Preferred Citation: Lieberthal, Kenneth G., and David M. Lampton, editors Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.

Four The Party Leadership System

Chronic Problems And Post-Mao Reforms

The sub-Politburo level of organization, including LGs or committees and staff offices, for the sake of analysis could be likened to the White House staff organizations, such as the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget, and the domestic affairs councils, such as the Council of Economic Advisors, in that they provided personal policy support for the president. In both systems, these organizations could operate something like an "inner cabinet" chosen and shaped personally by the top leader. In both systems, short-term domestic political considerations and personal and party loyalties tended to weigh heavily in policy recommendations and decisions within these bodies. These staff organizations were largely immune from outside oversight.

A brief comparison of the two functionally similar setups in the United States and China is helpful in pointing out the vast differences between the Chinese and the American "inner cabinets" in terms of independence and scope of power and influence. In the United States, the many limitations on the independence and influence of the inner cabinet include most importantly the limits on the president's own powers posed by constitutional limits on tenure, the electoral process, the need to obtain rather than command congressional cooperation, and the independence of the courts and the press. Major White House organs also have statutory definitions of their authority and composition. These types of limits on power are either nonexistent or very weak in China.

Moreover, the power of the inner cabinet in the United States is reined in by the stability and strength of the regular executive bureaucracies, with their professional permanent staff, and the direct and independent access to the president by most regular cabinet members, whose experience and stature usually outweigh that of White House staff. In China, by contrast, the inner and outer cabinet members are often the same people wearing two hats, as concurrent Party and government officials; as a result, there are much weaker checks and balances between bureaucracies.

American cabinet members, even though they too are political appointees, are constrained in their work by the congressional approval and review processes, and their limited ability to change and control their own permanent employees, protected by independent personnel sys-


tems. The institutions and processes of both Party and state that might have provided checks on the "cabinet" in China, however, have been severely weakened over the decades by constant reorganization, purges, and abrupt changes in policy direction. The informal as well as the formal norms of operation are easily ignored or overridden.

The most obvious difference between the Chinese and the American "inner cabinet" is in the scope of authority. The Politburo's policy groups are ultimately responsible for the direction of all government, economic, and social institutions nationwide. All countries, of course, face the problem of how to link concentrated executive leadership with administrative bureaucracies and nongovernmental groups. But most systems have large social sectors that are autonomous of the government. In China the enormous confluence of leadership over all sectors within one small body, and often in practice one individual at the apex of the system who has wide discretionary authority, greatly magnifies the impact of personality and politics on the system.

Beginning in August 1980, Deng Xiaoping periodically expressed an urgent need for reforming this Party and state leadership system, not merely making changes in personnel. He blamed poor governance on overconcentration of power, arbitrary and patriarchal personal rule, life tenure and special privileges, the holding of concurrent posts, overstaffing, lack of distinction between Party leadership and government administration, as well as a general lack of accountability according to rules. He called for "radical reform," focused on the organs at the highest levels. Deng's stated priorities—in reaction to the disaster of Mao's latter years—were to ensure against personal dictatorship and to create realistic policies.[16]

After the restoration of the Party Secretariat in February 1980 under Hu Yaobang as general secretary, and the reorganization of the State Council in September under Zhao Ziyang as the new premier, Deng, Hu, and Zhao experimented with major changes in the Party and state structure as well as in personnel. In general, the changes were modeled after the Eighth Party Congress setup of 1956–66, with some innovations, such as the creation of the Central Advisory Commission. Procedural, institutional, and legal reforms in this period are best viewed as mechanisms for the Party to delegate authority and responsibility and to create forums for the expression of public opinion, but without giving up its monopoly on power.

By 1986, however, these changes were viewed by many as insufficient

[16] Deng Xiaoping, "On the Reform of the System of Party and State Leadership," 18 August 1980, in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (1975–1982) (Beijing, Foreign Languages Press).


and even superficial. It was openly acknowledged that the bureaucracy had quickly regained and surpassed its former size—like mushrooms after the rain. Corruption was spreading; oligarchy had replaced autocracy. Partial streamlining, rejuvenation of the cadre ranks, and professionalization of policy research and implementation served to regularize procedures and create more realistic policy. But many in the elite became convinced that only the symptoms had been treated, while the disease—labeled "bureaucratism," for short—remained chronic, even potentially fatal to the effectiveness and legitimacy of Party rule. Chen Yizi, a senior adviser to Zhao Ziyang on economic and political reform (who fled China after June 1989), listed some of the continuing flaws resulting from Party monopoly of power: (1) the Party is immersed in routine work and ignores major policy problems; (2) the Party becomes absorbed in addressing conflicts of interest, and social disputes over specific policy decisions by Party and government lead to endless confusion and disputation over trifles; and (3) Party monopoly of all policy decisions means that public grievances over policy failures inevitably create discontent with the Party.[17]

In June 1986 Deng Xiaoping again lent the weight of his authority to a new phase of political restructuring; on Party Day, July 1, his August 1980 speech on leadership reform was republished as the "blueprint" for political reform. Over a dozen cities were allowed to begin experimenting with political reform, and a central Political Reform Study Group was organized in September, with a mandate to draft a reform plan, only some of which was publicly endorsed at the Thirteenth Party Congress.

Continued Political Abuse of the Leadership System

Knowledge of these political-reform preparations in 1986 motivated leading intellectuals to speak out in speeches and articles recommending far-reaching changes in the system, even touching on separation of powers and multiparty elections. This in turn raised expectations and demands of students for democracy when election of candidates to the National People's Congress (NPC) began in the fall. The student demonstrations in turn precipitated the fall of General Secretary Hu Yaobang, but a major cause was his conflict with key Party elders over control of high-level Party leadership organs, where Hu had been forced to share

[17] Chen Yizi, "Socialism in the Course of Practice and Exploration," parts one and two of a speech of July 1986 originally titled "The Economic Reform and the Political Reform," Shijie jingji daobao (World Economic Herald), 10 August 1987, 3–4, in FBIS-CHI-87-174 (9 September 1987), 20-26; and "Reform of the Political Structure Is a Guarantee of Reform of the Economic Structure," part three, same newspaper, 13 July 1987, 3–14, in Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Political, Sociological, and Military Information on China.


power ever since the Twelfth Party Congress.[18] This clash over senior shares of power was a classic example of how the politicization of the system continued to work against stable, effective government.

In 1985–86 Deng and Hu had been trying to turn over some of the functional leadership responsibilities to younger people affiliated with Hu, most notably Hu Qili in Party administration and ideology, Qiao Shi in political-legal and personnel affairs, and Qin Jiwei in military matters. Their plans included reorganizing the leadership units responsible for these arenas to make them more responsive to the needs of the reform program. There were calls for changes in these management systems along lines already pioneered by Zhao in economic and science affairs. But Hu Yaobang's competitors perceived a grab for power wrapped in the mantle of reform.

Much of the actual power struggle was carried out through reorganizing and reassigning membership in Party leading groups or commissions. As a result, institutional reforms became intertwined with—and subverted by—the power struggle. For example, from 1983 to 1986 each ideological campaign had involved a name change and reorganization in the propaganda LG, with the directorship (under supervision of Hu Qiaomu) passing back and forth between Deng Liqun and Hu Qili. Whereas in early 1987 Deng Liqun was in charge of the group set up to "combat bourgeois liberalization," Hu Qili regained influence in the spring when the slogan shifted to include "promote reform and opening up." It is likely that there was a similar shift in control over economic policy in early 1987, when a new campaign to "increase production and practice economy" probably required Zhao Ziyang to share his authority in this sphere with more cautious economic leaders, including Li Peng.

Through 1987, although Zhao nominally became the acting general secretary and supervised the drafting of the Thirteenth Congress work report, most of Hu's responsibilities were assumed by a group of Party elders whom Deng assigned to head new leading groups with responsibilities for the personnel and organizational arrangements to be announced at the congress.[19] In a sense, this group acted as a functioning

[18] Bo Yibo and other elders shared control of the Party Rectification Commission; Chen Yun controlled the Discipline Inspection Commission; Hu Qiaomu controlled ideology and propaganda work; Xi Zhongxun was involved in Party administration; Peng Zhen controlled the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, and a number of older generals had a say in military affairs.

[19] The Hong Kong South China Morning Post , 19 June 1987, 10, in FBIS, 19 June 1987, K6, stated that Bo Yibo and Yang Shangkun were involved in a leading group overseeing preparations for the congress. Bo and Yang took respective responsibilities for civilian and military arrangements, with input from Peng Zhen, Xi Zhongxun, Song Renqiong, Yao Yilin, and Wan Li; the Central Party School president, Gao Yang; and for the military from Wang Zhen, Yu Quuli, and Wu Xiuquan. Cheng Ming 122 (1 December 1987): 6–9, in FBIS 87-230 (1 December 1987), 13, mentioned a Thirteenth Congress personnel or nominating group, which was to recommend members of the Central Committee, the Discipline Inspection Commission, and the Advisory Commission. It was headed by Bo and included elders Yang, Wang Zhen, Song Renqiong, and Wu Xiuquan as members. Later, Yao Yilin and Gao Yang joined. Both groups were reported to have subordinate working groups of younger leaders.


Politburo while reformist leaders like Wan Li, Hu Qili, and Tian Jiyun were under a cloud. By summer 1987, however, a more balanced group was responsible for the congress arrangements: Zhao, Yang, Wan Li, Hu Qili, and Yao Yilin. The changing composition and focus of the special groups set up to look into political reform also reflected the political struggle of 1987.[20]

Trends under Zhao Ziyang

In his report to the Thirteenth Congress, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang proclaimed the intent to continue earlier efforts to create a more efficient and open governing structure by defining—and enforcing—a more limited role for the Party. Because of pressures from conservatives and Zhao's need to strengthen his grip on Party organs, it became clear that political reform would involve dividing functions, not separating powers, among China's governing institutions. That is, the Party would delegate authority to, but not share power with, legislative, executive, and judicial bodies. The logic of the approach was spelled out in a lengthy article from the Party History Research Office published in December 1987: (1) solving problems in leadership structure is the fundamental step required to democratize the state; (2) reform of the leadership structure is the key to political reform and an important component of comprehensive reform; and (3) separating the Party from the government is the key link in changing the leadership structure.[21]

The Party was to limit its direct involvement to the strategic policy-making and personnel functions essential to its continued dominance of the political system. By the late 1980s the Party leadership had delegated a modicum of concrete policy-making and executive power to the government, legislative power to the National People's Congress, and judicial authority to the courts. In addition to further progress on these fronts, in 1988 there seemed to be some incipient movement toward reducing the independence of the military bureaucracy and making it truly a state institution. The legislative "branch" is clearly in transition as a result of the turnover of leadership from Peng Zhen to Wan Li; but little was said about plans for future reform in elections or lawmaking. Greater future

[20] For details of the personnel and activities of these groups, see Appendix C.

[21] Pang Song and Han Gang, "The Party and State Leadership Structure," 49–50.


autonomy was also being promised to nonstate organizations, but again little movement in that direction has occurred.

This strategy of separating functions and delegating authority was limited to the lower and middle reaches of the system and is premised on changes in precisely the opposite direction at the very top. The power of the Politburo standing committee and its leading small groups or commissions, which had macropolicy decision and command authority over all three bureaucracies, was being strengthened. This trend was clear in changes at this level reported in the Hong Kong press in the months following the congress.

The primary motive of reformers in making such changes seemed to be to improve bureaucratic accountability and efficiency as well as policy realism, rather than to introduce democratic checks on the exercise of power. In speeches in 1986, both Vice-Premier Wan Li and the State Council secretary-general, Chen Junsheng, complained of continuing poor work performance in the bureaucracy, as manifested in lack of policy creativity, avoidance of responsibility, persistent wrangling, and nondecision. Chen highlighted both a cultural and an institutional inability to resolve conflicts of interest and coordinate consensus decisions in a positive manner at the lowest possible level. He referred to a chronic "escalation of coordination," such that decisions were constantly being referred up the ladder of authority, and blamed this phenomenon on overcentralization of power, overstaffing, and a too detailed division of labor. As a result, the central leadership was bogged down in details, with no time, energy, or ability to determine strategic programs.[22]

In response to such problems, Zhao Ziyang emphasized the importance of delegating power, clarifying responsibility, and introducing work evaluation and internal supervision systems at every tier. One approach to improving coordination was to expand membership in the central leading groups to include representation from all relevant organizations, with some overlapping membership between groups.

Public supervision was viewed as a necessary but distinctly secondary aim of reform; it still was to be achieved indirectly, through public opinion surveys and appointed or indirectly elected representatives to the legislature and united-front organs. There was only hesitant progress

[22] Wan Li, "Making Decision Making More Democratic and Scientific Is an Important Part of Reform of the Political System" (speech given to a national research symposium on soft science in July 1986), Renmin Ribao , 15 August 1986, excerpts in Benedict Stavis, ed., "Reform of China's Political System," Chinese Law and Government 20, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 21–25, and Chen Junsheng, "Increase the Work Efficiency of Public Organs," excerpts from a speech delivered at a forum for secretary-generals of eight provinces and municipalities, 29 June 1986; originally published in Mishu Gongzuo (Secretarial Work) 1987, no. 1; in Renmin Ribao (People's Daily), 19 March 1987, 5, in FBIS 1 April 1987, K33–38.


toward achieving "transparency" (toumingdu ) of the political process through freer press discussion of government structure and actions. Yet this is a prerequisite for any public supervision, given the general public ignorance regarding the purpose, functions, and laws or regulations related to China's governing bureaucracies, not to mention the habitual fear of critiquing government performance.

Another goal of leadership reform—to diminish high-level factionalism—was never mentioned explicitly but seemed implicit in the obvious effort under Zhao to limit the involvement of Party elders in the central leadership organs as well as to make membership largely statutory and thus less open to personal factional appointment and manipulation. The plans to eliminate Party core groups in the government and introduce a civil service system were intended to regularize the functioning of the government, by helping to insulate it from appointment and command according to personal loyalties rather than professional qualities. It also would have helped to clarify duties and lines of authority. But expanding the scope of the civil service and introducing similar mechanisms into other bureaucracies, including Party and security apparatus, would have been critical to the success of civil service reform. So would an expansion of the transparency and supervision of the government from the outside, whether it be in sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress or the public media.

Events of late 1988 and 1989 were traumatic setbacks for this political-reform process. Succession politics took over the leadership agenda, focusing energies once more on control of elite organs of power. The reemergence of this style of politics at the end of Deng Xiaoping's ten year tenure indicated the enormous difficulty of digging up the roots of flaws in the system. Leadership instability in late 1989 and 1990 was characterized by institutional reorganization and an ongoing purge of personnel throughout the bureaucracy. A hiatus in political reform seemed inevitable until some time after Deng's passing when a post-Deng leadership had taken solid form.

Four The Party Leadership System

Preferred Citation: Lieberthal, Kenneth G., and David M. Lampton, editors Bureaucracy, Politics, and Decision Making in Post-Mao China. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1992 1992.