According to Professor Zweig, the mantle of real power in Chinese politics rests on the ability of its new leader, the CCP’s general-secretary, to first garner and build meaningful support in the politburo’s standing committee, for any policy initiatives or reforms. To try to do this while the old leader is still around, is to court disaster(1). Given that it is really the old retiring leadership, like Deng Xiaoping and the Eight Elders of earlier times, that chooses the new leader and stays around to oversee his tutelage, it could take more than six plenums before the man in charge has the confidence to control the all-important agenda for implementing big social, political and economic change(2). The late career paths of two such recent general-secretaries, Jiang Zemin and his successor Hu Jintao, prove how the transfer of power in China was eased in over a few years in order to guarantee a more stable transition and avoid the tyranny of dictatorship and instability of radical change.
Of the two, Hu Jintao likely had a tougher time implementing his complex set of policies of social and economic harmonization that embraced the whole of Chinese society in terms of setting up a national code of principles governing free-market communism. As a technocrat, from the third generation of leaders, Hu, in the early 2000s had an ambitious plan to fight corruption, encourage personal freedom, stamp out dissent, and expand the national economy as a unified force as a way of carrying through on Jiang’s achievements. Little of that would be realized in the first years of his leadership simply because he was a newcomer who lacked critical support from the old guard, including Jiang, for such a large undertaking(3). That would change as Hu would eventually get to insert his people in key positions. On the other hand, Jiang Zemin, a cautious neoconservative ideologue, who came to office, in 1989, as a compromise candidate after Tiananmen, still controlled the military when he retired in 2002(4). This was his way of making sure the army continued to keep the lid on any sign of civil unrest while China sought to modernize. For Jiang, modernization meant a China open to a free-market system that encouraged greater industrial privatization, an end to collectivization, and the creation of export zones along the coast, hardly the vision held by Hu, his successor. Pushing him in that direction was Deng’s strong desire to turn China into a market economy in order to save the Revolution(5).
Given these two interconnected examples of national leadership in modern China, success can be measured both by their respective party agendas continuing to be implemented. In the grand scheme of Chinese politics, it might be fair to say that while leaders come and go, there is a very strong and consistent continuum that amounts to developing the country as a market economy while preserving its authoritarian heritage. Foreign powers, like the United States, are learning, once again, that China does not respond quickly to demands to liberalize its trade policies such as changing the value of its currency. That is something that is worked out gradually over many plenums and a succession of leaders to ensure stable results.