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China: Analysis From Washington--Shock Waves Of A Chinese Interregnum

Washington, 19 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Press reports that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping may be near death has already jolted the stock markets of the world.

But the approaching Chinese interregnum -- the period between the leadership generation represented by the 92-year-old Deng and that of his possible successors -- will send far larger shock waves across China as well as beyond its borders.

Much of the reason for this arises from the nature of political power in China and from the inevitable uncertainties both in Beijing and between Beijing and the regions whenever power changes hands.

Power in China remains personal rather than institutionalized. Deng himself has not held formal office for years. But his influence on politics and policy is so great that neither President Jiang Zemin nor Prime Minister Li Peng can take any action against his wishes.

And even with the departure of Deng Xiaoping, neither man is likely to be able to immediately impose his will on the Chinese capital or even more the increasingly diverse Chinese provinces.

In Beijing itself, many forces will contend for places in the new pyramid of power which will be in disarray for some time precisely because of the large place in it that will be left vacant by the death of Deng.

And that uncertainty will mean that China's approach to a variety of foreign states will be uncertain as well. On the one hand, China may act in new and unpredictable ways. And on the other, the competition for power in Beijing may make it difficult for the government to act at all.

But for China's neighbors, the most serious consequence of the upcoming political struggle in Beijing may be the competition that has already started between the Chinese capital and the Chinese regions.

When Beijing is strong and united, earlier Chinese periods between leaders suggest, the regions find it difficult to challenge central authority. But when Beijing is divided as it inevitably is at such a time, the regions are likely to try to acquire as much power for themselves as possible.

This process is once again already very much in train and will only intensify when Deng dies. In contrast to the past, however, this development now has three faces, each of which will affect a different constituency in China and a different set of foreign powers.

First, there is the normal ebb and flow of power between Beijing and most of its agricultural provinces. When Beijing is divided, they will act on their own but when it reunites they are likely to fall in line.

In the short term, they are likely to be resources in the struggle at the center rather than players in any larger drama. But even as they act in this way, these regions may affect China's ability to produce enough food and thus have an impact on exports and imports.

Second, there is the new challenge posed by those regions that have experienced the economic take-off powered by Deng's own reforms. These regions will seek to increase their political clout lest they lose their own current economic liberties.

Their behavior and level of success in the upcoming struggles will also have a profound impact on how China behaves when it reabsorbs Hong Kong this summer. And the way in which China behaves then will profoundly affect the way in which the rest of the world will view China as a whole.

And third, there is the challenge from the outlying regions of China -- Xingjiang and Tibet, first and foremost -- whose indigenous populations have long suffered under central Chinese rule and who want greater freedom if not independence.

There have already been demonstrations in both places over the last few months, protests that the Chinese have put down with violence. But uncertainty in Beijing may make it more difficult for China to act in a restrained fashion or even at all -- and either could lead to more challenges for the Chinese.

Violence in Xingjiang has already led to refugee flows into Central Asia. If there is more violence there and if these flows increase, that would certainly have an impact on the Central Asian states and on Russia as well.

Because these rules of the game in Chinese interregnums are well understood in Beijing and elsewhere, many will try to counter them in order to prevent instability.

But so far, there is no reason to believe that the death of Deng will pass without the problems that the deaths of earlier Chinese leaders have entailed.