Elite CCP Power Struggles
“We need to be extraordinarily careful when we’re looking at those types of material and be sensitive to just how much we don’t know.”
Joseph Torigian’s Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in The Soviet Union and China After Stalin and Mao is one of my favorite China books. Books that deeply engage with both Soviet and CCP primary sources around elite politics basically never come out nowadays.
He puts forward convincing revisionist interpretations of Khrushchev’s triumph after Stalin’s death, had me reconsider my conception of the Gang of Four after Mao’s death, and made me feel for Hua Guofeng getting done dirty by Deng. His new model of how power transitions really work in authoritarian countries with weak institutions left me more scared than hopeful for whatever happens once Xi exits stage left.
With all the drama around Qin Gang and Prigozhin in recent weeks, I figured this would be a good week to run our interview.
Image: Huairen Hall hosting the first meeting of the 1st National People’s Congress, Zhongnanhai, 1954. (Wikimedia Commons)
The following is an abridged transcript. You can listen to the full interview below on iTunes and Spotify.
Theories of Autocratic Power Transitions
Jordan Schneider: How do other leading political scientists think that power transitions work in autocracies, and what’s your model of how this all plays out?
Joseph Torigian: There is a trend within political science to look at authoritarian regimes as essentially systems of exchange: you have an individual who has a policy platform, makes promises about patronage, and then goes out to a group within the elite — the so-called “selectorate” — and convinces some coalition to support them as leader.
What the new evidence has shown about the transitions after Stalin and Mao is that it wasn’t a story of real policy differences among clearly defined competing factions, working in some defined institutional arena whereby you could summon some sort of coalition that would vote you into power.
It was one about personal antagonisms, different views about historical contributions to the revolution and the regime after victory, manipulation of ambiguous rules, the use of compromising information about your opponents, and also the cultivation of power ministries and political police in the military.
Political scientists and area studies scholars have often pointed to Khrushchev and Deng as institutionalizers, who really cared about collective leadership and created new guardrails to prevent someone like Stalin and Mao from happening again. What I argue in my book is that in fact, we shouldn't think about these moments as moments of institutionalization. In fact, institutionalization failed.
Elite Politics Research Methodologies
Jordan Schneider: Before we get into the cases, can you talk a little bit about how one does research on Soviet and Chinese Politburo fights?
Joseph Torigian: Unfortunately, when it comes to elite politics, that world files its information rather miscellaneously. You can’t just go to a defined set of archives, collect the material, and write it up. That’s increasingly the case in China, where even the regional archives where people used to go to get Politburo and Central Committee documents are increasingly restricted.
I wrote this book [using] a dog’s breakfast of different types of materials — including documents that are still intended only for internal circulation, but through various means have ended up at American universities. I’ve used books that were published in Hong Kong, outside of the censorship of the mainland; that included both really high-quality Party history works written by historians in the PRC, as well as memoir literature by people who were former high-ranking officials. Even within the PRC, for many years they were publishing high-quality material, especially in Party history journals like Yanhuang Chunqiu (炎黄春秋).
By talking to Party historians, very often I realized that I had something wrong. Reaching out to them and getting course corrections made sure that I was on the right track.
These individuals who were doing Party research in China are extraordinarily self-reflective and intelligent, and have a deep moral commitment to doing good research. Even though my book is a work of political science and history, I also very seriously consider it a work of translation. The research that I did would have been absolutely impossible without reading articles in places like Yanhuang Chunqiu or the books that were published in Hong Kong. The extraordinary help that I got from Party historians really helped me get onto a better track.
When I started to learn how to do Party research from Roderick MacFarquhar (who inspired me to do this), he told me a story about how on one occasion, a Party historian criticized him for getting something wrong. And he said, “Of course I got it wrong. I didn’t know about it.”
Party history is necessarily an iterative process. Because it’s so ambiguous and you are looking at so many different pieces of information from different sources — all of which need to be contextualized in different ways — necessarily there are areas for interpretation that will get better as people think about that material more, and as more material becomes available.
Jordan Schneider: Why is answering questions about the nature of authoritarian regimes so important today?
Joseph Torigian: Frederick Teiwes has written a piece about the black box of Chinese politics: using all of the wonderful new research he’s been doing for decades, he reveals that most of what was being written while those events were transpiring was wrong — and why that was the case.
A good sense of the mistakes that we’ve made in the past [and] a theoretical view of how parties tend to work are exceptionally valuable as we face these systems, which are so opaque that even extremely high-ranking officials within the system often read signals incorrectly.
Lizzi Li: What’s a better way to build intuition about what’s actually going on within the Chinese system?
Joseph Torigian: Often people will look at expressions in the Chinese media and infer the existence of power struggles. I want to be very clear that elite politics in China is a tough game, and people are constantly maneuvering — but when we look at Chinese history, we don’t tend to see these formulations as attacks on the top leader.
We need to be extraordinarily careful when we’re looking at those types of material and be sensitive to just how much we don’t know, which help us as we adjudicate different hypotheses.
Taking Down the Gang of Four
Jordan Schneider: Why, ultimately, did the Gang of Four get the boot? What were the considerations before they decided the venue? Why were Hua Guofeng 华国锋 and others convinced that this needed to happen?
Joseph Torigian: The Gang of Four, which included Mao’s wife Jiang Qing 江青, Zhang Chunqiao 张春桥, Wang Hongwen 王洪文, and Yao Wenyuan 姚文元, were shortly arrested after Mao’s death and blamed for the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
That decision was made by Hua Guofeng, Mao’s initial successor who relied very heavily on the bodyguard regiment under Wang Dongxing 汪东兴 and the military as an ultimate guarantor that the move against the Gang would be successful.
People often used to think that the move was because the Gang was this very tight-knit group with linkages to fellow radicals in the provinces, who refused to work with the old revolutionaries and were inherently leftist.
But what the new evidence shows us is that the so-called Gang, by the time of their arrest, were not working in concert.
They had even been sending out feelers to the old revolutionaries and other members of the old guard, and doing self-criticisms. We have very striking evidence from the archives of Jiang Qing doing apologies, and saying that even though we’re criticizing Deng in 1976, that doesn’t mean all of the old revolutionaries are bad.
Jordan Schneider: Do you think this is because they saw their own blood in the water? What exactly was motivating Jiang Qing to say things like, “We actually need to think deeply about the 30% that was wrong about the Cultural Revolution”?
Joseph Torigian: By the mid-1970s, the Cultural Revolution was essentially over. Mao, ultimately, never quite made a full synthesis of what the Cultural Revolution was supposed to be. In fact, for many years he criticized the so-called anarchists and leftists who had “ruined” so much of his Cultural Revolution. He characterized them as not actually being the Cultural Revolution — but there was never a programmatic statement for what the Cultural Revolution was.
In Mao’s later years, he wanted to make sure that the legacy of the Cultural Revolution wasn’t rejected, but he also wanted to move away from that era of total anarchy.
That’s why Deng Xiaoping was brought back to power in 1975. Authority within the Party tended to reflect views of your contributions to the revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, there was a new set of authority relations [based on] how soon you rallied to the campaign and how much you contributed to it. But since the Cultural Revolution was so widely seen as a disaster, that ladder cache was problematic.
The fact that Mao was still alive and was vulnerable kept [the Gang of Four] in office in the meantime, but I think they recognized that being exclusionary and offensive was not a model that would allow them to persist. By the late Cultural Revolution, these four individuals [became] aware of the usefulness of a more co-optation story toward the old revolutionaries.
Jordan Schneider: The Gang of Four has this crazy trial that you can watch today on YouTube. There was one tidbit in your book that I really loved, where Jiang Qing is inviting everyone to watch movies at her house but no one comes. During the trial investigators made fun of Jiang, saying, “Why didn’t you have any friends?” And she screamed, “I still have friends; I have true friends.”
Joseph Torigian: Mao really respected how tough she was. When it comes to Jiang Qing, one of the things that was so challenging for her to manage was [that] she was seen as one of the symbols of the Cultural Revolution, so it was hard for her to move away from the memories of what people had experienced. There’s [also] all kinds of gendered language about her that she faced her entire life: in fact, she told an interviewer to read this article by Lu Xun 鲁迅 about character assassination and said that “this was the secret to understanding me.”
While Jiang Qing had this toughness (as Mao saw it), it was hard for her to bring people to support her for reasons that included her association with the Cultural Revolution, character assassination, and her gender.
Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping: Battle Royale
Jordan Schneider: What was Hua’s game, and why was Deng not along for the ride?
Joseph Torigian: Hua Guofeng supported the rehabilitation of Deng Xiaoping and the return to work of many other figures, including Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun 习仲勋.
There was a common belief within the leadership that the regime was in trouble, and that unless they moved very quickly to change the situation, it would be dangerous. There was a consensus within the elite that reform was necessary.
People often say that Deng Xiaoping was the individual who supported the Special Economic Zones and approved the plans of Xi Jinping’s father to establish them in Guangdong. There was a very famous picture from a few years ago that shows Xi Zhongxun standing up and reporting to Deng Xiaoping, who was sitting down.
In fact, in April 1979 when that work conference happened, Deng was overseas. We have archival material that shows that when Xi Zhongxun returned to Guangdong, he wasn’t talking about how great Deng had been in the creation of the Special Economic Zones. All he talked about was Hua Guofeng, who gave the approval. That’s just one of a series of examples whereby elements of the reform actually should be given credit to Hua Guofeng more than they should be given to Deng Xiaoping.
Jordan Schneider: Deng, at some point, decides that this whole Hua thing is not for him, and he wants to take back the keys. What sorts of strategies does he employ?
Joseph Torigian: This was a prolonged period of political maneuvering between Hua and Deng. The common view is that in 1978, at the work conference before the Third Plenum, there was this brief moment of intra-Party democracy whereby a group of reformers, led by Deng Xiaoping, rejected Hua’s focus on continuing the quasi-Cultural Revolution.
We now know that that is a wrong interpretation. In fact, Hua and Deng were not really divided by differences on policy. Deng deployed different tools at different times to undermine Hua. He used the military regularly. He introduced formulations and debates that targeted Hua-ally Wang Dongxing.
Deng, very cleverly, would use pressure from lower levels to hurt Hua. When the work conference was moving in an unexpected direction, that was fine with Deng. But almost immediately after that, when people started criticizing other individuals who had been promoted rapidly during the Cultural Revolution, he screamed at them and said, “How dare you?”
Jordan Schneider: [The usual narrative] about the whole fall of Hua Guofeng is that he was actually kind of Maoist and didn’t want to change anything that Mao put forward, and Deng was the reformer who really wanted to put China on a different track. But you argue that there was no whateverist faction.
Joseph Torigian: Usually when you bring up Hua Guofeng to people who have taken a class on China or have read about Chinese history, the first thing that comes to mind is the Two Whatevers 两个凡是. It was widely interpreted within the elite to mean that old revolutionaries were not going to come back to work, there wasn’t going to be fundamental change with regard to the economy, and we’re going to continue to hue very closely to Mao.
But ultimately that was not what happened. In fact, the formulation that we saw was not intended for those purposes, but to rally the Party under Mao, because it was the one stabilizing force that would allow the Party to move forward united even as it was tinkering with individual specific policies.
We also need to contextualize those formulations with what Hua was actually doing. He was moving rapidly to rehabilitate these old revolutionaries, and thinking very carefully about different formulations of policies with regard to the economy. He was moving quickly to improve China’s research on science and technology.
Later on, the story was told that Hua Guofeng was a whateverist and had a whateverist faction, because that story was useful to justify the removal of Hua — which was, ultimately, primarily about other issues.
These contests aren’t fought in a defined institutional environment. Because these rules are ambiguous, ultimately the arbiter is the power ministries: the political police and military. When people look at China, there’s often a hope or suspicion that if Xi Jinping is too unpopular — either because of the content of his policies, or because he’s seen as incompetent — there is a mechanism within the Party for a course correction or elite revolt, where there would be another so-called Third Plenum that would allow reformers to emerge triumphant.
There’s a practical implication to this different view of looking at politics.
Jordan Schneider: Power transitions are not just dangerous domestically. Can you talk about Deng’s war in Vietnam, and how domestic power struggles may have played into his decision to invade in 1979?
Joseph Torigian: Deng was one of the only people within the elite who wanted to fight this war. There was broad skepticism about whether this was a good choice, but the war was fought anyway, and it demonstrated clearly that the PLA listened to Deng.
That immediately creates three hypotheses: one, that Deng did it for purely political reasons; two, that he did it both because he thought that there was a need for China to do it and for political reasons; and three, that he was primarily concerned about the international environment. Party historians I’ve talked to differ on whether or not it was primarily because of Hua Guofeng.
But what’s also very interesting, too, is that the failures of the PLA in the war in Vietnam didn’t really arrest Deng’s continuing climb to the top of the Party hierarchy. It challenges views [saying] that there is a natural tendency for people to be punished politically for incompetence in these types of systems.
Jordan Schneider: This is the sort of dynamic that really scares me in contemporary Taiwan scenarios.
Lizzi Li: How can a Leninist regime actually change to make meaningful policy reform? I remember Wang Qishan 王岐山, the current vice-president of China [Ed.: he retired in March 2023], famously asked, “Can a surgeon operate on himself?”
Joseph Torigian: It’s really hard to reform entrenched interests. If you don’t have elections, the rule of law, or courts, you don’t have an organization above the party to force the party to do things.
Even if you do have a top leader who’s not worried about their political position, it can still be very hard to make changes.
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