Deng Xiaoping is Not Who You Think He is. Joseph Torigian on Leadership Transitions in China and the Soviet Union

Joseph Torigian

Joseph Torigian is a Research Fellow at the Stanford Hoover History Lab. Previously he was an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. He is the author of Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao.

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People still think of Chinese history as this two-line struggle because that’s the story the Chinese tell. But everything from Mao Zedong’s relationship to Liu Shaoqi to anything that happened during the 1980s, it was not a problem of competing policy platforms. It was a problem of getting the politics of your relationship with the top leader right when it was hard to guess what they were thinking and they were changing their mind and they were suspicious of you.

Joseph Torigian

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:48
  • Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng – 2:33
  • Khrushchev Consolidates Power – 16:16
  • Will History Repeat? – 30:11
  • Connections to Contemporary China – 38:31


An ongoing topic of discussion for many is what will happen after Putin or Xi Jinping. Nobody really knows, but it raises lots of questions about how authoritarian regimes handle leadership succession. Will the process go smoothly? What type of leader will emerge?

One approach is to reflect on what happened in the past. Joseph Torigian has a new book that challenges what we think we knew about past leadership successions in China and the Soviet Union. His book is called Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao.

Joseph weaves together political science and history in this book as he offers a revisionist account of the transitions from Stalin to Khrushchev and Mao to Deng. Our conversation touches on a lot of topics. We discuss the history, but also what the history means for how we think about those regimes and what it might mean for Russia and China in the future.

Now if you like this episode, please subscribe and follow along with episodes every week. You can also give the show a 5-star rating on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. If you have questions or comments about the show, please email But for now… This is my conversation with Joseph Torigian…


Joseph Torigian, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Joseph Torigian

Thank you for having me.


Well, Joseph, I was really impressed with your book. It’s called Prestige, Manipulation and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China After Stalin and Mao. It’s a fascinating book because it kind of weaves between history and political science. It’s in many ways a political science book. I mean, you’re doing case studies. But at the same time, you’re touching on aspects of history that I think a lot of people don’t know much about and I think you’re actually uncovering a lot of material that historians are going to appreciate in this book. So, as we kind of find an entry point into this conversation, I’d like to start with something that I think is a character everybody’s going to be more familiar with and that would be Deng Xiaoping. You kind of revise what we think about with Deng Xiaoping. What do we get wrong when we think about the legacy of Deng Xiaoping?

Joseph Torigian

Almost every time we see the name Deng Xiaoping, we think two things. First that he deserves credit for starting reform and opening at the famous third plenum in 1978 and second, that having learned the lessons of Mao’s strongman rule, that it was necessary for the party to establish real institutionalization and interparty democracy. I think that both of those assessments are now dated based on the new information that we have. The book shows that in the early years after the Cultural Revolution , there was a great deal of consensus within the party. They needed to change things drastically to save the revolution and one of the individuals who believed that was Hua Guofeng, who was Mao’s named successor and head of the party and military and the government for the first few years after Mao’s death.

Deng told a story that Hua was opposed to reform to legitimate his own case to be the top leader and Deng was motivated not so much by differences in policy with Hua, but a contestation about who deserved to lead the party and who had the most credibility and legitimacy because of when they joined and what they did during the revolution. In that sense, Hua simply could not compete with Deng Xiaoping. In fact, the way that Deng engineered Hua’s removal showed just how much Deng didn’t really care about even the ambiguous rules that the party had. In one case, he met with dozens of people while Hua Guofeng was overseas. So, it wasn’t this story of having institutions channel popular opinions within the elite, that there were these competing policy platforms and interparty democracy produced the more popular Deng because people liked his ideas better.

It was more about different views of history, personal antagonisms, and the manipulation of ambiguous rules especially in the case of Deng Xiaoping, who controlled the military. Of course, Deng demonstrated to the party that he was in charge of the gun and that was a critical part of this contest. One of the reasons that I look at this particular moment is because it’s during these periods of political contestation that you can get a really good sense of how things really work.

So, in a sense, the time of Deng’s ascension provided clues to how he would rule for the rest of that decade and this was a period in which Deng did not stand out for liberal proreform characteristics, especially with regards to political reform and ideology. Also, he very clearly believed that the Chinese Communist Party’s advantage, especially with regards to the West, was that they had this decisive leader who could force through decisions without having to worry about what many in the party call parliamentary politics, which they disdained.


What’s fascinating about Deng is that when we think about his legacy, we think of him not as a democratizer, but at least as an institutionalizer. Somebody who brought in stronger institutions into China that allowed us to see smoother transitions of power as we look at Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping. It seems like that’s one of Deng’s legacies. But it doesn’t completely match how he actually governed because he never actually ruled under an actual institutional power. I mean, he was always kind of in the shadows, if you will. He was never the chairman of the party. He wasn’t president of China.

For somebody who’s known as an institutionalizer, he didn’t really embrace institutions in order to actually govern. So, in a lot of ways, your book clarifies some of that because it explains how he wasn’t really focused on institutions and he wasn’t this great institutionalizer that we all think of him as.

Joseph Torigian

So, Justin, people often describe Xi Jinping as someone who deinstitutionalized the party after Deng created them. But in fact, I think Xi Jinping is more of an institutionalizer than Deng. They both clearly see the party as a system that needs a core. But Xi Jinping believes that the system needs a core and for the core to also be in charge of the daily affairs of the party and the government. In the Deng era, and also during the Mao era, the fact that the person who was in charge was not always the person making day to day decisions was a recipe for disaster.

In fact, if anybody understands that it’s probably Xi Jinping, because his father was the right-hand man to Zhou Enlai, the state council during the 1950s and then the right-hand man to Hu Yaobang in the secretariat during the 1980s, appreciated the extent to which Mao’s troubled relationship with Zhou Enlai and Deng’s troubled relationship with Hu Yaobang that was a result of this sort of two-line system was something that was disastrous for the party. It was something that contributed to both the policy dysfunction, but also the third rail of Chinese politics for decades, the succession issue. The problem is that even when you have deputies that are absolutely loyal to the top leader, if you don’t get the politics right, even if you don’t oppose the top leader, you can still get into a lot of trouble.

So, I think you could make a case that Xi Jinping’s model of ruling is a reaction to those pathologies of under institutionalization during the Mao and Deng eras. Now, that’s not saying that Xi Jinping has solved those problems. You could make a case that some of the problems that the party is facing right now has to do with the fact that Xi Jinping is trying to run everything at once. We actually know very little about policymaking under the Xi Jinping era, but it raises questions when you have a system that one person is trying to make so many decisions.

So, when you look at the Deng era, one of the problems was that the Politburo Standing Committee didn’t even meet and the reason the Politburo Standing Committee didn’t meet was because Deng Xiaoping didn’t want to give other revolutionary elders an opportunity to even speak. What that meant was the Secretariat, which was run by Hu Yaobang and Xi Jinping’s father, was making a lot of decisions and that contributed to Hu Yaobang’s fall in 1987, because a lot of revolutionary elders thought that the Secretariat was running its own show, which they didn’t like and didn’t think that Hu Yaobang was doing a good enough job consulting with them. But of course, when you’re not even having Politburo standing committee meetings, it’s not clear just exactly who you need to listen to more and who not to.

So, it just became very, very difficult to manage. This is a little bit of a different view of the differences and similarities between Xi Jinping and Deng Xiaoping. But party history is hard to get right. Deng Xiaoping wanted the narrative to be the narrative that we have in the West of him being an institutionalizer. But like in so many other cases, the narratives that the Chinese themselves have put out to justify power struggles, that were actually more distasteful than they like to say, was something that was accepted. I think now we need to move slowly past that and recognize that we got some things wrong.


So, let’s move backwards then. Let’s contrast the way that Deng Xiaoping is governing with his immediate predecessor, which was Mao’s hand-picked successor, Hua Guofeng.

Joseph Torigian

Hua Guofeng has a bad reputation and one of the reasons for that is after he was deposed, one of the stories told about him was that he tried to recreate a lighter version of Mao’s personality cult, but we now know he actually was somebody who really took consensus decision making seriously and was one of the rarest individuals in Leninist system history who believes that you could function and should function in a consultative fashion. This is interesting, not just from a historical perspective, but from a political science perspective, in the sense that a lot of people believe that in these Leninist systems, you have a group who get to decide the leader and they pick the leader because that leader is popular and they think that the leader will listen to them.

But here we see Deng Xiaoping, who was someone who did not have a democratic sensibility, defeating Hua Guofeng, who actually did listen to people. In fact that he did listen to people contributed to his popularity. But unfortunately for Hua Guofeng, these are not popularity contests. So, what’s interesting is when it was understood that Deng Xiaoping was moving against Hua Guofeng, people who were close to him believed that Hua could have put up a bigger fight. People often think that Hua Guofeng was a nobody and that his fall was inevitable. But he was head of the military and the party, and in an extraordinarily leader friendly system, that means a lot. Now, Deng might have been able to come out on top anyways.

But Hua had seen decades of political infighting damage the party, and for someone whose entire life was the party, he decided, to his credit, that he didn’t want to put the party through it again by putting up a fight against Deng Xiaoping, even though he was counseled by quite prominent and powerful figures to do so.


It comes across to me that being a compromiser, the way that Hua was really became a disadvantage under a Leninist communist style party system. Why was a compromiser at a disadvantage to somebody who had a more authoritarian personality?

Joseph Torigian

So, I think the important thing to keep in mind here is that these are systems that do not select leaders based on popularity. These are not systems that select people because their policy platform or their promises of benefits or patronage happen to be better than other people. That’s not the coin of this realm. The coin of this realm, especially during the eras I talk about in this book, is how much you contributed to the revolution. When you joined the revolution, what battles you won, whether you demonstrated an ability to see deeper, think better. For Hua Guofeng who joined the party much later than people like Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun and who was promoted rapidly during the Cultural Revolution , which was hated by these old revolutionaries, you can see why they wouldn’t respect him all that much.

But also, another element to keep in mind here is how much compromising material mattered. So, when you are in charge during the Cultural Revolution , that makes you vulnerable to accusations that you were loyal to elements of it that maybe you didn’t actually feel all that positive about. I think that there was a lot of ambiguity among these older revolutionaries about whether or not Hua Guofeng was different from people like the Gang of Four. This also gets into the heart of Leninist systems, which is that there’s a lot of confusion. There’s a lot of ability for you to mischaracterize what other people think, what other people have done, and that you can play these games and there’s not really like an open atmosphere where you can confront this thing and explain why it’s wrong.

Also, Deng Xiaoping had a very special relationship with the military. I mean, this was a guy, Deng Xiaoping, who fought in the famous Huaihai campaign that smashed the nationalists in one of the most decisive battles of the war during which he was in charge of a joint operation of two field armies. So, he had that kind of cachet specifically with the people who do get to decide which of these ambiguous rules are the ones that are going to get listened to. But also I think that after decades of underground work and revolution, you come to a point where a lot of people within this system really do believe that you can only get something done, and that includes regime survival, if you have somebody that everybody commonly understands to be the top dog.

What’s so interesting about the 1980s is that people understood that one of the reasons Mao’s strongman rule was a disaster was that nobody could stand up to him. At the same time, they believed that the party still needed a core to survive. So, you had all these people still doing what Deng wanted, even when they really disagreed with what he was doing, because they thought that meant putting the party’s interests first, and often that means putting the prestige of the top leader first to save the party.


So, I was fascinated with the way that you described Hua as a compromiser. That this interregnum between Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping is really a much more collaborative period. I don’t want to say democratizing, but it was collaborative between high level elites. It mirrors what happens over in the Soviet Union, where the interregnum between Stalin and Khrushchev, is another period that I kind of get lost in and I think your book clarified a lot. That interregnum is again a very collaborative period. Can you explain a little bit about how leadership worked between those two periods from when we’re going from the death of Stalin until Khrushchev really consolidates power?

Joseph Torigian

So, in both China and the Soviet Union, there was a sense after Mao and Stalin died that we can’t ever let this happen again. This was a disaster. But as I said, we can’t essentialize that as something that had a determinative effect precisely because it coexisted with another sensibility that it’s really useful to have one person in charge. Those practices had grown out of the revolution and the nature of the Leninist system. But also, these Leninist systems are places where, as I said, are not popularity contests and they’re very leader friendly for somebody who wants to pursue that position. But you’re right in the Soviet Union, just like in China as well, there was a period where people hoped that things would be run differently and that there would be more collective leadership.

So, when it comes to Khrushchev a lot of people think of him as this good guy reformer who wanted to overcome the Stalinist legacy. In fact, when the majority of the Presidium, which is what they called the Politburo at that time, tried to remove him in 1957, they were saying that they were trying to stop Khrushchev from creating a new dictatorship. In fact, the evidence shows that they were right. Khrushchev was arrogating a lot of power. He was kneecapping these individuals in a way that they thought was deeply inappropriate and Khrushchev was taking either small tactical differences and supersizing them and turning them into a political weapon or making up differences when they weren’t even there or completely mischaracterizing differences as part of a weapon.

Then he turns things around and says, you were the ones who were Stalinists, because you were the ones who committed all of these crimes during the Stalin era. Of course, Khrushchev had committed those crimes too, but he was the one who had a good relationship with the KGB. He was the guy who had a good relationship with the Minister of Defense Zhukov, who had all this prestige as a great war leader. So, he took those KGB documents and he put them in the hands of Zhukov, had Zhukov summon an emergency central committee plenum, and then start the show by accusing all of these old guards of trying to restore the Stalinist purges, even though they were trying to stop Khrushchev from arrogating dictatorial powers.


That raises a question for me. I mean, when we think about Khrushchev and his conflict with other aspiring elites in the Soviet Union, where we think about Deng Xiaoping and his conflicts with Hua, what really were these conflicts about? I mean, was it debates about the direction of where the country should be going policy wise? Was it just pure power? I mean, what were they fighting over?

Joseph Torigian

So, the common view of these periods is that Khrushchev and Deng represented coherent policy platforms that were different from the views of other people and there were these struggles within the party and ultimately Khrushchev and Deng won because people liked their platforms better. This was a story of a victory of collective leadership and interparty democracy and a lot of political scientists like to contrast Mao and Stalin as strong leaders with Khrushchev and Deng as more consultative leaders. I don’t want to essentialize all four of these leaders as essentially the same thing, because they weren’t. But they were all very strong leaders and these were all leaders who essentially were not ruling based on some promise of a set of policies that were part of a contract within the elite. That’s just not how it worked.

I think that personality matters here to a certain extent, and this is something that I try to get into in the book, which is challenging because, as you said, I try to combine both history and political science. But it’s necessary to show that Khrushchev and Deng were people who were jealous of power, who wanted power, who believed that assuming power was good for the revolution. Of course, it’s a useful thing to believe, maybe, but I think it’s probably also a legitimate one. I think that these were true believers. I don’t think that they were opportunists in the sense that they were using communism to get ahead for their own purposes. I don’t think that’s the case.

As they pursued those positions, what they did was, as I described a little bit earlier, use compromising material. They lied. They mischaracterized other positions. They made special partnerships with the power ministries by which I mean, of course, the political police and the military political police because they have guns, but also because they have compromising material and the military because they have a lot of guns. They could manipulate rules in a way that benefited them because the rules weren’t especially clear or unarbitrarily enforced.

As I said, this was still a system where people could appreciate the benefits of having a strong leader, but also understood how dangerous it would be to contest a strong leader in a system that you dedicated your entire life to and that you appreciated would only make the situation worse, if you tried to do something about a top leader who was doing something that you didn’t like, because you always put the party’s interests first and you’re probably scared.


Were the policy changes that happened during these eras… I mean, are they inevitable? Because one of the contentions in the book was that Hua actually began some of the economic openings that Deng gets credit for. Another one of the contentions you make is that Khrushev’s destalinization is overblown and that he leans back into Stalinization later on and that seems to be a more popular direction for the party to take. I mean, were the policy directions, the ideas that actually get put into place in terms of public policy, are those just inevitable directions that any of the leaders would have ended up taking anyway?

Joseph Torigian

Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. As I mentioned earlier, the debate about possibilityhood and different paths, this is something that gets a lot of attention for scholars of the Soviet Union and China. It is clear in the Chinese case that there were very different opinions within the elite about how far you wanted to go and how fast, but also just a lot of confusion about what the right path would be. For example, Deng Xiaoping told someone in an interview that nobody can really say what socialism is.

So, when you have that level of different opinions and you have that level of confusion, but also this interplay of contingency and different leaders having different levels of power, I don’t want to say that it was inevitable, but you can also point to a pretty commonly held view within China after the Cultural Revolution  that they had screwed up. Everybody knew it. Even Mao knew it, actually. If you look at what he says in the later years of the Cultural Revolution , even he understood what a huge disaster it was. He went to find Deng Xiaoping in 1975 and asked him to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But then he was afraid that Deng was going too far too fast in a way that challenged the legacy of the Cultural Revolution .

Now, of course, as I was saying earlier, Deng Xiaoping thought he was doing exactly what Mao wanted him to do. He just got it wrong. Part of that has to do with Deng’s stubbornness and pig headedness. People would go up to him and say, ‘Do you think you really understand what Mao wanted?’ And Deng said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I do.’ But he didn’t obviously. Still, he was doing what he did because even Mao understood that things had screwed up and things needed to get fixed. So, in the Soviet Union this question of Stalin is really interesting, because destalinization can mean a lot of different things. It can mean you’re actually moving away from Stalin’s policies and practice and that ranged everything from the economy to the purges to foreign policy. But it also depended on the official evaluation of Stalin.

So, it’s pretty clear that there was consensus among the leadership about the need to move away from Stalin’s policies in practice. On the question of Stalin, there were differences, but they weren’t as absolute as many people think. So, at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, there was a pretty common view that something needed to be said, because otherwise you couldn’t justify all of these rehabilitations. But also, there was a fear that if you didn’t take the initiative, what would happen if people in the party confronted you later? So, when Khrushchev gave the secret speech, he said some pretty awful things about Stalin. It was very destabilizing. But the official party position on Stalin came out later and that was much more pro-Stalin. It put his contributions first.

So, when Molotov, who is usually seen as the pro-Stalin guy who opposed Khrushchev because he didn’t want to criticize Stalin, in his letters to the leadership after he was purged, says repeatedly, ‘I also agreed we needed to acknowledge the mistakes that Stalin made. What I didn’t agree with was saying that Stalin was such a bad person that he didn’t do anything right.’ Then he noted, look at the official position made in 1956. That position came out because Khrushchev, so quickly after the secret speech, shifted and started making very sort of pro-Stalin noises, which means that, this is the most important thing, by 1957, when the move against Khrushchev are launched, Khrushchev had already tacked back to a pretty pro-Stalin position in the sense of the official characterization of Stalin.

People at that plenum noted this. They’re talking about Khrushchev as somebody who’s defending Stalin’s memory and legacy. Now, of course, after the so-called antiparty group is destroyed, Khrushchev is much more vocal in the ensuing years about destalinization and Stalin is removed, of course, from the tomb in 1961. By that point, it doesn’t have anything to do with power politics anymore. But one thing to keep in mind is that after the anti-party group was destroyed, there was no further rehabilitation of people. It wasn’t like now they’re gone. Now we can do even more rehabilitations. In fact, in the rehabilitations that proceeded the coup against Khrushchev, we have no evidence that Molotov was opposed to them and in fact, he supported most of them and played a role in those rehabilitations.


When we normally think about Soviet history, there’s an assumption that when Stalin died, everybody had a deep exhale that they were happy to be out from under this totalitarian dictator that people portray as this absolute terror on the people. Your book definitely gives the impression that that’s not the way that people felt, particularly elites within the Soviet Union. Why is it that people like Molotov and others had a much more positive view of Stalin? What is it that they appreciated about him that people in the West just aren’t going to get?

Joseph Torigian

You know, what’s interesting about Mao and Stalin is the people who knew them had extraordinarily complicated emotions about these leaders and it’s very difficult to say whether they were pro-Stalin, anti-Stalin, pro-Mao, anti-Mao. I mean, these figures were larger than life in a way. These figures were the regimes. They were the victories of these regimes and the lives of their comrades were tied up in it in a completely fundamental way. So, what that meant was you would both deeply respect these leaders, you would have deep emotional attachments to them, but at the same time that did not mean you were completely incapable of self-reflecting about their mistakes.

So, one example of this is Xi Zhongxun, the father of Xi Jinping. This was someone who was deeply devoted to Mao’s memory. This was someone who believed that Mao saved his life during a purge in 1935 within the Communist Party. This was someone who was persecuted by Mao four years before the Cultural Revolution  even started. One of his daughters was persecuted to death during the Cultural Revolution . In private conversations, Xi Jinping was extremely vocal about how disastrous the Cultural Revolution  was.

He talked about how it was necessary to prevent a new strongman from appearing. But he was also someone who publicly and privately would affirm Mao’s legacy and contributions and criticize people who he thought didn’t have the right to say negative things about Mao. So, for people who try to categorize them as one faction or another or something like that these are people, these are individuals who are complicated.


When we’re studying these transitions from these just larger than life figures, Stalin and Mao, are these transitions representative of something that we see happen time and again in authoritarian regimes? Because when we think about future transitions in China, for instance, it seems like the transitions have been relatively smooth. I mean, from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, it doesn’t feel like this is the story that we see happen over and over again. Even within the Soviet Union, I don’t think we’ve seen something that was this kind of gray period that is hard to understand what’s actually happening. So, what is it that we’re really describing when we’re comparing these two periods in history and when would we expect them to reoccur?

Joseph Torigian

Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. There’s two ways of thinking about this question. One is whether it relates specifically to China and Russia or whether you’re asking about authoritarian regimes more broadly. As I say in the book, I’m not arguing that there are no institutions at all. I’m arguing that institutions just mattered in ways that we didn’t appreciate previously. So, in that sense, Leninist regimes, I think, are different from other authoritarian regimes. One reason for that is, as I already described, these are all encompassing organizations in the sense that your whole life’s meaning is tied up with your membership of these Leninist parties. So, when you lose in a power struggle, you don’t go start a new revolution, because everybody really cares, no matter how things go down, that it doesn’t affect regime stability.

Which is why when people were being executed during the Stalin era, they would say long live Stalin, I’m not exaggerating, as they were facing the end of their lives. Also, when you win these power struggles, you very often do everything you can to make them look more legitimate and about other things than they really were. That’s one of the reasons why we have these wrong ideas about a lot of these transitions. They actually really care about looking good within their own parties. Finally, even though the military really matters a lot in these cases, it’s not the military versus the party. It’s that there’s a crisis within the party, which creates an opportunity for the military to play a more prominent role.

So, in that sense, I want to talk a little bit about what political scientists call scope conditions, about whether or not these kinds of arguments apply to non-Leninist regimes. I talk a little bit about commonalities and succession within the book when I described the succession after Lenin dies, so people who are interested in that I can show there’s at least one other case in these countries I describe where my understanding of how these things works also applies. In terms of China, you described post-Deng transitions – We know very little about them. Especially for the Jiang Zemin and the Hu Jintao eras, we already have these views of them. But as somebody who sees how often the views that happen at the time are wrong, I guess I feel that there’s a lot of iceberg that we can’t see.

Our understanding of the Jiang Zemin and the Hu Jintao eras will probably shift as more evidence comes out. I talked a little bit about how there are still puzzles of the 1980s, but we know a lot about the 1980s, especially compared to the 1990s in China, for reasons that actually have a little bit to do with power struggles within China such that people who lost out on these battles would go and publish in Hong Kong or people who really liked certain leaders would leak documents out that then were published in places like Hong Kong or the United States. Some of those people even left China and they went to the United States or other Western countries and people could interview them.

Also, there was this period during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao eras where even within China you could publish stuff in these party history journals on everything from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution  to June of 1989. We have a little bit on the 1990s, but we have almost nothing on the 2000s unfortunately. If you read this article by Fred Teiwes called ‘The Black Backs of Chinese Politics,’ he goes through and says what people were saying about Chinese politics at the time and then shows how they mostly just got it wrong. Not because they’re dumb or because they’re coming at it from perspectives that are just totally out there.

One of the most interesting things that I also describe in the book is how people even within the system at the very top of the system also were getting these things wrong. Just because you’re reading something that’s wrong in a memoir doesn’t mean that the person who’s writing it is lying. It means that maybe they didn’t get it either. That doesn’t mean that the memoir shouldn’t be read. It just means that it should be used as evidence in a particular way.


It’s almost impossible not to try to draw parallels to contemporary Russia and China today. I mean, as I’m reading the book, I’m constantly thinking in the back of my mind, does any of this apply to what would happen when Putin leaves power in Russia, especially if he stays in office until he’s dead or until he’s not able to really name a true successor? You think in terms of China… I mean, Xi Jinping’s now in his third term and it raises the question that he doesn’t have an obvious successor, so how’s that going to play out? Are we going to see a recurrence of the scenario that you describe here after the fall of Stalin and Mao. China still has the Communist Party in place. It still has that key institution. Russia does not. So, it raises the question in my mind, how much of a role you think those institutions do play when we see these leadership transitions and when we might see leadership transitions from them?

Joseph Torigian

Those are really interesting insights and questions. When it comes to what history tells us about the present, looking at the past gives me two sensibilities. One is, wow, I can feel how much I don’t know and that is a lesson to us about how much we think we can discern from publicly available information. It also suggests that even information that people whisper to us may be wrong too and they may not necessarily be lies. But the second thing that looking to the past makes me feel is that if you get a sense for how things work, that’s really useful. Let me give you an example.

So, during the Xi Jinping era, people have sometimes suggested that a new line was being pushed by one of his deputies. Every case that I’ve looked at from the past where people on the outside thought that there was a power struggle at the top represented in two different lines, that was wrong. Again, people still think of Chinese history as this two-line struggle because that’s the story the Chinese tell. But everything from Mao Zedong’s relationship to Liu Shaoqi to anything that happened during the 1980s, it was not a problem of competing policy platforms. It was a problem of getting the politics of your relationship with the top leader right when it was hard to guess what they were thinking and they were changing their mind and they were suspicious of you.

So, back then and now, people wonder whether there are these different lines and certainly there are tactical differences. People in different positions have different obligations, but generally speaking within the top leadership, it’s that they are both so leader friendly and there is such a reason for everybody at the top to pursue consensus. I doubt when people make these claims about visible policy differences. I also doubt that when Xi Jinping makes mistakes or when Xi Jinping picks a policy that maybe people don’t like that has implications for his authority, for all the reasons we’ve been discussing and counterintuitively, if you think that a core is necessary to achieve regime stability, you will think that even more when the top leader is screwing up because you don’t want the entire house of cards to come down.


So, recently we’ve seen leadership changes in China in terms of the top diplomat in China has disappeared and two top military officials in terms of the – I think it’s the rocket division

Joseph Torigian

Liberation Army Rocket Forces.


Yeah, what does that say to you in terms of what the struggles are like right now in China? I know we’re looking inside of a black box, but based on what you’ve learned in terms of Chinese history, what do those leadership changes say to you about what’s happening at this current moment?

Joseph Torigian

Well, again, the first thing to say is I don’t know. That’s a lesson I derive from looking at the past and how hard it’s been for people to guess what’s going on within the system. But the other thing I can say is that looking to the past, one of the hardest things to explain to people, because it’s so counterintuitive, is why you have these power struggles when you have such a dominant leader already who’s been leading the country for such a long time. You would think that you would have power struggles because of policy differences or because of different views or because of competing factions or people who don’t like Xi Jinping or something like that.

As I was saying before, even when the leader is totally dominant, you can still screw up. Why? Well, because there may be other people in the system who don’t like you. But also, because when you have a leader who pursues multiple goals at once, it’s hard to guess whether you’re doing the right thing, especially if the top leader changes their mind. Leaders are politicians and they shift and they move around and Xi Jinping is someone who is, this is a phrase that Chris Buckley just used with me in a conversation, polyvocal.

So again, in the Deng Xiaoping era, he cared about economic development, but he was also a political conservative. So, some people would say your political conservatism is hurting the economy or people who thought that political opening was challenging regime legitimacy would say we’re going too far. You need to come out and repeat the four cardinal principles, which is this conservative formulation. But also, when you’re tasked with difficult things, and I think that the rocket forces were probably tasked with a really hard thing, which is to build up the rocket forces really quickly, there’s places there to screw up.

So, Xi Jinping has this very interesting view of the world. You can see it in his conversations with the military. The more powerful China becomes, the more brazen the United States will try to arrest China’s rise because they cannot accept a superpower guided by a different ideology. What that means is, you have to constantly keep your eye on the ball. You have to constantly recognize that even your most trusted lieutenants are vulnerable to mistakes, to corruption, to not taking your directive seriously enough. So, we don’t know whether any of the things I just mentioned have anything to do with the foreign minister or the rocket forces. But the situation I’ve described hopefully can suggest to you why it’s still so hard to operate effectively and safely in a system with a top leader that is as dominant as Xi Jinping.


Joseph, one of the most interesting quotes in the entire book that really just kind of struck me was where you write, “The Deng era was emphatically one of continued strongman rule. Tragically, the Mao era had not been overcome.” When we think about Xi Jinping, there’s been a lot of writings that talk about his rule as a Maoist revival. But I think your perspective in that quote would be that it’s not a revival. The Mao era just simply has not been overcome still. I think we can think about that the same way in Russia. That in a lot of ways the Stalinist era has not completely been overcome with Putin. Do you agree with that statement that we still haven’t overcome those eras and if so, what do we need to do to overcome those eras?

Joseph Torigian

Yeah, there’s this really amusing movie from the Soviet era called Repentance, where this figure who looks like Stalin keeps coming back to life over and over again. So, for people who want to get a sort of cultural view of Stalinism that’s not the death of Stalin, they can go check out that movie. There’s this expression that China won’t escape from the Maoist era until Mao’s visage in Tiananmen Square is removed. And you’re right that one of the messages of my book is that Leninist systems have always been very leader friendly and that we need to stress more continuities with the past than many people do when they use this refrain of Deng Xiaoping being somebody who was a reformer and dismantled the Maoist strongman system.

At the same time, I don’t want to essentialize Stalin or Mao. I don’t want to say that nothing has changed because that’s not true. Again, as I was talking about with destalinization earlier, when you use phrases like that, you need to say specifically what you mean, because Stalin and Mao represent very different historical memories and legacies. So often, as you said, we see this claim that Xi Jinping is a Maoist revivalist. As I describe in my biography of Xi Zhongxun that’s coming out, I think that a lot of what Xi Jinping is doing is because he doesn’t want another Cultural Revolution  to happen, because he thinks it was a complete, unmitigated disaster.

Now, what’s ironic is that many of the steps that Xi Jinping has taken to prevent his idea of a Cultural Revolution  is… and it’s sort of vague, it’s basically just state collapse. Basically, it just means when people are given too many freedoms, they do whatever they want to and that involves beatings and kidnappings and that kind of thing. But the things he does to stop that from happening again many people think look like the Cultural Revolution  because it means struggle in the way that I just described to you. This idea that the danger never goes away and you need to continue to fight it.

So, people say that Chinese history is a story of two lines, of good guys and bad guys. The reason I challenge that is because where you divide that line has always been arbitrary and shifted and even the same person on different issues can look more or less like a radical. So, whether you say Xi Jinping is going too far or not far enough is a politically contested one in the sense that Xi Jinping himself probably thinks that he’s not going as far as the Cultural Revolution, because he thinks it was such a disaster. But other people say that precisely by trying to stop another Cultural Revolution from happening, he’s manifesting some of the worst things of the party that they had hoped were over after Mao died.

Now I have my own views on that, but it’s certainly a situation in China where if you’re a dissident or you are a Uyghur, it’s rough.


Joseph, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been great to be able to actually talk to you. Thank you so much for writing your book. Once again, it’s called Prestige, Manipulation and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao. Thank you once again.

Joseph Torigian

Thanks for having me.

Key Links

Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao by Joseph Torigian

Stanford Hoover History Lab

Learn more about Joseph Torigian

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Hal Brands Thinks China is a Declining Power… Here’s Why that’s a Problem

Anne Applebaum on Autocracy, Inc

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