Fewsmith Offers Insights From Latest Book in CLM Interview

Joseph Fewsmith, Professor of International Relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, was interviewed by China Leadership Monitor (CLM) – a quarterly research publication covering current trends in China’s leadership politics and in its foreign and domestic policies – on his latest book Rethinking Chinese Politics.

In the interview, Fewsmith dissects the main argument of his book, that is the degree to which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been institutionalized has been exaggerated. He argues that power in China is note passed from one leader to another institutionally; it is necessary for each leader to build their own support in order to succeed. Fewsmith goes on to paint a picture of a Chinese power structure in which institutions do not constrain leaders, but are manipulated by leaders to constrain others.

An excerpt:

You devote a great deal of attention in the book to shifting coalitions and personnel changes at the top. What determines or shapes political divisions and factional balances of power at the top? How have these factors changed in the post-Mao era?

It is precisely because elite politics are not institutionalized that it takes time – and shifting coalitions – to secure power. When you look at Jiang Zemin’s time in office, it is very clear that he did not emerge as a powerful leader by virtue of being named general secretary. Rather, it was after Jiang had come out in full-throated support of Deng, after Deng’s 1992 “Southern Journey,” that Deng gave full support to Jiang by purging the Yang brothers and their supporters from the military…I think the biggest difference between the revolutionary generation of Mao and Deng and later leaders like Jiang and Hu is that Mao and Deng had skills and connections throughout the system and the later leaders, whose careers were largely “stove-piped” in one organization or one location, tend to have narrower bases of power. Xi is trying to transcend such limited bases of power by ruthlessly purging other networks.

The full interview can be viewed on CLM’s website.

Joseph Fewsmith is Professor of International Relations at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University  He is the author or editor of eight books, including, most recently, Rethinking Chinese Politics (June 2021). He is an associate of the John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Studies at Harvard University and the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University. Read more about Professor Fewsmith on his faculty profile.