China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now -Book Review

A nation’s history can be told through various vantage points. Historical documents, native interviews, perspectives of foreign observers, newspaper reportage of major events, and even folklore can offer poignant narratives of a nation’s history. But in an autocratic, top-down system, where people look up to leadership for direction, it is generally figures at the helm that leave an indelible mark on a country’s history. Such is true for China, whose history is marked by “fang-shou” cycles of authoritarian rule, with each leader canvassing his vision of a great Chinese nation in a style suited to his times.

David Shambaugh, in his latest book- China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now, knits together such a history by focussing on 5 of China’s most influential leaders to date: Máo Zédōng, Deng, Jiāng Zémín, Hú Jǐntāo, and Xí Jìnpíng. The author specifies that this book is meant for the more general audience, not his scholarly colleagues. He also mentions in the preface that he always wished to have a singular book covering all of China’s leaders from 1949 till the present. In writing this book, he delivers exactly that; a book that could give even a non-initiated China enthusiast a broad coverage of Chinese politics, focusing on its prominent leaders.

The book is divided into seven parts. The first part dwells on the topic of different leadership types, the role of Chinese political culture, and some predispositions expected of a leader in China in accordance with the Leninist culture. This section also provides a brief overview of the personality traits of the five leaders drawing from their psychological mould developed at a young age. This section of the book is perhaps the only one that delivers the reader with the analytical framework expected of a veteran political scientist like David Shambaugh. The following parts are dedicated to the five leaders, with the final section presenting a concluding analysis of each leader. While the final section of the book aims to provide a critical comparison of all leaders, the same format of writing a separate chapter for each leader impresses more as a summation of chapters already written, than a critical appraisal. This is not to take away the fact that the book offers delightful insights in places, but that can be attributed to Shambaugh’s kaleidoscopic knowledge and his years of work as an academic of Chinese politics. Therefore, this book, written over a ten-month period (during the Covid pandemic) should not be assessed for its research novelty but the finessed presentation, breadth, and clarity of ripe scholarship.

For each leader, the author has provided a moniker derived from their leadership style and the personality traits that they exhibited. For instance, Mao is called a populist tyrant, Deng- Pragmatic Leninist, Jiang- Bureaucratic Politician, Hu- Technocratic Apparatchik, Xi- Modern Emperor. The author has also provided reasonable justifications in the final section of the book, where the histography of the leader is summarized. In his justification for branding Mao as a populist tyrant, Shambaugh invokes Lucian Pye’s description of Mao, which observes: “No other Chinese ruler matched him in the number of people killed, banished from their homes to rural exile, imprisoned both in the gulags and in caste-like categories of class identities, and who starved to death in policy-produced famines” (Pye, 1976) (p. 401).

Deng is presented by the author as an anti-thesis of Mao, who unlike his predecessor, was an “organization man” (p. 405). The author writes, “Having rescued and resuscitated the Party, Deng set about trying to strengthen Party rule, using the Party to institute policies, and again making the Party legitimate in the eyes of its members and citizenry. In this respect, Deng was an institutional politician.” (p. 406). This belief in institutional structures, the author argues, explained his Leninist roots. The author also claims that his most enduring ideological dicta- The Four Cardinal Principles, were “not so much about Marxist ideology as they were Leninist organizational principles”. Throughout the chapter on Deng, his pragmatism is vividly on display. Shambaugh posits that although Deng introduced significant political reforms to strengthen party institutions, he was “no democrat, or even a liberal, he was very much a pragmatist who was deeply opposed to dogmatism and constraining orthodoxies.”

The chapters on Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are perhaps most illuminating, given that the two leaders are generally perceived as merely transitional ever since Xi Jinping’s grand stature has cast a shadow on his processors’ performance. The author projects an objective and fact-laden assessment of the two leaders, highlighting the impressive feats achieved under their leadership. It is perhaps Jiang Zemin who gets the most favourable treatment. He is described as the only leader amongst the five who rose beyond his initial impressions and delivered far beyond what was expected of him. The author points out that the foreign China watchers assumed he would be a relatively brief transitional caretaker leader, like Hua Guofeng. However, like Hua, he turned out to rule longer than expected (thirteen years altogether), even longer than Deng Xiaoping (p. 412). His moniker- Bureaucratic Politician, is primarily derived from his work ethic, wherein the author argues that what he lacked for vision, he made up for in ‘co-opting’ agendas from individual bureaucratic constituencies and making them his own (p. 414). The way he manoeuvred the politics of the military brass and established a strong clique of his own is presented as a testament to his political acumen. Such political acumen seems missing from Hu Jintao, who, unlike Jiang, was not thrusted into power suddenly. The author argues that while Hu was ten years leader-in-waiting (after Deng endorsed him in 1992 for the top job), he did not use the time effectively to cultivate strong ties in the military, the government ministries, and organs of the state council. This, the author believes, resulted in a narrow power base (p. 276). Although today, many in China see Hu’s years as the ‘lost ten years’, the author argues that significant strides in reforming the growth-at-all-costs orientation of Jiang to a much more socially conscious multifaced agenda that emphasized social justice, poverty alleviation, reducing inequality, and environmental protection (p. 290).

By the time the author reaches Xi Jinping, it becomes apparent that his primary sources have dried up, in contrast to the first chapter on Mao. This, however, is in no fault of the author but the increasingly insulated political culture that has developed in China with Xi at the helm. Most of the material on Xi seems to be drawn from secondary sources and confirms to the prevalent western conception of Xi. Shambaugh’s account of Xi is less interpretative François Bougon’s work (Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping, 2018) and more fact-driven. One area where the author does try to draw inferences is the section on Xi’s rise to power. Here, the author draws from his turbulent childhood to explain the state of his present persona. In addition to citing Bougon’s interpretation of Xi suffering from a “hero-martyr” complex, Shambaugh adds that the stigma of his father’s purge and the ostracization resulting from it “likely contributed to his sense of emotional and psychological detachment and his autonomy at a very young age.” (p. 329)

In all, this book (like any other) is not perfect. However, it excels at fulfilling what it set out to- a primer on China’s leaders for students and not for his contemporary colleagues. The title itself gives away what to expect, and Shambaugh delivers precisely that. This book can also serve as a good refresher for those looking to brush up on contemporary Chinese history. One could argue that the book does not offer any novel findings, but one must remember that this is not what the author set out to do.

Although the book remains committed to the task set out by the author, there are places where it digresses. Some of the more useful digressions are the ones which address broader topics concerning Chinese politics. These include the tussle between the conservative and the more liberal factions, the sudden authoritative turn of the party since 2009, and snippets on the careers of other important players such as Peng Dehuai, Liu Shaoqi Zheng Bijian, Bo Xilai, Zeng Qinghong, and more contemporarily relevant Wang Huning. One could always wish that there was more content on other remarkable leaders such as Zhou Enlai, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang, but they do feature in places, albeit in passing. The author has also frequently entered himself into the narrative, recalling where he was in China when a particular incident took place. While this book is not a memoir, it recollects his profound knowledge developed over a long academic career and personal experiences in China. Through this book, Shambaugh has gifted students a lucid, meticulous, and very well-structured single volume canvassing China’s prominent leaders- something he admittedly always wished to have.

Nishant Dilip Sharma
Nishant Dilip Sharma
Nishant Dilip Sharma is a Doctoral fellow at the Jindal School of International Affairs of O. P. Jindal Global University. He also serves as a visiting researcher at the Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. His research interests include China’s domestic governance and the role of China’s historical memory in public diplomacy. He has also worked on an archival research project funded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research on Colonial India’s Border Making Project vis-à-vis China (1890- 1947). He recently published a chapter on Russia and China’s Disinformation campaigns in during the Ukraine war in a co-edited book- 'Drifts and Dynamics: Russia's Ukraine War and Northeast Asia’ published by Pantagon Press. The author can be reached on twitter @NDilipSharma and over email at nsharma[at]