140. Intelligence Assessment Prepared in the National Foreign Assessment Center, Central Intelligence Agency1

RP 78–10392

Collective Leadership and Policymaking in Post-Mao China

Key Judgments

Despite periodic efforts to project an image of unity under collective leadership, significant differences over the distribution of power and policy continue to divide the post-Mao leadership in China.

The Maoist legacy of the Cultural Revolution—radicalism and factional struggle—continues to produce tension and conflict in the new [Page 561] leadership. The catalyst has been the abrasive, vindictive, hard-driving personality of Teng Hsiao-p’ing, intent both on righting past wrongs and on achieving the rapid modernization of China. As an angry, aging man-in-a-hurry, it is Teng, not his nominal superior Hua Kuo-feng, who appears to pose the greatest threat to the smooth functioning of a collective leadership system in post-Mao China.

The dominant pattern of Chinese politics over the past two years has been one of a series of challenges by Teng to the collective leadership (challenges that in each case have initiated a period of tension and conflict) followed by a series of responses by Hua as the head of that leadership (responses that in each case have resulted in a period of truce and compromise). This cyclical pattern of challenge and response was revealed:

• First, in a dispute over the terms of Teng’s rehabilitation.

• Next, in an attempt by Teng to settle accounts with those in the new leadership who had benefited at his expense during the Cultural Revolution.

• And finally, in a debate over China’s modernization policy.

Teng’s differences with the collective leadership led by Hua are currently manifested in a continuing dispute over what role Maoist theory (Mao Tsetung Thought) should play in the solution of China’s problems. At issue is how much and by whom Mao’s ideological legacy is to be revised to take into account the needs of China’s forced-draft effort to achieve modernization.

What his opponents most fear is that Teng, having first denounced the Cultural Revolution, will then go on to denounce its beneficiaries—especially those Politburo members who rose to prominence as a result of the Cultural Revolution. It was to allay this fear that Teng, as a condition for his return to power, agreed to observe the principle of tenure for those members of the Politburo already there when he rejoined it. So far, although grudgingly, Teng has complied with the terms of the agreement. And this in turn has preserved the rough equilibrium of power that appears to be a prerequisite for the functioning of a collective leadership system.

This equilibrium may be breaking down. Most notably, Hua has recently shifted to the right to endorse a number of Teng’s pragmatic programs designed to accelerate China’s modernization. Another indication is the declining influence of the aged military leader, Yeh Chien-ying, who throughout the post-Mao era has consistently defended the concept of the Cultural Revolution, the Maoist legacy, and Hua Kuo-feng as the principal beneficiary of that legacy. Deprived of Yeh’s strong support, it appears that Hua in the face of Teng’s growing power has had no choice but to conduct a negotiated withdrawal from previous positions.

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Will Teng Hsiao-p’ing, acting increasingly as if he were party chairman and given to bold and far-reaching moves, now try once again to gain revenge against those members of the Politburo who both contributed to and profited from his fall during the Cultural Revolution? Will Teng be tempted, as his power grows, to act more and more in the manner of an authoritarian, autocratic leader and thus threaten the still-fragile institution of collective leadership in post-Mao China?

These are difficult questions to answer. It is logical to conclude that the reform-minded Teng would want to avoid a public split in the leadership that would imperil his modernization programs. This argument is strengthened by the fact that Teng in recent months appears to be having his own way in a number of dramatic policy decisions:

• To reform the education system radically.

• To send thousands of students abroad for scientific and technical training.

• To shift toward a modernized, professional army.

• To expand cooperation with foreign countries in the exploitation of China’s natural resources.

• To rely increasingly on foreign credit to finance the importation of Western technology.

The experience of the past two years has shown, however, that Teng is also intent upon settling accounts with those in the present leadership who helped bring disgrace and humiliation upon himself and tens of thousands of old party veterans during the Cultural Revolution. And indeed there is good evidence that Teng is continuing to maneuver against his principal antagonists on the Politburo.

We are left with a paradox. As Teng’s influence and authority grow, so do the scope and vigor of China’s efforts to promote modernization by acquiring capital and technology from the West. But so also does the possibility that Teng will use his expanding power to attack his still-powerful opponents on the Politburo and, in the process, undermine the unity and stability of China’s top leadership that are essential if China is to achieve its ambitious modernization goals. How Teng uses this power—for purposes of reform and of revenge—will largely determine the success of both collective leadership and modernization in the months ahead in China.

[Omitted here is the body of the report.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 49, Mondale 8/79 China Trip: Briefing Material: 3/78–8/79. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified].