Many China watchers consider institutionalization as the key to China’s political stability at the elite level since the 1980s. Andrew Nathan identified the institutionalization of power transitions as one of the main reasons behind China’s authoritarian resiliency. However, as Joseph Fewsmith has noted, what China scholars defined as political institutions in China are nothing more than norms. Since the Deng Xiaoping era, these norms have been constructed and guarded by senior figures in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who are the main stabilizing force within the Party.
These seniors (元老) are retired national leaders who remain politically influential through their networks and proteges. They have historically played a significant role in Chinese politics by mediating elite conflicts, forging factional consensus, and setting the direction of policy. They played a vital role in personnel affairs by promoting followers, designating successors, and even deposing the top leader.
The first generation of seniors emerged during the 1980s. They were Mao’s comrades who were purged during the Cultural Revolution and later revived by Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang. Among them, the eight most powerful figures – known as the Eight Immortals – enjoyed unrivaled political influence. These seniors played an essential role in shaping economic policies during the 1980s.
Two seniors in particular, the conservative Chen Yun and reformer Deng Xiaoping, led the struggle over China’s future between a planned economy with a market as a supplement and a socialist market economy. Hu Yaobang, the CCP secretary during this period, complained about being sandwiched between the two elderly strongmen, while also facing complaints from Li Xiannian, arguably the third most powerful senior in China, that Hu only followed Chen and Deng while ignoring Li.
During the turbulent five years between 1987 and 1992, senior politics reached a new dimension: Seniors, especially Deng Xiaoping, played the role of kingmaker and king-breaker. They deposed two party secretaries due to what they perceived as “political mistakes” before bringing Jiang Zemin, the party secretary of Shanghai, to Beijing.
When facing the student protests in December 1986, Hu Yaobang took a conciliatory approach. He believed that rather than suppressing the movement, the party leadership should address student concerns and pursue democratic reform. However, Deng and other conservative seniors considered Hu “not forceful enough” to counter this bourgeois liberalism. After several meetings in Deng’s house, seniors forced Hu to resign.
After Hu’s fall from grace, Deng and the seniors had to pick his successor. Two candidates stood out for the next CCP general secretary: The liberal-minded Premier Zhao Ziyang and Deng Liqun (no relation to Deng Xiaoping), a stubborn conservative and one of the CCP’s best political theorists. Deng Xiaoping worried that Deng Liqun might jeopardize the economic reform process. After receiving a criticism letter, Deng Xiaoping decided to strip Deng Liqun from all his positions, a move that received consent from conservative seniors such as Bo Yibo and Chen Yun. The fall of Deng Liqun paved the way for Zhao Ziyang’s ascension.
In the end, however, Zhao shared a similar fate to his predecessor. During the Tiananmen protests in 1989, Zhao supported a conciliatory approach toward protestors and vehemently opposed military suppression, which contradicted Deng’s strong-fisted approach. When Zhao admitted to the public that Deng still made all major decisions, Deng viewed it as a personal betrayal, effectively throwing him under the bus. Ultimately, Deng and other senior leaders deposed Zhao for “splitting the party” and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life.
Following the downfall of Zhao, the seniors picked Shanghai Party Secretary Jiang Zemin as the next leader, because of his deft handling of student protests in Shanghai. Jiang was an acceptable figure for both conservatives and reformers.
Deng’s final demonstration of his political influence was his Southern Tour in 1992. Following the Tiananmen protest and the bloody crackdown, many conservatives within the CCP believed that economic reform had brought political chaos. Therefore, the national priority shifted from economic reform to political struggle. In his speech on the 70th Anniversary of the CCP in 1991, Jiang declared that “class struggle will exist in China for a long time.” He emphasized the importance of ideological campaigns, especially the struggle against “peaceful evolution” and “bourgeois liberalization.” Following the speech, many observers claimed that Jiang might assault, even destroy, China’s infant market economy. Thus, Deng believed that he must take action to stop Jiang and conservatives from reversing the “reform and opening up” process.
During the winter of 1992, Deng toured the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and gave a speech in which he threatened Jiang, saying that “whoever refused to reform will step down.” According to Li Rui, who was closely connected to the power center, Deng was so worried about the trajectory of reform that he had even decided to depose Jiang. However, other senior leaders like Chen Yun, Li Xiannan, and Bo Yibo stopped him. Bo reportedly told Deng ,“You took down Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang; you can’t have it your way more than three times (事不过三).” Deng agreed, but Jiang got the message. A year later, Jiang announced that reform and opening “must not change in a long time.”
Deng’s final political legacy was to designate a young Hu Jintao as Jiang’s successor, which started the tradition of a retired top leader appointing the successor of the current leader.
Between 1992 and 1995, Jiang Zemin quietly consolidated his power as influential senior members passed away. He wrestled away his primary political opponents, Qiao Shi and Li Ruihuan, by manipulating the retirement age. By 2002, he demonstrated his power by expanding the Politburo Standing Committee and filling it with his proteges, notably his long-term confidant Zeng Qinghong. The expansion made sure that Jiang maintained his political influence after his retirement. Jiang capitalized on his influence to nurture a relatively open political environment and a wave of political reform during the mid-2000s. The rise of Xi Jinping as Hu Jintao’s successor was also Jiang’s decision.
Meanwhile, Hu was considered a weak leader who ruled under Jiang’s shadow. He could not consolidate power effectively like Jiang, had trouble controlling the Jiang-supporting People’s Liberation Army, and did not even receive the title of “leadership core.” Hu’s weakness was further demonstrated when he failed to promote his protege and the head of the Organization Department, Li Yuanchao, into the Politburo Standing Committee in 2012.
Xi’s consolidation of power was the result of consensus among senior leaders. Many seniors believed Hu’s “first-among-equals” leadership style had hindered policy implementation because power was too fragmented. They thought China needed a more “presidential” top leader with centralized power to push through difficult reforms. They also concluded from the Bo Xilai case that weak leadership led to unchecked corruption and elite power struggle. Therefore, as Fewsmith argued, seniors supported Xi’s power consolidation and the anti-corruption campaign. Both Cheng Li and Fewsmith have pointed out that Xi must have gotten approval from Jiang Zemin and other seniors in Jiang’s faction to purge Jiang’s protégé, Zhou Yongkang.
However, the seniors certainly did not expect Xi’s power consolidation to go this far, with Xi taking down all political rivals regardless of their factional background.
Today, China is in a new era. For the first time since 1978, China has no senior who can constrain Xi. Jiang Zemin is 96 years old and rumored to have severe health problems; his absence from the CCP’s 100th-anniversary celebration confirmed these rumors. Hu Jintao was never a powerful figure, and his influence further dwindled after Xi purged many members of the Communist Youth League faction, Hu’s traditional power base. Other seniors, such as Zeng Qinghong and Wen Jiabao, have kept a low profile to avoid the anti-corruption campaign. Xi’s constitutional amendment in 2018, paving the way for his incoming third term as CCP general secretary and China’s president, demonstrate that no senior figure can constrain Xi’s attempt to obstruct party norms.
What does the lack of seniors mean for Chinese politics?
The case of senior politics in Meiji Japan serves as a useful comparison. Japanese seniors (genro) were heroes of the Meiji Restoration. Their influence in politics started in 1892 when the genro group picked a new prime minister following the sudden departure of Prime Minister Matsukata Masayoshi. The genro shared a similar political role with seniors in China. First, they maintained the power to select prime ministers to ensure stability during the power transition. Second, they sat above narrow bureaucratic and party interests to guide domestic and foreign policies based on national objectives. Third, they adjusted the difference between political parties, bureaucracy, and the military to maintain centralized control.
The genro group faded out of Japanese politics in the 1920s due to their age. As a result, Japanese politics fell into deep chaos. Fanatic military officers seized power following genro’s departure through coups and pursued aggressive foreign policies, which the genro group abhorred. The military government’s unchecked power led Japan to World War II and its eventual defeat.
The parallel is not exact, of course. The PLA certainly is not in a position to seize power; in fact, Xi has strengthened the CCP’s command over the gun. However, seniors provided an additional check on the top leader. They also forestalled any political deviation from reform and opening in the past 40 years. Furthermore, they stabilized the decision-making process by guarding political norms. Without seniors, Xi might run into the mistake of pursuing extreme policies with unchecked power. The nationalistic foreign policies and the zero-COVID policy only confirm this danger.