May You Live in Interesting Times: China's Leader-Legitimacy Problem

For the first time in its history, the all-powerful Communist Party has no clear way to guarantee a smooth power transfer.

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Troops patrol the premises of the Great Hall of the People, the venue of the upcoming 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

In days of yore, when a new dynasty was established in China and a new emperor was enthroned, it was known as dashi, the "Big Enterprise," and it usually involved mass social upheaval and civil war. The latter-day version of changing leaders now takes place at Party Congresses that -- except during times of turmoil like the Cultural Revolution -- are supposed to occur every decade. It is here that ageements are reached, after various factions have slugged it out without public involvement, and new leaders are installed. China's elites hope the process can be consummated behind closed doors without too much discord, much less overt social turmoil.

The last two changes in leaders were determined by Deng Xiaoping, the last in a line of supreme Chinese leaders that has stretched back to Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, who all enjoyed a Chinese version of the "divine right of kings," enabling each to anoint a jiebanren, or "chosen successor." The legitimacy conferred by Deng on China's two most recent leaders, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, the latter who will now step down after ten years at the country's helm, was immense. Deng's prerogative was like an unchallengeable field of gravity that held all of China's political constellations in orbit.

Now, for the first time in Chinese Communist Party history, there is no real "big leader," and thus no such source of legitimacy for a new leadership. Nor is there any confirmed system. There is neither a bloodline, relied on during dynastic times, nor the elections upon which democracies rely. The Chinese political structure, which curiously is now both more consensual and even more "democratic," at least at the top, finds itself floating terrifyingly in a gravity-less political world where no one has the power any longer to make the kind of decisions about succession that would stop the room from spinning.

As people now await the beginning of the 18th Party Congress on November 8, where the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party and the seven-member Standing Committee, which will make the fundamental decisions about China's future, will be set, there is a palpable tension in the air.

Difficult as this leadership change already is, the situation was thrown into an even greater state of uncertainty when the scheming wife, Gu Kailai, of one of the top contenders for the Standing Committee, Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, suddenly went rogue and evidently murdered her former business partner and probable lover. Her astounding intrigues not only ended her husband's dynamic political career, but set off the equivalent of a nuclear device right in the midst of the already incredibly unstable process of leadership change.

Now, everyone in the Beijing cognoscenti seems to be on edge about the future. Personal conversations often end with voices suddenly lowered as people begin furtively glancing around to see who might be listening, or tucking cell phones (which are widely believed to have the capacity to harbor listening devices) into briefcases and handbags, to whisper about the latest xiaodao xiaoxi, or "back alley news," they may have heard from high-placed friends. Or, otherwise jocular dinner conversations suddenly become hushed as guests lean towards each other to secretively trade whatever rumors they have heard about the frenetic horse-trading that everyone knows is now going on at the top.

Presented by

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

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