The Inherent Conflict between Collective Leadership and Dictatorship

By He Qinglian on Aug 16, 2012.

After the three trials related to Bo Xilai were over, the Publicity Office of the CPC Central Committee held a press conference on August 14 to introduce how the election of the 18th CPC Party Congress would proceed; at the same time, a representative list consisting 2270 people was revealed. Yet information like when the Congress is to commence, and crucial personnel arrangement such as Politburo candidates, and whether the number of Politburo Standing Committee members would be reduced from nine to seven remain tightly guarded secrets.

For a transfer of power at the top of China to become a soap opera that of homicide, corruption, mysteries, and erotic connection, the desire for power is entirely to blame.

The Achilles' heel of Collective Leadership

It was said that as a result of the nine Politburo Standing Committee members (“nine heads”) not being on the same page regarding Bo Xilai—Zhou Yongkang, Li Changchun (and some others) did not see the issue eye to eye with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, there would be a change to the current joint-governance arrangement, a change from “nine heads” to “seven heads”.

But with “nine heads” changed to “seven heads”, would the decentralized decision making process, which costs are high and a consensus is hard to reach, change for the better? I doubt it. There is an endogenous contradiction between the Collective Leadership system per se and totalitarian politics.

In the history of humankind, the totalitarian politics that emerged only in the 20th century was unlike its kind of earlier times. This totalitarian politics has one feature: an emphasis on one party, one doctrine, and one leader.

After a dozen of fierce line struggles related to the contests for the leadership position, the CPC established during the Mao era a political form that fully met the requirements of totalitarian politics, a form that could be dubbed “powers to the CPC”. The characteristics of this political form are that the CPC assumed the commanding position in the central and local governments alike, and that a unitary political power pattern where the government obey the Party, which obey the Central Committee, which in turn obey Chairman Mao.

With an understanding of the dreadful consequences of Mao's one-person dictatorship, Deng Xiaoping created the so-called collective leadership system when he was the de facto top leader of the Communist Party. The system he devised has indeed weakened the powers of the Party's supreme leader. With mutual constraint between one another at the top of the Party, no one could follow the example of Mao Zedong, who placed himself above the institution and everyone else, calling the shots arrogantly and did whatever he liked without restraint.

While Deng's authority gave him the undisputed dominance in the Collective Leadership system, and enabled him to twice abolish the General Secretary of the CPC, he could not go as far as Mao Zedong did. Deng's successor, Jiang Zemin, a man of tactics, operated the system smoothly for nearly ten years.

However, during Hu Jintao's second term in office, the endogenous contraditions between Deng's collective leadership system and totalitarian politics became thoroughly exposed. The current state of “multiple leaders, one Party, one set of doctrines (Marxism-Leninism, Mao's thoughts and Deng's pragmatism) that is nominally upheld but no one believes in” is the root cause of the outbreak of crises on the eve of power transition in China. What binds those oligarchs together is no longer faith or doctrine, but interests. And with interests, there always will be disputes.

Moreover, Hu Jintao might be a staid man, he is not bright, and does not have Jiang's ability to mediate between senior members of the Party, either. Old Princelings who are roughly the same age as Hu enjoy statuses higher than before, they have shared political experience, demands, and common interests. With intricate networks in the military, the Princelings, who may be in a minority in the Party and the government, have strong influence over the armed forces. In recent years, generals with background made repeated blasts at the country's domestic and foreign policies. The intervention tendency deeply unsettles Hu and other seniors. Yet they could do nothing but pacify those generals. 

Inherent Conflicts

The transfer of supreme power of a dictatorship could happen in [top-down] selections or [bottom-up] coups, but it was not easy for an institution that facilitate the smooth transfer of power to be developed. The crisis that would occur during the succession of power did not take place in Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, where dictatorship lasted but one generation; in Eastern European countries, where Moscow dictated the course of power succession, there were only some minor scuffles; it was in the former Soviet Union and China that fierce infighting would arise whenever the power was passed on to a successor.

Take the succession of power of the CPC for example. Crisis would occur even if a successor had already been chosen, as were the case of Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao, both men were handpicked by Mao Zedong as his heir, and they were both disinherited and died a miserable death.

Deng Xiaoping's appointed successor Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, chosen to succeed Jiang, did carry out the transfer of power as planned. It was all plain sailing until the final two years of Hu's term, when he was about to pick his number one and number two successor as the next General Secretary and Premier in accordance with the “Collective Leadership” mechanism that Bo Xilai and his supporters contended for the top posts. The issue of Bo Xilai is a knotty one, it could be concluded with one sentence, though. Bo Xilai coveted the top posts, and caused a serious internal split in the seniors of the CPC.

Because of the Bo Xilai incident, the Collective Leadership system devised by Deng Xiaoping exposed thoroughly its weakness. Speaking of Collective Leadership system, it is vital to distinguish Deng Xiaoping's version from that of Mao Zedong that lasted from the end of 1937 to March 1943. At those times, the CPC Central Committee had at one point set up its Secretariat, the supreme leadership organ which Mao Zedong, Zhang Wentian, Chen Yun, Wang Ming, and Kang Sheng served as Secretaries. Mao, however, managed to manipulate the members of that organ, gradually turning the so-called “collective leadership system” into a camouflage of his personal dictatorship. It is proven by future history that the time this governing machine of the CPC worked best was when the leader had absolute authority. Once a new leader loses the ability to make arbitrary decisions, the “collective leadership system” would transform into an oligarchy, with each of its members becoming an autocrat. Under this circumstances, if things are at peace, those leaders may at most each dictate a field of their own; but now with the economic and social crisis became something that every one knows, to resolve this critical situation, a line struggle would be inevitable.

On top of that, the doctrines the CPC upholds are a hodgepodge of the speeches made by Mao and Deng, whose thoughts on economy are the antithesis of each other and could easily lead to disputes over ideologies. While Deng Xiaoping could use his personal authority to suppress those by saying “no argument”, there are now no leaders who could be above challenges, and line struggle could no longer be resolved by a “supreme instruction”. Therefore, line struggles become power struggles that are almost visible to the public. Hu Jintao, the nominal leader, is constrained by various forces. To preserve superficial “harmony”, he dare not bring power struggles into the view of the public; instead, he could only try to make compromise and mediate between different factions to maintain the status quo. That was how the Bo Xilai case was trivialized and brushed aside. Nevertheless, various conflicts remain.

Oligarchy and Multiple Institutionalized Food Chains

At present, the power struggles of the CPC have become completely different from the past. Behind each struggle now there are various interest parties fighting against one another over interests. This is because the CPC has monopolized all of the resources, which were subsequently cashed in through the semi-marketized mechanism. With an intricate network of interests like this, conflicts would invariably exist. It is the case for the “nine dragons” currently in office, it will still be the case for the joint-governance of the future “seven dragons”.

Each of the “nine dragons” in the CPC Politburo has absolute power over a certain field respectively. In China, power is itself a food chain. The food chains extended from the “nine dragons” would naturally attract numerous interest seekers, big and small. While those on these food chains hope things would be calm, the resources are not unlimited, and the greed for them insatiable. This means conflict of interests would in the end be inevitable. Therefore, the “nine dragons” are not of one mind, and they could hardly have genuine cooperation. The results of this are decision making costs become too high, and a consensus on major events is impossible to arrive at.

Red Second Generation

The comments of Red Second Generation on public affairs and politics of the capital—another unique feature of contemporary politics of China that could not be overlooked.

Apart from the current nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, in China there are pressure groups that comprise of retired senior officials, the Princelings (descendants of former leaders of the Party and state leaders), and the Red Second Generation (children of rank-and-file cadres who contributed to the CPC establishment of its rule). These pressure groups situate in Beijing—the place where, throughout the history of China, descendants of royal families, founding fathers of dynasties, the nobility, and ministers with merits gathered. The CPC did not put an end to this tradition; on the contrary, it allows offspring of senior officials with merits to stay in the capital instead of driving them back to their hometown after officials have retired like the preceding dynasties had done.

Reportedly, in Beijing there are now at least fifty such pressure groups. Because of age, diminishing influence and other factors, members of these groups have recently become increasingly marginalized in the system. The political consensus of these groups is not on the path the future China should take; instead, they are mainly about the dissatisfaction these people have toward to the current state of China under the governance of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. These people criticize government officials for being excessively corrupt. What upset them even more is the fact that each of the children of the third and the fourth generation state leaders has become billionaires by practicing fraud and manipulation in finance and hi-tech industries.

Facing the situation of boiling public discontent, these people think the country their fathers fought and died for should not be destroyed by the current corrupt and incompetent administration like this. Through such ways as gatherings and launching websites, these people comment on public affairs—a privilege of the Red Second Generation that have long been discovered by international media outlets which make frequent reports on their comments.

In addition, Beijing is also the place where research institutions serving various think-tank functions gather. Many intellectual elites have intricate connection with these organizations or groups, the most active of which are the Leftists and new Leftists who regard as their shared leader Bo Xilai, the person behind the campaigns of “Singing Red (Songs)” and “Hitting the Black” (cracking down corruption and illicit business practices).

On August 9, a day before the trial of Gu Kailai, these Leftists published, under the lead of two former ministerial officials, a 10000-word letter and joint signature that requested Wen Jiabao be dismissed from his posts of Politburo Standing Committee member and Premier.

Inside the system, these groups have deep-rooted connections. At a time when the personal authority of the leader of the CPC declines, these people, with their strength gathered, could interfere with domestic affairs very effectively. The reasons that Bo Xilai could be freed from the three charges—line struggle, political mistake (corruption), and criminal offense—that the CPC Central Committee prepared for him, and that many of his allies could retain their seat as representatives in the 18th CPC Party Congress are all because of the extra-institutional force of these circles that have been at work.

However, it would be a grave mistake to pin the hope of the democratization of China on the anti-corruption rhetoric of these small circles, who are wholehearted proponents of the current system. Instead of saying these people advocate democracy, it would be more accurate to say they endorse “democracy within the Party”.

The survival of these groups rests upon state power. However far they may have gone downhill, members of these groups still enjoy varying privileges. Hence, it is not likely that anti-establishment forces would emerge from within the Red Second Generation. Many of the overseas media organizations placed too much emphasis on the anti-corruption rhetoric of these people when running reports on speeches of the Red Second Generation that aired dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. These media outlets have overlooked the fact that the Red Second Generation are merely unhappy with their political and economic prestige becoming marginalized and hope improve their political standing through active intervention like this and produce some more political influence.

Although the “Collective Leadership” model, a kind of oligarchy devised by Deng Xiaoping, has now been redefined by Hu Angang, a newcomer in the 18th CPC Party Congress, as a “collective presidential system”, its incompatibility with totalitarianism is plainly obvious.

If the CPC intends to bridge this contradiction, the only way would be to change the totalitarian political structure; relinquish the “one party, one leader, and one doctrine” mentality, come to terms with the state of diversified interests, give the power back to the people.

If the CPC insists to cling onto the path of totalitarianism, then when unrest sweeps across the whole country, coinciding with infighting among seniors of the Party, an abrupt and violent downfall would be inevitable.