he took over not only resulted in corrupt officials everywhere, but also allowed trillions of dollars in foreign currency to be transferred to foreign countries and hidden away. The China that Xi Jinping took over is somewhat like a large barrel that leaks everywhere, and Xi Jinping is desperately trying to plug the leaks, fearing that all the water in this large barrel will leak out. Emptying China’s resources is an inevitable product of China’s collective leadership model. Xi Jinping will inevitably turn to personal dictatorship in order to save his ruling party’s rule. It makes no sense to judge which is better and which is worse in China, collective leadership or individual dictatorship, simply by the degree of political repression. Obviously, both are bad; they are both modes of leadership for totalitarian rule.

In fact, once China enters into a personal dictatorship, it is very difficult to escape from it voluntarily, both from the internal and external environment; that is to say, a personal dictatorship of the top leader, whether he is personally attached to power or not, cannot transfer power smoothly without stirring up political turmoil. In terms of the domestic environment, the pattern of personal autocracy usually emerges under certain difficult circumstances, and personal autocracy may prolong the life of a totalitarian regime, but it cannot fundamentally improve its internal difficulties. In China’s external environment, after the Cold War is ignited by China, military tensions will rise and fall, but the basic dynamics of the Cold War will not dissolve naturally. In the current situation, Taiwan is a hot spot, and the South China Sea will be the next inevitable hot spot. This highly tense external environment makes it impossible for China’s individual autocratic leadership model to be successfully transformed into a collective leadership model; that is, after the pendulum has swung to individual dictatorship, it will probably not swing back again. The outcome of the Cold War will determine the end of China’s ruling party.