For the past five years, China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping has been working to construct a political system which will make power struggles a thing of the past, provide for an orderly leadership succession and — mostly importantly — survive his own death.
The session of the national people’s congress, China’s closest equivalent of a parliament, which finished on Tuesday played a key role in the plan by giving its rubber-stamp approval to the country’s new president and a state military commission which will nominally head the armed forces.
Deng’s idea, simply put, is to disperse power amongst a number of different senior leadership posts in order to make it more difficult for someone such as the late chairman mao to institute one-man despotic rule.
In the past, the fount of all power and influence in China was the chairmanship of the communist party. in the future, if Deng’s plan works, there will be five main power centres — party chairman, party general-secretary, state president, premier and military commission chairman, all of which are SUPPOSED to act as a check on the others.
collective leadership is the aim, something China has never experienced before. it has only ever had emperors, or powerful emperor-like figures such as chiang kaishek, chairman mao, and now deng.
There have to be doubts about the longevity of a collective leadership system set up unilaterally by a political strongman. but it is an attempt, and a worthy one at that. long after he has passed from the scene, deng will be remembered and respected for at least trying to break the Chinese curse of the leadership power struggle.
so China has a new president, its first since the late 1960s when the last inciumbent, liu shaoqi, was purged by mao. (he died in a secret prison in 1969.)
It is not known what additional role –if any — president li hsiennien, aged 74, will play in politics. It may take a while before the precise power and influence of the post become clear.
The role of the new state military commission, set up to head the armed forces, is equally uncertain, especially as it seems to exactly match the functions of the communist party’s own military commission.
The commission’s first chairman is deng xiaoping himself, in spite of his stated desire to retire from public life as soon as possible. the reason is simple: the army is the main source of opposition to his policies, and no-one else has the power and prestige to control the old maoist generals.
deng’s reforms have moved ahead quite well in the communist party and the state bureaucracy, but the people’s liberation army, once elaborately praised as the upholder of mao tse-tung thought and the “pillar of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, is proving difficult.
deng is pressing ahead with his efforts to throw out the old leftist generals, reshape the army, and to disprove mao’s maxim that “political power grows from the barrel of the gun.” one strategy is to by-pass both the army and the public security ministry (also under the influence of deng’s opponents) altogether.
probably the most interesting event in the whole congress was the creation of a “ministry of state security” which will be in charge of counter-espionage work, and presumably espionage too.
The ministry looks likely to be merged with the recently- formed “people’s armed police force” to become a new power in the land separate from both the army and the traditional police.
modelled heavily on the soviet kgb, it can be assumed the new ministry will be run by trusted dengists and not by candidates nominated by the old generals.
for the dengist leadership, the role of this last congress session was summed up best by peng zhen, the new congress chairman, who urged that China “advance unswervingly toward the institutionalisation and legalisation of socialist democracy.”
“institutionalisation” may be a clumsy word, but it sums up well what deng and his allies are trying to do — take Chinese politics out of the hands of individual power-brokers and create a set of lasting institutions to regulate the country’s political life.
only after deng has gone will it be possible to make a final judgement on whether the attempt was successful or not.