Hidden History

Changing the Guard7 min read

Jeremiah Jenne looks back on historical reactions to political change in China


Last month, China chose its leaders. As we all knew would happen anyway, Xi Jinping remained in the top job for another five years (and possibly will even longer, according to a few pundits), while the Politburo Standing Committee, the Chinese Communist Party’s “board of directors”, saw new faces as former members retired or were sent into political exile. Each new seat at the table represents the head of interlocking patronage networks with roots and tendrils spreading out from the center and down from the top, throughout the apparatus of Party and state.

Now is also the time for Zhongnanhai-ologists: The China watchers and journalists whose job it is to keep one eye fixed on the gates of the CCP leadership compound, a converted imperial park just to the west of the Forbidden City. Who’s in? Who’s out? What will this mean for the future? It is, by nature, a closed process, and even the handiest China experts are more often wrong than right. Edgar Snow’s book Red Star Over China was one of the first serious efforts by a Western journalist to understand the CCP’s role in the Chinese Revolution, but even he had to cringe later over statements like, “Mao appears to be quite free from symptoms of megalomania.” Opinions evolve. Predictions are qualified. Bets get hedged. It’s all in the game.

“our coverage of China is as much a reflection of our own expectations and hopes, cast onto the tabula rasa of the high walls which surround Zhongnanhai”

Looking back at how the overseas press has reported and speculated on leadership changes in China through history, one is immediately struck not by how wrong they were, but by the intense sense of optimism at each transition. Each change of the guard suggested to the Western commentariat that this is the guy who will lead China forward, or at least in a direction we – the overseas press – can approve of.

Perhaps the first such changing of the guard noted by the China commentariat was in 1875, when the Empress Dowager Cixi planned to replace her recently deceased son, the Tongzhi Emperor, with his cousin, the four-year-old son of the Empress Dowager’s sister. At the time, the newspaper Hong Kong Press worried about the policy implications of the young lad’s father and aunt having too much influence at court:

The claims of the grandsons [and sons] of Prince Tun [Aisin-Gioro Yicong] and Prince Kung [Aisin-Gioro Yixin] have been set aside in favor of a child whose possession of the dignity will confer power on two old, but ambitious women [Empress Dowager Cixi, and her sister the Empress Dowager Ci’an]. The father of the Emperor [Aisin-Gioro Yixuan] is reported to be a foe to progress, an enemy to foreigners, and adherent of the foolish and exasperating policy which attempts to effect their exclusion from China.

Dark times, indeed. But a few years later, after the new Guangxu Emperor had grown up a bit, things were looking brighter. The emperor, it appeared, had been taking English lessons. All was now well, at least as reported by The New York Times in February 1892:

The meaning of the Emperor bending to the study of a foreign language must be that he and his advisors consider that the time for China to retain her Government and customs, founded 3000 years ago, has passed, and that to deal with the powers of the present day she must alter her systems accordingly. His advisers have in this case shown an amount of wisdom which heretofore one would have been hardly willing to accord them, and have shown in a measure that must wish that China should take her proper place in the circle of civilized nations.

And despite the disdain with which Western observers viewed the existing government of the Qing Empire, many were equally concerned about what forces might be unleashed in its demise. The next major political sea change in China came in 1911, as the Wuchang Uprising spread into a full-scale revolt against imperial rule and the power of the Qing court teetered precariously over the abyss. The New York Times commented:

It is true that history, ancient, and recent, shows the Chinese revengeful, bloodthirsty, passionate, and fanatical at times and on occasion, and these are not the qualities we look for in an orderly, united, and efficient, democracy. It is only natural to infer that the removal of the dynastic central authority would aggravate the display of these qualities. But so far it cannot be said to have done so.

These sentiments were echoed only a few years later in 1916 as the new Republic of China, built on the ashes of the Qing imperial legacy, faced its own existential crisis at the hands of the military strongman Yuan Shikai, who having lost patience with the limitations of the presidency sought to revive the monarchy by placing himself on the throne as a new de-facto emperor. Far from being concerned at this very public display of oophagy destroying the new republic, some Western spectators in Beijing welcomed Yuan’s decisiveness:

At various legations the opinion is held that only by strong action can the President prevent the disruption of China by her own people. Very little has been accomplished by [the new Chinese] Parliament which since it was convened, has devoted its time to opposing the President, while disorders are spreading.

And so it went on, throughout the 20th century, with each leadership transition inspiring its own cottage industry of bears and bulls among Western media and China watchers, be they panda huggers and those who view pandas as juice-head skunks with better PR reps. As new leaders emerged to take the place of Chairman Mao, the foreign press attempted to read the tea leaves, often resulting in Sinological whiplash. Was Deng Xiaoping  “a waspish, crippled militant” as one newspaper declared in 1964 or should he be Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” (Deng Xiaoping, 1977). Same guy, different era.


The trend, of course, continues in our own century. In 2002, the ascension of Hu Jintao was marked in The New York Times by pronounced optimism:

Many observers, both in China and abroad, have high expectations that he will be a reformer, leading the Chinese regime toward greater openness and political change. Those who meet him agree he cuts and impressive figure: businesslike, confident, and able to speak with authority.

A decade later, Hu Jintao was a soon-to-be-discarded relic, and it was the heir apparent Xi Jinping who was annointed as the new potential reformer:

Much about Mr. Xi points to a person who, by the standards of current leaders, will be comparatively progressive. Unlike the parochial Mr. Hu, Mr. Xi, 58, is well-traveled and intimately familiar with the West. His daughter attends Harvard, and is said to enjoy Hollywood films about World War II. (Mr Hu is said to be a Russophile).

Nick Kristof went even further:

Here is my prediction about China: The new paramount leader, Xi Jinping, will spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well. Mao’s body will be hauled out of Tiananmen Square on his watch, and Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning writer, will be released from prison.

This is not to blame writers of the recent (and not so recent) past for their inability to see into the future. It is perhaps our nature as humans to at least hope that change is for the better. And it is equally natural to be disappointed when that change is unrealized or turns out to be for the worse.

And yet, it does show that our coverage of China is as much a reflection of our own expectations and hopes, cast onto the tabula rasa of the high walls which surround Zhongnanhai. That the intense and inherent secrecy of the process of leadership change in China invites speculation is inevitable. But we should also remember that it is – and always has been – susceptible to the deep gravitational pull of wishful thinking. ∎

This is the first in an occasional new feature on the China Channel, ‘Hidden History’, where we shine fresh light on forgotten, lesser-known or misunderstood aspects of China’s past.