In the Nation, Joshua Kurlantzick writes about modern Chinese politics in the post-Deng Xiaoping era in the context of two new books: On China, by Henry Kissinger and Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra Vogel:
Ever since the Communist Party came to power in 1949, forceful, unifying figures have dominated the political arena and the PLA. The first was Mao Zedong, who used his unparalleled charisma and political genius to pit rivals against one another, to create a cult of personality and to exert ruthless control over the country’s political system. After Mao came Deng Xiaoping, whose photo should be plastered above Tiananmen Square instead of his predecessor’s, as he used his vast political savvy and dominance of the party and military to wrench China from the abyss of the Cultural Revolution and set in place the most breathtaking economic development in modern history.
Lacking a unifying figure like Deng or Mao, China’s leadership today is a mostly faceless group of longtime party engineers who have scaled the ranks not by fighting in wars or developing political and economic ideologies but rather by cultivating higher-ranking bureaucrats and divulging as little as possible about their ideas and plans. The current Chinese president, Hu Jintao, epitomizes the cipher-as-strategy approach. Before assuming power in 2004, Hu had said so little on any topic of importance that both conservatives and liberals in China claimed him as one of their own. Since then, Hu has displayed minimal public emotion and avoids even the most scripted interactions with the media and most party outsiders. Hu’s presumed successor, who will assume power in 2012–13, is Vice President Xi Jinping; though he has slightly more charisma than the wooden Hu, he will not remind anyone of Mao or Deng. When Xi has displayed any public sentiment, it has been a sour, aggrieved nationalism that resonates with many Chinese elites who believe their nation’s time has come yet chafe at the continued power of the United States in China’s backyard. “There are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country,” Xi complained, in one of his few public speeches, during a visit to Mexico in 2009.
As China’s leadership fragments, many American officials and think-tank experts who once condemned Deng for overseeing the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, have begun to look back fondly on his time. Their position is that although Deng was not a democrat, in many ways it was easier to understand, and work with, the motivations and actions of a Chinese leadership dominated by one man rather than by a collective dictatorship. What they fear most about China is the absence of a genuine autocrat.