China and India: Leadership in Contrast


by Shafiqur Rahman

The Indian Election results are astounding, and that is a euphemism. All the wishful thinking and self-justifying commentaries from secular intellectuals proved to be just that, self-deluding. Even as the exit polls carried on the tradition of failing to capture the complexity of electoral preference of Indian voters, they failed not in predicting the BJP victory but failing to gauge the magnitude of the victory. In terms of representative democracy, this is truly an epochal election in India. There is virtually no main opposition party in the Parliament. Sansad Bhaban, the house of Parliament of India, is really the house of Mr Modi now.

Two things stand out to me in the post-quake landscape of Indian politics. First, with barely 38% of the votes the BJP led coalition now commands 62% of the total seats. With support from one or two smaller regional parties, the NDA coalition can comfortably cross over the hallowed 67% or two third Special Majority mark. And with Special Majority, Emergency Proclamation, Amendment of the Constitution via article 368, Removal of Supreme Court Judges, Removal of President etc. are all within the grasp of an NDA government led by Mr Modi.

This election has been all about Mr Modi and India is now his oyster. Rarely in recent Indian history have hopes and fears of billions of people in and around India been centered on a single personality like now. For his detractors, coronation of Mr Modi raises the spectre of the most notorious human cliché from 1930’s Germany. To his devotees, Mr Modi carries the ambition for an Indian Lee Kwan Yew; who will firmly taking charge of India Incorporated and unleash the dynamism to make the country a world economic and political superpower, not just in theory and potentially but in reality. What Mr Modi will think and do is ‘known unknowns’; to quote from the famous saying of Mr Rumsfeld. In short, dramatic change for better or worse is in the cards and with it entails huge uncertainty. Those who dismiss the potential for disruptive change in an established democracy like India do not pay sufficient heed to the confluence of charismatic and ambitious leadership, large and enthusiastic support from people and resourceful interests and power of mass media in shaping mass psychology; a conjunction that has shown its potency in recent history time and time again. And that brings us to the main thesis of this article, a high level glimpse on the stability and uncertainty of political leadership in democracy and other systems.

Rightly, in this purported Asian Century, all developments in India is compared and contrasted with China, currently the third and the second biggest economies by PPP. Throughout the last two decades, when China has been growing at unprecedented breakneck speed and India was developing at solid, respectable rate but was increasingly falling behind, both Indian and western political commentators comforted the worldwide adherents of plural politics by rationalizing that, while China’s growth is spectacular, it’s economy and society is increasingly in precarious position because of a forced marriage of an autocratic political system with a free-capitalistic economy. India on the other hand was regularly complimented because of the stability and robustness of its plural political system and diverse society. As we can see now that even established and healthy democracies can throw up great uncertainty in the form of unknowns focalized in a singular leadership, it is a good time as any to evaluate the Chinese political leadership during the transformational recent decades.

Chinese economic growth in the last three decades is an unprecedented macro event in recorded human history.  In 1980, real per-capita income of China was one fortieth of an US citizen and now it is almost one-fourth. Analysts say that China will overtake USA as the largest economy in within the next few years. The social change is no less outstanding; in 1980 only a fifth of Chinese people lived in cities, now more than a half does. These dizzying statistics of change often mask another remarkable thing, despite high and regular turnover of people at the apex, Chinese political leadership remained uniquely stable, continuous and focused during these years of tumultuous change. This stability is mainly due to the hierarchical and grouped structure of Chinese leadership and decision-making.

China’s political system is divided into three major institutions: the government, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the military. The Party sits at the apex, subordinating all others. The Communist Party has 80 million members (5% of Chinese Population) and people only become member after a selective process that can take several years. The Party is organized into three major bodies: the Central Committee, the Politburo, and the Politburo Standing Committee. The Central Committee is comprised of 200 members who are elected in the Party National Congress which is held every five years. Committee members include senior party and government officials, different agency heads, military generals, provincial governors, head of State-owned companies etc. The Central Committee appoints the 25-man Politburo, which is then narrowed even further into a 5 to 9-man Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) that really runs the Party and the country.  Each PSC member generally in is in charge of a portfolio covering a major area such as the economy, legislation, internal security, or propaganda. Although most of the important policy decisions are often dictated from top down in this hierarchy, Central Committee does wield real power through the five years; it sets the direction of policy and leadership changes and ratifies them. There is intense politics and lobbying in the committee between different groups.

Top leader

The seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) are ranked in order of primacy, from one to seven. The rankings do not exactly refer to the official post of the members, sometimes members do not hold any official post but still is ranked high and wields huge influence. Usually though, the President and the Prime Minister holds the first and second rank. The most important point of the PSC is that the person at the top is not the leader of the group but the first among equals. It is a consultative and collective decision making body, no one can impose a view upon others; a decision must garner substantial support from the members. The second important feature of the PSC is its regular turnover. There is an enforced retirement age of 68 which effectively limit the term of members, including the top ranked leader. Also leaders who fail to perform are often dropped after the first term or even within term.

The age limit not only curbs unchecked ambition of charismatic leaders but also initiates a long grooming process. The small number of promising people who can rise to the top must be given ministerial or provincial leadership positions in their early and mid-50s so that they can be ready for PSC when they are 60. Many Politburo members in China have been involved in business, corruption or other profit-seeking activities and became fabulously wealthy. But no matter how influential they become, no one can stay beyond the term limit. Also China is notoriously nepotistic; children and family of political leaders enjoy huge perks in all aspects of society. But no one can place their children in top political positions, everyone has to go the long and process of membership, committee, appointments and prove themselves consistently as leader and manager. Interestingly, Engineers and Technical people heavily dominated the previous Chinese top leadership; all members of the 16th PSC (2002-07) were engineers. But six out of the seven members of the current PSC (2012-17) are trained in social sciences. This reflects a more awareness of politics and society than just economic growth.


The gradual evolution to collective leadership has engendered several broad trends in Chinese statecraft. The most visible is the stability and continuity; Chinese policy direction does not make radical changes on whims of new leader but reflects deliberative and broad-based decision-making. This stability is highly prized by international and domestic businesses who regard uncertainty as a principal impediment to long-term business and economic planning.

Secondly, although China is a one-party state where the party seeks to maintain a tight control over the population, current Chinese leadership also recognizes that control can only be achieved by a careful balancing of freedoms and restrictions. The Chinese government pays very close attention to public opinion while trying to control it; the government prioritizes wealth accumulating economic growth but at the same time try to ensure wide distribution of the spoils from growth. There is no magic formula for these kind balances and it is continuously changing. A single-apex leadership system would have been very inadequate for such careful fine tuning; collective decision-making enable a robust leadership mode with sufficient flexibility and rigidity to chart the huge country through tumultuous changes. Chinese leaders clearly see that even among their senior leaders there is divide between those who are more inclined to reforms and liberalization and those who are more conservative. The Chinese leadership institutionalized robustness in leadership by ensuring that both camps are adequately represented in the highest bodies but no camp gains an overwhelming advantage.

This collective leadership arose a lot due to the three-decade long all-powerful and capricious rule of Mao Zedong. During Mao’s rule the PSC was a totally ineffectual body and there were no mechanism or institution to check Mao’s disastrous policy decisions like the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s or the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. After Mao’s death Deng Xiaoping started to develop rules to govern decision-making at the top level and manage power succession. From 12th Party Congress gradually the new rules were introduced and by the Congress in 2002 most of the current implicit and explicit rules have become established.

A similar reaction also took place in the Soviet leadership during the Communist Party rule. Stalin’s rule (1922-53) was the archetype of godlike, dictatorial regime. After Stalin there was strong demand for collective leadership at the top. Nikita Khrushchev was largely ousted from leadership because of his failure to institute collective leadership. After him, the regimes of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko all had strong collective leadership. Perestroika; the policy that opened up the Soviet Union and initiate its eventual demise, did not spring out of the head of Mikhail Gorbachev alone; there were lot of institution support for far-reaching change from various quarter of the Soviet Central Committee. Even then Gorbachev had to do continuous to-and-from with politburo members to get majority approval for his policy changes. Many historians would contend that the group-leadership of the Soviet Politburo during the Cold War was no more irrational or arbitrary than the elected Presidential leaders of America. Soviet Union failed because of failure of economic system not political leadership; a lesson the Chinese leaders internalized assiduously.

Political scientists construct the spectrum of leadership by democratic and autocratic leadership at two extremes. Democratic leadership style supposedly emphasize group participation, discussion, and group decisions while an autocratic leader keeps tight control over group decisions and determines all policies only through own consent. Curiously there are often mismatch between leadership and politics. Democratic system throws up autocratic leaders quite often and sometimes autocratic systems have remarkable democratic decision-making process. We in Bangladesh need no lesson in how democratic elections can produce the most autocratic leaders. Interestingly, most established and mature democracies have a democratic system of electing leaders but give remarkably autocratic and arbitrary decision making power to the top. Most often, democratically elected leaders are moderate and reasonable men but occasionally we also see leaders like man-on-a-mission George W Bush, who religiously believed he has divine mandate.

Democracy is not just a system of selecting leaders democratically but also checking bad decisions of elected leaders and getting rid of them easily when they fail dismally. The Chinese collective leadership with its institutionalized development of leaders, group decision making and regular turnover at the top seem to have integrated many of the best features of democratic leadership. This is not an advocacy for Chinese Political system; China is after all a one-party state where people have very little say about the course of their destiny. But we should not overlook the attractive features of the Chinese leadership. Democracy is not a formula but a participatory argument. Democracy should evolve with the need and circumstances of the time and place.

Leadership function arose in the biological world to solve coordination and collective action problem of large groups of social animals. Anthropologists say that pre-civilization human societies had more group decision making than hierarchical leadership. The vast increase of social complexity due to founding of cities and states produced need for powerful, centralized and formal leadership structures. But as the communication and knowledge revolution vastly changed the coordination problem of big societies, the formal-singular leadership system is now increasingly questionable. The paradox of leadership is that versatility, the ability to do multiple, even competing roles is greatly correlated with leadership effectiveness but individuals who can do that are very rare indeed. Democracy is the best method of selecting leaders but even it often fails to find those rare individuals, particularly in countries where the choice is very limited.

Whether one believes in the End of History thesis of Francis Fukuyama or not, one cannot deny that most of the world citizenry now do not hunger for revolutionary change but for improvement and problem-solving. In this day and age, where there is huge pool of expert and informed leaders in every society, entrusting fate of hundreds of millions or even billions upon hit or miss charismatic leaders seem to be risky proposition indeed. Collective leadership as a mechanism of power-sharing through checks and balances among competing political camps, but also incorporating more dynamic and pluralistic decision-making process seem to be more suited for the age we live in.

I believe that single leaders as messiah or savior is out of place in today’s world. We need real time participatory democracy. We need checks against uncertainty of democratically elected dictators and we need mechanisms for diversity and robustness at the top of decision making. How to develop such mechanisms is an argument that we must join vigorously.