The Hu Jintao Drama Reveals Beijing’s Fundamental Flaw

Leninist systems, it turns out, are inherently unstable.

Howard French
Howard French
Howard W. French
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Hu Jintao reaches down to touch Xi Jinping's shoulder as Hu is escorted from the hall.
Hu Jintao reaches down to touch Xi Jinping's shoulder as Hu is escorted from the hall.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) sits besides Premier Li Keqiang as former President Hu Jintao is escorted from the closing ceremony of China’s 20th Party Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 22. NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

According to the beau ideal of Chinese politics—as with most authoritarian systems—high-stakes debates over policy and power are meant to be conducted behind a thick and soundproof curtain. The public, much less the outside world, should receive a glimpse of nothing more textured than a smooth and placid surface of the machinery of state. The aim here, of course, is to suggest serene unanimity and magnify the authority and prestige of the leader.

That, at least, is the theory. Over the course of a few awkwardly filmed seconds near the conclusion of a quinquennial session of the ruling Chinese Communist Party this weekend, reality seemed to briefly shred the gleaming veneer that is intended, revealing drama worthy of playwright William Shakespeare. The scene in question arrived at the moment of what was designed to be the crowning glory of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, after he had engineered changes to the party’s rules that would allow him, in principle, to remain at the helm of power as long as he cared to—or, for a 69-year-old man, the rest of his life.

Without audible opposition, Xi had also just effectively purged some of the only figures in his party who could be imagined as standing for policies and a style of governance different from his own. Those unceremoniously dismissed included his own premier, Li Keqiang, once considered a contender to lead China himself. Li had created a stir in August when, during a visit to Shenzhen, China, he proclaimed that “China’s reform and opening up will continue to move on. The Yellow River and Yangtze River will not flow backward,” which some experts hopefully took to signal continued flickering resistance to Xi. Ominously and remarkably though, the sitting premier’s comments were quickly scrubbed from the Chinese internet.

According to the beau ideal of Chinese politics—as with most authoritarian systems—high-stakes debates over policy and power are meant to be conducted behind a thick and soundproof curtain. The public, much less the outside world, should receive a glimpse of nothing more textured than a smooth and placid surface of the machinery of state. The aim here, of course, is to suggest serene unanimity and magnify the authority and prestige of the leader.

That, at least, is the theory. Over the course of a few awkwardly filmed seconds near the conclusion of a quinquennial session of the ruling Chinese Communist Party this weekend, reality seemed to briefly shred the gleaming veneer that is intended, revealing drama worthy of playwright William Shakespeare. The scene in question arrived at the moment of what was designed to be the crowning glory of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, after he had engineered changes to the party’s rules that would allow him, in principle, to remain at the helm of power as long as he cared to—or, for a 69-year-old man, the rest of his life.

Without audible opposition, Xi had also just effectively purged some of the only figures in his party who could be imagined as standing for policies and a style of governance different from his own. Those unceremoniously dismissed included his own premier, Li Keqiang, once considered a contender to lead China himself. Li had created a stir in August when, during a visit to Shenzhen, China, he proclaimed that “China’s reform and opening up will continue to move on. The Yellow River and Yangtze River will not flow backward,” which some experts hopefully took to signal continued flickering resistance to Xi. Ominously and remarkably though, the sitting premier’s comments were quickly scrubbed from the Chinese internet.

The weekend’s other prominent ouster involved the former party leader of Guangdong province, Wang Yang, who had once notably pronounced these very un-Xi-like thoughts: “We must eradicate the incorrect idea that happiness is a benevolent gift from the party and the government.” He advocated gradualist political reforms in China centered on creating more space for civil society as well as for “thought emancipation.”

Then, before the session could close with smiles all around, performing uniform faith in Xi’s greatness, something unexpected and still mystifying occurred. Seated to Xi’s left, his immediate predecessor, the 79-year-old Hu Jintao, looking surprisingly gray and frail, was suddenly rustled from his chair—to all appearances against his will—and led out of the hall, leaving an empty seat near the very center of the front row.

Hu did not exit the stage before first reaching for a sheath of papers that sat in front of Xi, causing Xi to grasp them. Almost all of the top leaders who were seated nearby stared determinedly ahead as if pretending that nothing noteworthy was taking place. But as one of the men who was ushering him out tugged at his shoulder, Hu spoke a few words to Xi, who remained expressionless as he nodded, and then Hu managed to pause again to tap his protégé, Li, on the shoulder before finally being moved off camera.

Predictably, news broadcasts in China edited out these scenes completely, but word got around quickly of the unusual spectacle.

Xi’s apparatus leaned on King Lear to provide an explanation. Hu’s actions were those of a doddering and unwell old man. Although possible, this is hardly the most likely or satisfying explanation of the day’s events. As political scientist Joseph Torigian wrote in his recently published book, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China After Stalin and Mao, “critical junctures are moments when politics are at their most ‘visible,’ and thus they allow us to theorize about limitations and possibilities for the future.”

Here, the possibility that thrusts itself immediately into consideration is that Hu, often dismissed as a faceless, weak, and ineffectual leader during his 10 years in power from 2002 until Xi’s anointment in 2012, had chosen this moment to publicly mark his disagreement with the management of the party under Xi, which has brought about an extraordinary and stifling concentration of power into one man’s hands.

To grasp the logic behind this interpretation requires a bit of history, particularly of how Hu himself rose to power and then sought to exercise it. Hu’s takeover in 2002, which was set in motion before the death of then-rapidly aging patriarch Deng Xiaoping in 1997, was meant to usher in a new era of regular, peaceful, and institutionalized transfers of power in a country that had never known such a thing. This was to take place on a firmly scheduled 10-year basis divided into two terms, which theoretically offered the party the ability to remove a bad or unpopular leader after a first five-year term in office.

The mechanics of Deng’s new system also took some of the power out of a given leader’s hands in terms of choosing his own successor, allowing the party to play more of a role in the elevation of future leaders. In Hu’s case, the power to name a successor was removed altogether from the hands of Deng’s immediate successor, Jiang Zemin, because Deng himself, whose authority was unchallenged in the late 1990s, placed Hu in line to eventually replace Jiang.

Hu’s time in office, which coincided with the six years I spent as a reporter in the country, is often caricatured as directionless—a supposedly wasted decade for China. In fact, his legacy in power is a highly complex one.

In some ways, this was a golden age for the country, with very fast economic growth and enormous strides in living standards for most Chinese. Hu was no democrat, of course, but the explosion of the internet made for unaccustomed space in terms of expression in the country. Hu’s premier, Wen Jiabao, sought to put a human face on government, publicly expressing concern for the poor and people left behind on many occasions.

Hu’s most important political initiative was an attempt to institutionalize a more collective style of rule than China had ever known. As political scientist Susan Shirk shows in her new book, Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise, Hu did this by creating balanced representation in the country’s most important decision-making bodies among different stakeholders, including the party apparatus, the government, representatives of provincial governments, and the military.

Most importantly though, he expanded the very highest instance of power in China, the Politburo Standing Committee, from seven to nine members and openly chose to rule as first among equals instead of as an all-imposing figure. Remarkably, Hu explained this as “an effort to prevent arbitrary decision-making by a single top leader,” which was one of Deng’s key fears after the long and capricious reign of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

This brings us to Xi, who has just very clearly sought to go about as far as one could in the opposite direction, vesting almost all power in his own person, surrounding himself with yes men and proven loyalists, and exacerbating that very risk.

Before discussing Xi any further though, it is worth spending a moment considering how things worked out under Hu. His collective style of rule may have been well intentioned, but it created big problems of its own. The buck seemed to stop nowhere, meaning that each member of the supreme Politburo Standing Committee was allowed to run his own fief in one sector or another of the economy or national security system, with members seldom opposing one another’s actions even in private on the intuited basis that this would prevent others from interfering with their own pet projects and patronage. Under Hu, it often seemed—in other words—that no one was in charge, and corruption took off on an alarming scale.

We will probably never know with any high degree of resolution what happened with Hu, who literally left the political stage on Saturday, probably never to be seen again—a cipher down to the end of his public life. What we do know is that the seemingly unscripted and unharmonious nature of his exit created an embarrassment for Xi, deliberately or not.

And the shadow of these events underlines a fundamental weakness to a Leninist system like China’s: a debility that no amount of tinkering by Mao (who presided over the deaths of two designated successors), Deng (who ousted Mao’s final designated successor, Hua Guofeng, for reasons that appear to have had much more to do with personal ambition and entitlement than with ideological or policy differences and then created a formula for future transitions), Jiang Zemin (who began his retirement according to schedule but clung to secondary titles for years and worked to undermine Hu’s authority and constrain his choices), and now least of all, Xi, is likely to be able to resolve.

Xi’s approach, in fact, resembles nothing so much as a return to the origin of Leninist systems—and particularly to the example of another ruler for life, former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Xi has built a personality cult and packed the new Politburo Standing Committee with political Lilliputians—men of small political stature who have no previous experience of central government and limited power networks of their own—who thus pose no challenge to him.

This includes Li Qiang, the man who is likely to be named Xi’s premier next year to replace the now-banished Li Keqiang. Few analysts can imagine Li Qiang—who was loathed in his previous post as the most powerful official in Shanghai, where he oversaw suffocating quarantines during a recent COVID-19 outbreak—as an eventual successor to Xi. And that seems to be the point.

As University of California San Diego political scientist Victor Shih argues in his new book, Coalitions of the Weak: Elite Politics in China From Mao’s Stratagem to the Rise of Xi, this is a tactic Mao introduced late in his rule, when his priority shifted from questions of ideological legacy or even the future of China to thwarting the rise of challengers and ensuring his own political longevity.

The lesson here is that Leninist systems are inherently unstable, in large part because both the ruling party and the top leaders govern above the law. As Americans have been powerfully reminded in the wake of the crisis surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Congress, one of the most important features of any stable society is respect for laws of succession. But in China, all is still naked power struggles, usually well hidden from the public but unencumbered by firm rules; in such circumstances, good endings are not to be expected.

Howard W. French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent. His latest book is Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War. Twitter: @hofrench

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.