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Joseph Torigian on Elite Transitions in the USSR and the PRC

Hoover Institution Research Fellow Joseph Torigian shares insights from his latest book, "Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao," on the nature and limits of institutionalization in Leninist systems. (November 14, 2023)

Joseph Torigian is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, a Global Fellow in the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program, and a Center Associate of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Previously, he was a Visiting Fellow at the China in the World Program at Australian National University, a Stanton Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Postdoctoral Fellow at Princeton-Harvard’s China and the World Program, a Postdoctoral (and Predoctoral) Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), a Predoctoral Fellow at George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, an IREX scholar affiliated with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and a Fulbright Scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai. His first book, “Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao” was released with Yale University Press, and he has a forthcoming biography on Xi Jinping’s father with Stanford University Press. He studies Chinese and Russian politics and foreign policy.


Before I get into my questions, could you tell our readers a little bit about what your book looked at and what it found?

The book is about political transitions in the Soviet Union and China after the deaths of Stalin and Mao. Historians used to think that these were moments when groups with competing policy platforms competed for the future of the country. That view shaped how political scientists thought about Leninist regimes and led to conclusions about Deng Xiaoping and Nikita Khrushchev as leaders who consulted with and were vulnerable to others within the elite. But what new findings from both Russia and China show is that previous understandings of these moments were flawed, and that what really was going on was not so much a debate about policies by which the most popular leader became victorious but actually more a story of court politics, where what counted was historical prestige, antagonisms and grudges, mischaracterizing the positions of others, manipulating ambiguous rules, and also relying on the support of the power ministries, the so-called military and political police.

It was an absolutely fascinating study. I don’t know whether to call it revisionist. A lot of your discussion about Deng, for example, is definitely going against the grain of what was said about him for a long time, but you also cited a number of scholars both in China and the West who have done really good work illuminating that some of these established narratives have been manipulated by official narratives and maybe don’t really stand up to the evidence.

That’s a really good point. I want to emphasize that this book is a work of political science and history, but at its heart, it’s also a work of translation, because it would’ve been impossible to write without the work of historians working in China. For many years there was a lot of openness in terms of what you could publish, not just in Hong Kong but in the mainland, especially in Party history journals like Yanhuang Chunqiu. Without drawing upon the research of individuals, especially such as Li Haiwen and Han Gang, it would have been really hard to tease out a lot of these new wrinkles. And I also want to accentuate the work of Fred Teiwes and Warren Sun, who are coming out with a book that will be a full treatment of Hua Guofeng. Hua is just one of the chapters in my book, so I encourage people to keep an eye out for that.

The consensus view on Deng is very resilient. You continue to see in media and academia this view of Deng as someone who cared about institutions, who was a liberal, who was a reformer. Certainly the story of the 1980s and all of the reform that happened necessarily include Deng, but he was unambiguously a strongman, decision-making was not institutionalized, and at very key moments, from the late 1970s through the 1980s, Deng was a very conservative force, both in terms of ideology and political change. I don’t think that this has quite sunk into the popular understanding of Deng. Perhaps my forthcoming biography of Xi Jinping’s father, who was not a fan of Deng’s autocratic tendencies, will take another piece out of the armor of that persistent historiography.

It’s useful to note that this revised version of Deng is much newer than the historiography we already had on people like Lin Biao and Liu Shaoqi. Many years ago, Fred Tewies and Warren Sun already explained to the world that we had gotten the story of these two individuals wrong. They criticized the idea that Liu Shaoqi represented a competing policy line within the leadership and that’s why he was punished. And they took on the idea that Lin Biao was aggressive and leftist and that kind of thing. Despite the pathbreaking work of Teiwes and Sun, popular misconceptions of Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao remain. Wrong views of Party history are very persistent.

Yes, I think some of the most persuasive points you made, out of many, were about Deng’s leadership style and the fact that he monopolized the decision making process. On another point, you talked about the fact that in Leninist systems you don’t tend to see assassinations or purely military figures or the political police overthrowing civilian leadership. When you’re talking about these features of Leninist systems, what pool are you looking at? Are you looking specifically at the Chinese and Soviet cases, or are these truths that you see across Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and so on?

I’m a huge fan of Joseph Fewsmith’s work, and he’s written about how Leninist systems aren’t institutionalized at all. My book argues that they’re less institutionalized than we thought, but that institutions still matter in certain ways. So I think that really we’re parking basically in the same garage, although we have different areas of focus.

The view of my book is that institutions don’t really matter in the sense that there is no system through which individuals can compete openly and win because they’re the most popular. This isn’t really about votes and numbers. It’s not that kind of game. But they’re also not shooting at each other at Politburo meetings either. So it’s like a knife fight, but it’s a knife fight with weird rules. One rule is that especially for the eras I talk about in my book– and we can talk about whether that’s still true today– the Party was everything to these people. The whole meaning of their lives was wrapped up in the fact that they were members of this Party. That helps explain why people who were being executed during the Stalin era were saying “long live Stalin” as they were being led to their execution. Because even when the Party told them that white was black, for them, white was black because the Party told them that, and they put the Party’s interests first. The second way that institutions matter is that it’s curious the dramatic extent to which victors try to present their defeat over enemies as something that more closely hewed to the spirit of the institutions than they really did. And this is interesting because it gets to an earlier question you had, which is why is the historiography on these earlier events so wrong? Well, it’s because the winners told a story that made it about policy when it really wasn’t. That’s because it’s harder to tell the truth when it’s about other things like historical antagonism, grudges, compromising material, and a desire for power. And finally, in these types of systems, you don’t really see the military and the Party fighting against each other. The military matters a lot, but only during moments of political crisis. Someone with a special relationship with the military really has a leg up, but it’s not like a general declaring a coup or instituting a military dictatorship.

Regarding your differentiation between “no institutionalization” and “low institutionalization” and the few characteristics of institutionalization that you outlined, such as the absence of assassination, I wonder about generalizability to some other cases. I’m thinking about the way Stalin killed people from the highest echelons of the Party all the way down and outside the Party. Looking at the mass detention, torture, forced confessions, and execution of all these people throughout the power apparatus, I find it difficult to see the conceptual line between that and assassination. How strong do you think is this institutional boundary that stops this kind of elite contestation from happening?

That’s a really good question. At the very top echelon, you had these extraordinary show trials where you would have people who knew that the charges against them were fallacious accept the charges for the good of the Party, and Stalin really cared about going through that ritual, which tells you something. It reminds me a little bit of the trial of the Gang of Four, which I talk about in my book. The Gang’s opponents won, so the question becomes why didn’t they just execute them? Why did they give them this opportunity to go on television? And the reason is that once they were in control and they could direct the show, then it made their victory less costly by making them look like everything was on the up and up.

I want to ask also about your point that in Leninist regimes, competitors almost always remain in the Party instead of leaving and opposing it from outside because they have a deep-seated belief in the Party as a “manifestation of historical will.” You also pointed out that “when a loser is outmaneuvered, they will not challenge a decision if doing so will threaten the stability of the system as a whole.” Is the reluctance to do that also a reflection of the fact that the Party is the only game in town in these systems and there is no other route to power for these people?

You’re right that it’s more than one thing. One is this emotional attachment, as you were just saying, but there’s also a rational element to it, this idea that you know that even if you did leave the Party, and try to start a revolution or something like that, it would fail. But one of the reasons you make that calculus is you know that the Party is populated with people who are so devoted to its cause. But also I think that Party members have a view that if you resist the Party, it’s not just you that will be hurt, but that you make it worse both for the country and the Party as a whole as well. There’s the emotional attachment, there’s the rational calculus for your own position, but also this idea that the more you fight, the more likely it will be that other people around you will be persecuted, the more likely it is that other people will take dangerous steps that will make them vulnerable, the more likely it is that it threatens the Party’s stability, and the more likely it is that people who hate the Party will use this disunity to hurt the Party.

What you said also made me think about the Cultural Revolution– what do you think about the fact that Mao was the head of the Party apparatus, the head of the state, yet he was willing to launch an attack on the Party-state, and to allow the devastation in many ways of the Party-state? Does that suggest that there is flexibility within this Leninist system to go against the Party and the Party-state?

That’s an interesting question: Was Mao not a Leninist when he launched the Cultural Revolution? Was this a case of him suddenly becoming an anti-Leninist because he targeted his own Party? But leaders in Leninist parties have always constantly subjected their own Party members to various forms of pressure or even persecution. Even before the Cultural Revolution, there was a common view within the elite throughout the 1950s and 1960s that it was necessary to prevent the Party from becoming ossified, from becoming a bureaucracy that was separated from the people. That’s a perennial challenge for Leninist systems. But how do you achieve something like that? There weren't really any good answers. And if you read Rod MacFarquhar’s books, he shows that in many ways the Cultural Revolution was preceded by a series of attempts, all of which failed, to answer this fundamental challenge. Intellectuals who surround Xi Jinping say the Cultural Revolution was a mistake, but not because its intention – to prevent “revisionism” within the Party – was problematic, just that it went too far.

Significantly, even Liu Shaoqi, who is often seen as a textbook Leninist, during the years preceding the Cultural Revolution showed extraordinarily radicalism during the so-called the Socialist Education Movement, or the Four Cleans. He really persecuted the heck out of his own Party. And so when the Cultural Revolution started, Party members had already suffered a lot because of someone who is often seen in the historiography as a “Leninist.”

There’s this idea of the Cultural Revolution as total state breakdown, but in a crucial way, the authority of Mao remained sacrosanct. And that’s important because when people were rebelling, they didn’t think they were rebelling against the Party, they thought they were rebelling against enemies within the Party who opposed Chairman Mao. During the 1980s, when they were trying to figure out what to do with all of these people who were promoted rapidly during the Cultural Revolution, there was a widespread sense that punishing them was unfair because they thought they were doing what Mao wanted to do. In 1989, Deng Xiaoping said that it was crucial that Mao had the status of core within the Party because if he did not have that power during the Cultural Revolution the Party would have collapsed. That’s an extraordinarily revealing statement, because it shows that, for Deng Xiaoping, the benefits of having a core for Party stability outweigh the dangers of having a core that could make decisions even as damaging as the Cultural Revolution.

I want to ask how important for succession in Leninist systems is what happens before the contestation. Mao designated Hua as his successor, but he didn’t effectively clear the field for him. Stalin didn’t clear the field for anyone to succeed him. Lenin at the end of his life tried to push Stalin down a little bit, but there was not a clear designated successor. So how big a role do the predecessors play in these events? Do you think that’s really important?

I do think that that’s important. In the case of China, it was very significant that Mao picked Hua Guofeng for several reasons. One was that Mao was still seen as sacrosanct, even though there was an understanding that he had made so many mistakes, and in the first years after the Cultural Revolution, there was a political decision to rally to Mao’s memory to achieve stability even as they moved away from Mao in practice. Hua also held the formal authority of the head of the military, the Party, and the government. That was a serious set of positions, especially in a Leninist system that’s so leader-friendly. And so people talk about Hua as this transitional figure, an individual who was going to be thrown out sooner or later because he was weak, but that’s not strictly true, actually. And Hua, because of those positions, if he wanted to, he could have put up a much bigger fight than he did, and the question becomes why he didn’t. One reason was because he was a Party man. He was looking at China after the Cultural Revolution and saw all of the devastation that had been wrought by these power struggles, and he didn’t want to put the Party through it again when he saw that Deng was coming for him. And he didn’t need to fight to save some kind of legacy because he didn’t think that Deng represented some policy platform that he opposed.

So you’re saying Mao did give Hua a little bit of a better position than I probably had in mind based on these conventional narratives.

And Deng had to do something about Hua’s popularity, and that helps explain a widely misinterpreted speech Deng gave on August 18, 1980. It’s a very important speech because many people point to it as evidence that Deng cared about institutionalization and overcoming the legacies of Mao’s “feudal” strongman rule. But if you look at the timing of that speech, it was very clearly directed against Hua, and it was making the case that just because Mao picked Hua doesn’t mean that Hua deserved to stay around as leader. That’s what the speech was about, not a programmatic policy declaration that Deng was going to rule as part of a collective leadership constrained by institutions and other individuals within the elite. This is not just my interpretation of what happened based on when Deng made his remarks and their political effects. Even people who knew Deng have the same exact conclusion.

There was a really interesting and persuasive discussion of that speech in the book. On another question, help me remember Deng’s position at Mao’s death. Deng would later talk about how his career had three ups and the three downs; he’d been brought back and given a lot of authority in 1975 and then got purged again, but Mao had always kept him on ice and didn’t do anything too drastic to hurt his image. In the final dismissal of Deng, was Mao deliberately keeping him as a potential successor? I know that earlier in Deng’s career, Mao had said things to Zhou Enlai about how he might let Deng succeed him.

In the earlier years of the Cultural Revolution, Mao had always been careful to distinguish between Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. One of the reasons was because he didn’t think Deng had historical problems, meaning Deng hadn’t ever been compromised or he hadn’t made any big mistakes or anything like that during the revolution, and also Mao was impressed by Deng’s toughness, he was impressed by Deng striving to demonstrate his loyalty. If you’re interested in the Mao-Deng relationship and you speak Chinese, there’s a wonderful book called Deng Xiaoping Before the Cultural Revolution by a Taiwanese scholar called Chung Yen-lin, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

Near the end of the Cultural Revolution, Deng was brought back by Mao to right the ship. What’s interesting is that during Deng’s execution of this mission to put China back on its feet, he thought he was doing what Mao wanted him to do. Deng wasn’t opposing the Cultural Revolution, and he did not represent a competing line with Mao. Rather, the problem is that he mismanaged his relationship with Mao. People went up to Deng and said, are you sure you understand exactly what Mao wants? But Deng went too far too fast, and Mao lost his confidence in Deng, even though Deng wasn’t consciously opposing Mao or anything like that. Deng just got the politics of his relationship with the leader wrong. So by the time Mao died, Deng had been essentially sidelined from the leadership. And then the question became, what was Hua Guofeng going to do about Deng? The historiography that was quite persistent was that Hua Guofeng didn’t want to rehabilitate Deng Xiaoping, he was forced to, but we now know that Hua wanted to bring him back, the question was just how quickly and how to do it in a way that people couldn’t use that as a weapon against Hua. Maybe Deng was a little bit upset, but he basically understood what Hua was doing at this time, and Deng’s position improved immediately after Mao’s death.

I get the sense from reading you and Joseph Fewsmith that a high water mark for scholarly literature on the strength of institutionalization in China was the 2000s and the 2010s. Do you think that that was influenced by a couple of seemingly relatively smooth transitions like Hu ascending in the 2000s and then Xi Jinping, whose succession still appeared to be generally in accordance with the process? What do you think about those smoother transitions? In the Soviet case, I want to say that the successions of Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev were relatively smooth as well.

So first of all, when we talk about institutionalization, we should be careful about which of the dozens of definitions of institutionalization we’re talking about. So in certain ways, there was greater institutionalization in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, but specifically on the question of elite politics and whether rules, especially about succession, coalesced in a meaningful way after Deng, my immediate reaction is, we don’t know. We have this idea of the transition from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping as basically stable, but do we really know? During the Jiang Zemin era, he could change age retirement rules arbitrarily to get rid of people he didn’t want. That’s not very institutional. Liberal Party elders like Li Rui thought that by the end of Jiang Zemin’s tenure, Jiang was basically another core, another person who could ride roughshod over the interests of other people within the elite. He remained as head of the CMC even when he did a handoff to Hu Jintao as the top Party leader; there was apparently a decision within the Party that Jiang Zemin would still be consulted for big issues. We don’t know a lot about the Hu Jintao era, but it does seem like so-called old person politics persisted in the sense that Jiang was still a significant figure. For Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, we know almost nothing. And certainly there was a lot of upheaval in the transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, so I think the jury is still out on a lot of these questions about how “institutionalized” the succession was.

Before I let you go, can you tell us what you’re working on now and what we can look forward to from you?

I’m finishing a biography of Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, and that should hopefully be coming out next year. The next set of projects I’ll be working on are related to nuclear weapons in China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, including a forthcoming article on the 1969 Sino-Soviet crisis in Journal of Cold War Studies.


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