In 1989 Deng Xiaoping, then China's paramount leader, made a long-term calculation that is now receiving its most severe test. Deng knew that China's authoritarian power structure, in which officials at each level are beholden to the people above, had one glaring weak point. Who appoints the person at the very top -- where by definition there is no superior to do the appointing? In China before the twentieth century, the seed of the emperor normally performed this function (as so it is even today in North Korea). If Mao had left a healthy son, his regime might have gone this way as well. But Mao had no such heir, and the top spot was left open for jockeying among peers.
Deng, the victor of the Mao succession battle, decided not only to appoint a successor but to lay down a plan that he hoped would institutionalize succession, at least for a few generations of leaders. Deng named the then Shanghai Party Secretary Jiang Zemin, who had successfully managed his city during the nationwide student protests that culminated in the June 4th massacre in Beijing, to general secretary, and named Hu Jintao, who was from a different interest group within the power elite, to succeed Jiang. The distinguished Chinese novelist and blogger Wang Lixiong, noting that Hu's apparent successor Xi Jinping is allied with the Jiang camp, has written a shrewd analysis of Deng's long-term plan: Two elite groups, one originating with Jiang and the other with Hu, will exchange 10-year periods of center stage while the other waits in the wings. Each group -- knowing that the other will get a turn later -- will have an incentive to be civil. With luck, long-term stability will result.
But now, a few months before Xi's expected ascension to the position of Communist Party chairman, it is worth asking whether Deng solved the succession problem. Wang points out that Deng's vision calls for neither ideology nor charisma in the people at the top; such things could rock the boat and be dangerous. On the surface, the leader should display no outward disagreement and pretend one has no ambition other than to answer the call of the masses; and under the surface, serve the interests of the power elite. Bland managers like Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, interchangeable parts in the system, are ideal candidates, no matter how unsatisfying their personalities or governing styles may be to the Chinese people.
Enter Bo Xilai, ambitious, charismatic, flamboyant, and until recently party secretary of the metropolis of Chongqing and member of the Politburo, China's elite decision-making body. Bo was adept at manipulating Mao-nostalgia as a means to convert popular resentment of corruption into political capital for himself, and, most galling to guardians of the Deng blueprint, appeared ready to skirt any institutionalized arrangement that might block his route to the top. Wang estimates that the elite establishment was ready to slap down Bo even if charges of corruption and wiretapping -- and the bizarre, and still mysterious, allegations of murder by his wife -- had not emerged. Corruption, and even wiretapping, are normal in elite Chinese politics. (A person with knowledge of high-level officials tells me that some secretly record their own conversations as defensive precautions.) Bo's crime was his violation of the unwritten rules about how to rise within the system, and his very public sacking (though officially for "serious disciplinary violations") has brought Deng's question of succession back into the foreground.