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The Changing Face of Political Leadership in China


David M. Lampton, Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Since rising to power three years ago, President Xi Jinping has frequently been called the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. Such comments often refer to the way Xi has consolidated power by bringing the various Communist Party organs firmly under his control and to how he has eliminated possible opposition through a wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign and emphasis on rule by law.

David Lampton puts such observations into much-needed context by filling in the gaps between Mao and Xi, looking at how China’s reform-era leaders, beginning with Deng Xiaoping, have governed China. A China specialist who has served in a variety of academic as well as official US government positions, Lampton seeks to put a human face on China’s often opaque leadership by drawing upon hundreds of personal interviews and conversations he has had with leaders at various levels over more than three decades.

Lampton begins by surveying the transition that Deng oversaw during the 1980s, as he brought China out from the shadow of the Cultural Revolution and into the modern world. In a word, Deng focused on peaceful development, experimented with new economic models aimed at incentivizing China’s people, curbed population growth, nurtured a new generation of well-trained bureaucrats, and used China’s competitive advantages to engineer a new interdependence with the outside world, all the while maintaining the Party’s grip on power.

By raising the expectations of the populace through economic and social development and setting the stage for greater demands for political participation, Deng left his successors with what Lampton calls “a ticking time bomb.”

In the years since, China has moved from having strong leaders and a weak society to having less dominant leaders and a fragmented government and society. Lampton helpfully introduces an historical perspective on the traditional expectations of Chinese leadership before presenting a number of colorful examples of contemporary leaders to illustrate his points about what has actually changed in Chinese politics.

Looking “under the hood” at the complex process by which policies are made and implemented, Lampton again provides abundant examples from various internal policy areas as well as China’s relations with various countries.

In a chapter called “Nightmares,” Lampton contrasts Chinese leaders’ conception of the “China dream” with their need to confront a familiar list of enduring problems that includes the economy, the environment, labor unrest, Taiwan, and the ongoing perception that China is being “bullied” by the developed world.

Lampton finishes the book with chapters on the military and on Chinese negotiation, illustrated with examples from the education, business, and international relations arenas, before concluding with a chapter entitled “Driving beyond the Headlights.” Here he focuses on the tension between China’s traditional top-down governance and the “demand-driven system” that has resulted from Deng’s reforms and asks whether China will produce a visionary leader who can move the government’s role from participant to referee so that reform can continue.

Writing in 2013, Lampton does not address the question of whether Xi is in fact that leader. Based on evidence over the past two years, however, the answer does not seem particularly hopeful.

Early on in the book Lampton cites James MacGregor Burns’s three ideal types of leader: transformational, transactional, and power wielder. He then goes on to contrast the transformational Deng with the largely transactional leaders who have followed, and asks whether these leaders are able to make the decisive moves needed to continue China down the path of reform:

“The biggest challenge facing the PRC is whether it can control itself at home and abroad with less dominant leaders and a much more pluralized and empowered bureaucracy and society.”

Far from being a “less dominant leader,” Xi appears today as almost the epitome of a power wielder, which Lampton describes as “distinguished by their devotion to maintaining personal power” and “their ability to prevail personally.” Similarly, under Xi’s rule large swaths of China’s society have become less empowered.

Where will this equation take China in the coming years?

I’m looking forward to Lampton’s next book.

Image credit: 70th Annual General Assembly Debate by United Nations Photo via Flickr.
Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the president of ChinaSource and the editor of the ChinaSource Quarterly. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of... View Full Bio