In about a year’s time, a new group of leaders in Beijing will succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. At the moment, analysts are focused primarily on the make-up of the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, the supreme policy making body of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Vice President Xi Jinping and Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, both members of the standing committee now, are assured of succeeding Hu and Wen, respectively. As a result, the guessing game that has engrossed many China watchers is over who will replace the other seven retiring members.
Speculating about top personnel decisions is both risky and not all that interesting. Such decisions are reached through intricate factional bargaining and compromises, and the ultimate outcome is typically not determined until the very end. Worse, handicapping the chances of frontrunners usually distracts us from trying to understand the broader policy implications of leadership transition. We become too preoccupied with the shifting fortunes of factions within the CCP leadership to explore whether leadership change actually affects policy.
So a more fruitful way of getting ourselves prepared for China’s upcoming leadership transition is to look back at history and examine whether the past top leadership changes resulted in significant foreign policy changes, and what explained such major shifts.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data points here. The CCP has experienced only four leadership transitions: from Mao Zedong to Hua Guofeng (1976), from Hua to Deng Xiaoping (1979), from Deng to Jiang Zemin (1994-95), and from Jiang to Hu Jintao (2002). Of the four cases, only the last three should count because Hua, a transitional figure, didn’t have a real chance to remake Chinese foreign policy.
When we look at the three meaningful leadership transitions, the greatest change in foreign policy occurred when Deng took over power in 1979. He normalized relations with the United States, fundamentally reoriented Chinese foreign policy in a pro-Western direction, ended Chinese support for leftist forces around the world, and launched a punitive, albeit costly, war against Vietnam. In addition, he articulated a new strategic principle: Chinese foreign policy is to serve the country’s economic modernization. (His famous dictum on keeping a low profile was prescribed after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, more than a decade later).
The transition from Deng to Jiang in the mid-1990s didn’t bring about a fundamental shift. (Deng was too ill to influence policy by 1994, even though he didn’t die until 1997). Still, there were minor but important adjustments. Jiang moved China closer to the West and accelerated its integration into the West-dominated international system, culminating in the accession into the World Trade Organization at the end of his tenure, perhaps his most enduring legacy.
Another notable shift under Jiang was China’s regional diplomacy. He upgraded China’s ties with Moscow, and opened China’s charm offensive toward ASEAN nations. But, at the same time, Jiang adopted a tougher stance toward Japan and was blamed for the rapid deterioration in Sino-Japanese ties under his watch. On Taiwan, Jiang initially tried to reach out to Taiwan’s new leader, Lee Teng-hui, but Lee’s turn toward a more pro-independence stance in the mid-1990s forced Jiang to take a much harder line.