The Limits to Leadership in China
This paper focuses on the more structural aspects of the political and economic situation facing China’s “new” leaders and constraining their ability to act autonomously.
We are often told that China is run by men, not institutions, and that power is vested in individuals, not in established structures of authority. Journalists, Hong Kong, and Taiwan China Watchers, and China scholars ponder the health of teh octogenarians, consider the actuarial politics of the looming succession, and wonder about the ups and downs of individual candidates for the succession to Deng Xiaoping.
But at the other extreme, it can be argued that, in general, who succeeds Deng Xiaoping is not very important, and that background and characteristics of the candidates for succession, the way the successors will relate to each other after the death of the older generation, and the nature of the issues that will face the new leadership will all sharply constrain leadership choice. In other words, the political system is institutionalized in the sense that it is generally governed by norms, and dominant in the sense that the system fundamentally constrains leadership choice. One implication of this analysis is that, other things being equal, Chinese economic growth will continue at its rapid pace.
This is not to say that individual factors and personality are not important or interesting. Anyone arguing otherwise is well advised to remember Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev emerged out of the Soviet agriculture portfolio, a rather nondescript and vague figure. Few Soviet scholars imagined that Gorbachev would be an ardent reformer. While he was ultimately unable to reform the Soviet Union, his actions contributed mightily (in a positive way) to the collapse of the Soviet State. In China, the hidden elements of character and purpose, will and drive, submerged or overshadowed by the seemingly dominant role of the octogenarians in the political system, make it impossible to know whether there are unexpected or unknown talents lurking among the successor generation of Chinese leaders. Although the possibility of human creativity and leadership innovation should never be ignored, it is also hard to predict, and major leadership innovation that runs fundamentally against the structure of principle interests in society is relatively rare. Therefore, this paper focuses on the more structural aspects of the political and economic situation facing China’s “new” leaders and constraining their ability to act autonomously.