Handbooks of Research on Contemporary China series
Edited by David S.G. Goodman
Chapter 1: The study of elite political conflict in the PRC: politics inside the ‘black box’
This is a cautionary tale. The dominant contemporary Western scholarly assessments of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite politics in almost every period of the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been either dramatically wrong, or a very mixed bag, or in critical respects speculation that cannot be verified on existing evidence. Moreover, in some important cases erroneous findings have remained conventional wisdom even as new information and analysis has appeared, supporting alternative interpretations. This chapter will review the shifting circumstances and conclusions of Western scholarship as they apply to the very top leadership that operates in a ‘black box’ that is largely opaque not only to outsiders, but even to highly positioned members of the elite itself. The focus here is on how important national decisions have been made, the contending forces in the decision process, and the nature of and extent to which power struggles or succession struggles have been key features of PRC political history. The Politburo Standing Committee has generally stood at the centre of this institutionally, but a range of other elite actors down to the top-ranking provincial Party leaders have been involved in various instances and respects. In any political system much of what goes on regarding major developments is partially obscure, but in authoritarian Leninist systems impediments to understanding are much more systematic, making the concept of a ‘black box’ more than appropriate.