In his book, “China in Ten Words, Yu Hua tells a story about what it was like growing up in China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.
This was the era when, to regain control over the Communist Party, Mao unleashed students to go against his enemies, branding them traitors to Communism.
At the heart of the Cultural Revolution was a massive personality cult centering on Mao. The anthem of the time was, “The East is Red, and Mao was called the sun.
Which brings us to Yu Hua’s story. One day, a classmate watched the sunset and remarked, “the sun is setting.” The next day, the classmate was denounced in front of the whole school. By saying the sun is setting, the kid was accused of saying Mao was dying.
The kid was bullied and teachers and students alike tried to force the child to confess that he was a counterrevolutionary. What saved the kid was he got so confused, he gave contradictory answers in between wails and sobs. It convinced enough of the mob that he was innocent.
After Mao died, his widow and allies, called the “Gang of Four,” tried to sieze power but instead lost the power struggle.
After the destruction and killings of the Cultural Revolution, the surviving leaders rallied around Deng Xiaoping, who ushered in reforms, but only up to a limit, as the Tiananmen Massacre proved. That limit was, control had to remain one-hundred percent under the Communist Party.
Deng also pursued a more consultative approach to leadership. No one, after Mao, should again be considered the sun. Leaders would be bland, even grey, but there would be stability and instead of winner-take-all power struggles, members of the party could expect to smoothly move up, then bow out after fixed periods of time.
Ziang Zemin, the successor of Deng, in turn demonstrated this new type of collective leadership. He would have two, five-year terms, and then retire.
His successor, Jiang Zemin, also followed this type. He too would rule for two five-year terms, and the power structure would be such, that everyone would move up and move out.
But Deng belonged to the generation of the revolutionary fathers of China. Ziang and Jiang in turn belonged to the successor generation, who had also risen through the ranks. But when Jiang retired, China’s new leader turned out to be a different kind of Communist altogether.
Xi Jinping is what is called a “princeling,” that is, he is a son of one of the pioneer generation of Communists. A new kind of Communist, a dynastic one. Like many other princelings, he had risen to power in the shadows and with the patronage of elder Communists from the first and second generations.
Now, he is due to embark on the expected: a second five-year term, after which normally he would be expected to bow out. But something is happening that is making China watchers unsure if this will actually be the case.
A brief word on how leadership is decided in China. First, it is almost entirely a decision of the Communist party. Very simply, tomorrow, the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party—the first was in Shanghai in 1921, and these days, two congresses are held every decade—will convene in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Let’s use The Atlantic as a guide. A couple of thousand reliable party representatives from all over the country will elect a couple of hundred from among themselves, to form the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In turn, the Central Committee will elect two dozen from among its members, to form the Politburo of the Communist Party. The members of the Politburo will then pick seven from among its members, to constitute the Politburo Standing Committee, and this Committee in turn provides the top leader, the General Secretary of the Party who inevitably becomes President of the People’s Republic of China.
Tomorrow, the ceremonies will be kicked off by Xi Jinping laying out the next five-year plan for the party. People will be listening to see what he says. Then, perhaps by October 25, Xi will make another speech and introduce the party’s new leaders. People again will be watching to see who are announced. Will the Standing Committee, for example, be composed of people perceived to be loyal to Xi? And Will Xi follow tradition, by introducing people who will start to be promoted as Xi’s successors in five years? This is, after all, how Xi himself came to be known—introduced in the People’s Congress in 2007 ahead of his assuming power in the next People’s Congress in 2012.
What makes the coming days exciting—and troubling—is that for some time now, it’s been widely perceived that Xi is preparing to end the post-Mao system. He may actually be preparing for a third, unpredecented, five-year term. News reports have pointed out most recently that two prominent generals have disappeared ahead of the Party Congress. And for the past few years, many leading Communist officials have been purged for various offenses. State Propaganda has taken to referring to Xi as the “Core” leader, itself a term not used since Mao’s time.
Part of the drama is the way the Chinese prefer to conduct political maneuvering—behind the scenes, and in the shadows. All the public sees is a prearranged ritual, designed to convey unity and strength. Whether results meets expectations will determine how the world sees China in the next five years. Will it remain a predictable dictatorship? Or one returning to an older era of personality cults?