The Art of China Watching

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as with most major decisions, it took the Chinese several years of debating the issue to decide whether to abolish the job. Until January, when the post was officially dropped, it was filled on a temporary basis by an 88-year-old party veteran. Without a head of state, the highest ranking government official is the chairman of China's legislature. He, too, is 88.
Since the Communists came to power in 1949, China has been run by essentially the same small group of aging revolutionaries. As a rule, they do not retire. They tend to remain in office until they die or are purged. Thus far, very few have died. Because they are roughly the same age-that is to say, old indeed-there is the danger that they will all die nearly at once, leaving a relatively inexperienced group of younger officials to take over the world's most populous country. Only in the past two years has this old leadership made a concerted effort to bring younger people into the top ranks of the party and government hierarchies. By Chinese standards, "younger" generally means men in their sixties.
Being elevated so recently, these younger officials will probably not have much time to show their administrative and political talents, especially the ability to survive the political maneuvering, backbiting, and rivalries that are likely to emerge when the old leadership finally passes from the scene. Because the leadership has been relatively tardy in beginning to put together a succession arrangement, China watchers have little information to go by in trying to predict the outcome of a possible succession struggle and the directions Chinese policy will take in the coming years. Why the leadership was so slow in recognizing the obvious need to groom younger officials remains a mystery, but no firm steps were taken until the party congress in August, 1973, 24 years after coming to power.
Vacancies and Unannounced Appointments
There are, of course, many mysteries on the Chinese political scene. For more than three years there was no officially designated defense minister, although it was fairly obvious who was acting in that capacity. The man was finally given the job publicly in January, but why he wasn't named earlier is yet another unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, question. The man is 76, which means the Chinese will have to go through this same apparently arduous process of choosing a defense minister again in a few years.
The previous defense minister was Lin Piao, Mao's designated heir who allegedly died in a plane crash fleeing to the Soviet Union after an abortive coup attempt. All the events surrounding Lin's political demise and death will probably never become known, but the incident has had a profound effect on the Chinese leadership. It has fed their fears of possible Soviet meddling in China's domestic affairs and has transformed the once glorified army into an institution now viewed with considerable distrust. In typical Chinese fashion, Lin was privately vilified by name in documents circulated within China, but for the public record he was just an unidentified "political swindler." Everyone in China and outside knew that the "swindler" was Lin, and the Chinese probably were aware that they were fooling no one with their attempts to conceal his identity by not using his name publicly. Nevertheless, it was not until nearly


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Posted: May 08, 2007 08:43 AM
Last Updated: Aug 10, 2011 02:22 PM