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Q&A with David Lampton: The Dramatic Evolution of Chinese Leaders


Chinese top leaders attends the third plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, March 10, 2014.

Chinese top leaders attends the third plenary session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, Monday, March 10, 2014.

More than 5,000 Chinese national lawmakers and political advisors have concluded annual meetings in Beijing to discuss policies and develop proposals to help advance the world's second-largest economy. The main theme focused on deepening political reforms.

Who are all these leaders and how do they approach governing in China? David Lampton, Professor of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told VOA’s Jim Stevenson more about Chinese leaders based on over 550 personal interviews which inspired his new book, Following the Leader.


LAMPTON: China has got a very elaborate bureaucracy – a party bureaucracy, a state bureaucracy and of course a military bureaucracy. That is not to mention the leaders of provinces. You have got 31 provinces and those provinces are as big as countries in many cases. And then China has got 2,000 plus counties. And counties are actually rather large areas, too.

When I in the book talk about leaders, I don’t mean just the standing politburo, the party elite or the Central Committee, I also mean university presidents, county magistrates, and provincial governors and party secretaries, and increasingly CEOs and global companies and even NGO leaders.

What is reasonably called a leader today, I think, is a much broader and maybe more interesting and certainly more diverse younger group than what constituted leaders when I began going to China in 1976.

STEVENSON: Does the political system in China try to select or groom its leaders to be a certain type? How much individuality do they really allow as the chosen few have risen to the top?

LAMPTON: I guess it is testimony to the power of the individual spirit. China has a very rigorous promotion system that certainly by the time people move up they have lots of experience with lots of dimensions with lower levels. They go through a standard operating procedure.

And so on one level you would say the system is designed to create a certain uniformity of policy perspective and actual bureaucratic behavior. But what is equally impressive to me is still when you meet these people they are radically different personalities as you could probably find in a range of politicians and other leaders in other societies.

But like in every other society, sometimes the top doesn’t know what it wants. Even though there are tremendous pressures for conformity, I think China’s leaders at the top see themselves as somewhat weak in dealing with subordinates that are continually going their own way.

STEVENSON: How has that dynamic changed in terms of the influence of all of these leaders influencing the person at the top, and the top person influencing those under him?

LAMPTON: Broadly speaking, Chinese society has become more complicated. The Chinese bureaucracies have become more fragmented, complex and divided. People at the bottom of the system have information and resources and organizations that they run that give them the capacity to more effectively resist upper levels if that is what they choose to do.

While China’s leaders are still, by any fair stretch at the top, very powerful and can certainly exercise their power in ways that are either perceived as fair or not fair, nonetheless I think Chinese leaders now have to negotiate with each other to a much greater extent, and they have to negotiate with society. This has been a dramatic change in the political system. So the future question really it seems for me is how we bring a more complex society into a harmonious and effective relationship with what you might call older political institutions.
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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

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