If you’re like me, you may be troubled at the thought of all that you do not know or understand about China.  And, if you realize the depth of your ignorance on something so important, you ask the smartest people you know about That Something what you should read on the topic to get smarter.

So it was that I turned to a very special and long-time friend who is, among his many other outstanding qualities:

  • natively bilingual in English and Chinese;
  • Harvard/Columbia Law;
  • former chair of the San Francisco Fed;
  • and the managing partner for Asia of an AmLaw 50.

My friend David gave me a short list of five books, from which I chose David Shambaugh’s China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now (2021). Shambaugh is a widely acclaimed expert on contemporary China and international relations within Asia and is Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.  His previous books on China, as author or editor, number 28.

True to its title, the volume consists of introductory and concluding chapters bookending five chapters, one each on:

  • Mao Zedong–short-handed by Shambaugh a “populist tyrant”
  • Den Xiaoping, “pragmatic Leninist”
  • Jian Zemin, “bureaucratic politician”
  • Hu Jintao, “technocratic apparatchik”
  • and Xi Jinping, “modern emperor”

One can argue with the author’s organizing principle for covering the history of “modern day” (CCP-controlled, 1949–  ) by pegging it to the hook of the five most consequential and long-lasting leaders of the PRC over its first seven decades, but it’s an accessible point of entry to an audience such as I might represent:  Super-non-expert, that is.  Shambaugh begins by disabusing the reader of any notion they might entertain that this has been 70 years of continuity or linear progression–“there has been a considerable degree of discontinuity. [emphasis original].”  

To be sure, all have had to confront the realities of China as a nation, an economy, and a society/culture in the second half of the 20th  Century and the 21st as far as it  has unfolded. These include:

  • a priority placed on “self-strengthening” China economically and otherwise (true actually since the late Qing dynasty ca. 1870s–1890’s)
  • recovering lost dignity and respect, reinforcing its territorial integrity and sovereignty;
  • reducing poverty and social inequality;
  • increasing educational levels in general and literacy rates in particular;
  • and perhaps nearest and dearest to my heart and head, striking a delicate and ever-shifting entente cordiale between free markets and robust private enterprise vs. drawing and enforcing strong and unforgiving lines around political and individual freedoms, including of worship, expression, assembly, and petition.

Because each of the five leaders was so different, and ordered their priorities with such great variety, I cannot do better than to paraphrase and summarize Shambaugh’s own conclusions in his final chapter.  I borrow liberally from his words as he is by and large a clear and forceful, it unpoetic, writer (see From Mao to Now at Chapter 7 pp. 318–339).

Mao Zedong was extraordinarily complex and the hardest by far to encapsulate.  He was free of any consistent style, although a powerful enduring theme was his intrinsic populist faith in “the masses” and corresponding distrust of and hostility towards institutions.  Hence all his multiple “campaigns,” some of historic cruelty, scope, and scale in terms of death and suffering.  (Shambaugh estimates the total deaths over his successive campaigns of coercion as “conservatively” 40-50 million.) Yet he also joined “the dynastic pantheon of China’s emperors” by virtue of his being in word and deed the founding father of  modern China: Standing atop Tiananmen Gate on October 1, 1949 and proclaiming the birth of the PRC.

He ruled in many ways imperially and “behind the curtain,” ceasing to even attend Politburo or Central Committee meetings after 1959 and ruling through cryptic four or eight-character idioms taken from classical Chinese texts (or of his own creation), issued from an inner sanctum well within the Forbidden City.  He was contradictory to a fault: Becoming an intent student of Chinese history with an intense disdain for intellectuals; fascinated by the outside world and foreign relations but only leaving China twice in his life (both times to the Soviet Union).

He single-handedly forged the Sino-Soviet alliance and then fathered its breakup; chose to enter the brutal Korean War; initiated efforts to reach out to President Nixon; and launched the (1973) “Four Modernizations” program to open relations with the West.

In short, modern China would be unimaginable without Mao; but Mao would be almost equally unimaginable as a leader of China today.

Deng Xiaoping had a tough act to follow.

Typically, the immediate successor to a first-generation Creator is a somewhat toothless and short-lived caretaker.  (Stalin, after Lenin, and Chiang Kai-shek, after Sun Yat-sen) were exceptions since both Founder/Creators had exceptionally short tenures at the head of their newly created nations.

Deng was far more than a passive successor to Mao; he is often seen as the anti-Mao, which is true if you look at all the pragmatic reforms he undertook that repealed, reversed, and destroyed much of what Mao had done. (As another contrast, he had zero charisma and never ruled by charm, although he did gain and earn stature.)  He lived an anti-imperial life, moving out of the Forbidden City altogether for a modest house on a lake just to the north.  He was frugal, loyal and faithful to his wife of many years (you can connect the anti-dots to Mao), traveled widely abroad (first at age 16), felt a certain envy towards the West–which Mao disdained if he didn’t loathe–and with the exception of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was seen as largely pacific and tolerant.

Deng’s most oft-quoted saying, which encapsulates  his opening towards private property and private enterprise, says much:  “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

Jian Zemin’s main claim to fame may be his surmounting the international isolation following the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989, presiding over Britain’s return of Hong Kong to the PRC, and been the first “modern” (Communist era) Chinese leader to preside over a sustained period of economic growth and rising prosperity.  Of him, little was expected but much was delivered:

Jiang ‘grew into’ the role and gained confidence over time–stepping down only when mandatory retirement kicked in.

Personally and stylistically, he was also far more extroverted and even exuberant than Mao or Deng, “very animated in meetings, physically gesticulating frequently, talking incessantly, and regularly veering off-topic.”

Be that as it may, it’s difficult to recall any enduring contribution he made to modern China, even to deeply immersed experts like Shambaugh.

Hu Jintao was more the cipher and caretaker.

Although he had a decade as heir apparent to use touring the nation and making himself and his priorities will known, “he did not use this time effectively.”  His speeches were “perfunctory,” and his decade of apprenticeship were innocent of exposure to genuine domestic or foreign policy issues.  The result was predictable:

“Hu’s decade of rule [2002–2012] is generally seen as unremarkable.  His lack of preparation, his own sterile personality, and little constituency-build during the previous decade m have had something to do with it but but the end, many Chinese referred to this period as the ‘ten lost years.'”

Before we get to Xi Jinping….

Related Articles

Email Delivery

Get Our Latest Articles Delivered to your inbox +

Sign-up for email

Be the first to learn of Adam Smith, Esq. invitation-only events, surveys, and reports.

Get Our Latest Articles Delivered to Your Inbox

Like having coffee with Adam Smith, Esq. in the morning (coffee not included).

Oops, we need this information
Oops, we need this information
Oops, we need this information

Thanks and a hearty virtual handshake from the team at Adam Smith, Esq.; we’re glad you opted to hear from us.

What you can expect from us:

  • an email whenever we publish a new article;
  • respect and affection for our loyal readers. This means we’ll exercise the strictest discretion with your contact info; we will never release it outside our firm under any circumstances, not for love and not for money. And we ourselves will email you about a new article and only about a new article.

Welcome onboard! If you like what you read, tell your friends, and if you don’t, tell us.

PS: You know where to find us so we invite you to make this a two-way conversation; if you have an idea or suggestion for something you’d like us to discuss, drop it in our inbox. No promises that we’ll write about it, but we will faithfully promise to read your thoughts carefully.