From Mao to Xi: Power plays in the succession of Chinese leadership

Portraits of Chinese leaders, part of an exhibit in Yan'an. From left, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and current president Xi Jinping. (Jade Gao/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the days of Mao Zedong, smooth leadership transitions have mostly eluded the Chinese Communist Party. Though it is one of the world’s largest political entities, it lacks an institutionalized means of succession, and China’s power brokers have taken control mostly through intense internecine battles among the party elite. Only the last two generations managed something close to an uncontested handover and transition — at the time, raising hopes of a true evolution.

Xi Jinping’s quest for total control of China is just getting started

Then came President Xi Jinping. China’s most powerful leader since strongmen Mao and Deng Xiaoping flouted the recent norms of succession at the party’s key meeting in Beijing last week. With his acceptance of a historic third term as party general secretary and chairman of its Central Military Commission — the two most important positions — the specter of a lifelong ruler again looms.

Here’s a look at how China got from the turbulent rule of Mao to Xi’s nearly unchallenged authority.

Mao Zedong 毛泽东 (1935-1976)

Mao took full control of the party during a 1935 power struggle midway through the “Long March,” the 6,000-mile retreat by Communist troops to escape the Chinese Nationalist Party’s army. In 1943, he formally became party chairman, a title he retained — often by purging rivals — from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until his death on Sept. 6, 1976.

Hua Guofeng 华国锋 (1976-1981)

Mao once told Hua, his designated successor, “with you in charge, I’m at ease.” Even with the chairman’s endorsement, Hua had to take down a group of Maoist leaders known as the “gang of four” to secure his position. (One of those four was Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing.) He didn’t stay in charge long. He had already begun to lose control when Deng Xiaoping, an influential revolutionary veteran, successfully schemed to supplant him in 1978. Hua stepped down as party chairman in 1981.

Deng Xiaoping 邓小平 (1978-1997)

Although Deng was never general secretary of the party, he is considered to have replaced a diminished Hua as China’s paramount leader starting around 1978. Often referred to as the “architect” of the country’s economic reforms and opening to international business, he used his influence over the military and party elders to guide policy and select leaders. His authority waned after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when huge protests in Beijing were finally crushed and hundreds, if not thousands, of people were killed by authorities. Deng stepped down as head of the military following the protests but remained influential until his death in 1997.

Hu Yaobang 胡耀邦 (1981-1987)

The first of Deng’s picks for leader, Hu was party chairman until officials abolished the position as well as their long-standing party structure in 1982. His attempts at economic and political reform earned him enemies among conservative party elders, who ousted him as general secretary in 1987. Upon his death two years later, students took to the streets in mourning. Their calls for political freedoms, including freedom of speech, became the demonstrations that took over Tiananmen Square until troops crushed the protests.

Zhao Ziyang 赵紫阳 (1987-1989)

Another of Deng’s chosen leaders, Zhao continued Hu’s reform efforts as general secretary. He was purged during the 1989 protests because Deng and other hard-liners considered him too sympathetic to the students. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

Jiang Zemin 江泽民 (1989-2002)

Party elders picked Jiang to replace Zhao as general secretary at a particularly critical moment. Jiang oversaw a propaganda and political thought campaign to reinstate control in the wake of Tiananmen Square; he later combined that with economic liberalization as China prepared to join the World Trade Organization in 2001. He formally handed over party leadership in 2002 but remained head of the military until 2005. At 96, Jiang is China’s oldest past leader alive today.

Hu Jintao 胡锦涛 (2002-2012)

Hu was arguably the first leader of the Chinese Communist Party to ascend after a gradual preparation process, rather than after a fierce internal struggle. But with his restrained leadership style, he was often overshadowed by Jiang and others. Government corruption, income inequality and party schisms marred his decade in power. Hu’s handover to Xi Jinping from late 2012 to early 2013 was the first time the country’s three top positions — over party, military and state — were transferred at once.

Xi Jinping 习近平 (2012- )

Like Hu, Xi ascended to the party leadership gradually, working as a local official for decades before being promoted to the top job in Beijing. Many outside observers assumed he would rule much like his immediate predecessor, perhaps even pursuing reforms. Instead, Xi purged rivals in a harsh anti-corruption campaign and cracked down on dissent, interning hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and crushing resistance in Hong Kong.

The 69-year-old Xi shows no sign of loosening his grip or designating a successor. State media regularly calls him the “people’s leader” — a near identical title to “great leader” Mao. At the recently concluded party congress, he declared that the party under his stewardship would make China a modern socialist superpower by 2049, a century after Mao founded the nation.

Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.