A Brief Note on Chinese Lame Ducks

The other morning/night, on Warren Olney’s “To the Point,” New York Times’  diplomatic correspondent Mark Landler suggested that Hu Jintao had entered the “lame duck” period of his Presidency. I was on the show with Landler (podcast here), and I respectfully corrected his use of the term, then – and I’d like to correct it, once again, now, in large part because I’ve seen and heard several additional “lame duck” references to Hu over the last couple of days.

So, just to be clear: the use of lame duck, by Landler in regard to Hu, and to politicians in other circumstances, typically suggests that the politician’s influence is on the wane due to an imminent succession or election. In Democratic countries, it’s a genuine phenomenon, based upon the idea that power is derived from the people, and the people are now interested in someone else. But it’s a tenuous concept, at best, when applied to authoritarian systems, and especially relationship-based systems such as China’s. In China, unlike in a democratic country, power tends to accrue to leaders over the course of their tenure, in large part because they are developing, and deepening, the relationships that keep them in power, and allow them to govern. So, for example, of the many narrative threads that apply to Hu Jintao’s tenure and power, perhaps none if more important than his development of a power base that allowed him to wrest power from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Unlike prior Chinese Presidents and CCP secretaries, Hu assumed power in 2002 without the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission; he would have to wait until 2004 before he could muster enough institutional pressure to wrest that from Predecessor Jiang. And he would have to patiently bide his time, waiting until 2006, before unleashing a massive corruption investigation that effectively gutted Jiang’s power base in Shanghai.

No doubt, Hu faces occasional challenges to his authority. But I think it’s indisputable that the man has more power – and a wider power base in the party – in 2011 than he did when he assumed national leadership in 2002. The notion of a lame duck – that power declines upon election – just doesn’t apply here. I wish some analysts would stop wishing that it would.

And that’s all. I’m traveling, intensely, and barring a life-affirming inspiration, I plan to keep quiet.


  1. Indeed, just look at the order of closeups when CCTV covers political events. Jiang Zemin is retired but still gets the #2 spot, ahead of the serving premier and the rest of the Standing Committee.

    China not only has the dual power structure of government/party that was inherited from the USSR, but a *third* unseen structure that reflects actual power. The most famous example being that of Deng Xiaoping, who ruled China as chairman of the Contract Bridge Association.

    American reporters tend to have trouble with this sort of unseen power structure. Especially since American news organizations generally send non-Chinese speakers to staff their China bureaus — which means that they can’t easily take in the gossip network.

  2. Please get your history right. Deng was the Chairman of the PRC and CPC Central Military Commission, meaning he has full control over the PLA. Deng’s power came from the military, so he has no need to hold any top political offices.

  3. Sean – I think Tom’s point is that Deng didn’t officially have any real political power, but that his power came from elsewhere, unseen/misunderstood by many in the West. It’s a solid, worthwhile point, as is yours about his military power translating into actual political power (not office).

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