In modern Chinese politics, the paramount leader (Chinese: 最高领导人, Chinese: 最高領導人, Zuìgāo lǐngdǎo rén) of the Communist Party of China and the State is an informal term that refers to the most prominent political leader in the People's Republic of China.
The "paramount leader" is not a formal position nor an office unto itself. The term gained prominence during the era of Deng Xiaoping (1978–1989), who was able to wield power without necessarily holding any official or formally significant party or government positions at any given time (head of state, head of government or General Secretary). There has been significant overlap between "paramount leader" status and "leadership core" status, though they are separate concepts.
The term has been used less frequently to describe Deng's successors, who have all formally held both the offices of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and President of the People's Republic of China, and are therefore usually referred to as "President" in the international scene, the title used by most other republican heads of state, even though the party position of General Secretary is the primary position and generally regarded by scholars as the post whose holder can be considered "paramount leader", and the President is a largely ceremonial office according to the Constitution.[a] Hence Xi Jinping is considered to have become "paramount leader" in November 2012 upon his becoming General Secretary, rather than in March 2013 when he succeeded Hu Jintao as President.
Chairman Mao Zedong was the undisputed ruler of Communist China from its beginning in 1949. At one point Mao held three "Chairman" offices: Chairman of the Communist Party of China, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and Chairman of the People's Republic of China (1954–1959), making him the leader of the party, military and state respectively.
Following the Cultural Revolution, a rough consensus emerged within the party that the worst excesses were caused by the lack of checks and balances in the exercise of political power and the resulting "rule of personality" by Mao. Beginning in the 1980s, the leadership experimented with a quasi-"separation of powers", whereby the offices of General Secretary, President, and Premier were held by different people. For example, in 1985, the General Secretary was Hu Yaobang, the President was Li Xiannian, and the Premier was Zhao Ziyang. However, Deng Xiaoping was still recognized as the "core" of the leadership during this period. Both Hu and Zhao fell out of favour in the late 1980s, but Deng was able to retain ultimate political control.
The term "paramount leader" has been applied to Deng's successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, though it is generally recognized that they did not wield as much power as Deng, despite their having held more offices of leadership. There has also been a greater emphasis on "collective leadership", whereby the top leader is a "first among equals" style figure, exercising power with the consensus of the Politburo Standing Committee. This was particularly apparent during the tenure of Hu Jintao.[b]
Beginning in 1993, Jiang formally held the three offices that made him the head of the Party, state and military:
When Jiang left the offices of General Secretary and President in 2002 and 2003, respectively, he held onto the position of Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Military power had always been an important facet in the exercise of political power in Communist-ruled China, and as such holding the top military post meant that Jiang retained some formal power. Thus between 2002 and 2004, when Jiang finally stepped down from his last formal post, it was ambiguous who the "paramount leader" was at the time.
Hu Jintao held the same 'trio' of positions during his years in power. Hu transitioned all three positions onto his successor, Xi Jinping, between November 2012, when Xi became General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and March 2013, when Xi became President.
Since Xi Jinping's ascendance to power, two new bodies, the National Security Commission and Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, have been established, ostensibly concentrating political power in the "paramount leader" to a greater degree than anyone since Deng. These bodies were tasked with establishing the general policy direction for national security as well as the agenda for economic reform. Both groups are headed by General Secretary.
To date, "paramount leader" has been applied to six individual Chinese leaders (dates approximate):
Beijing At-large (49–76)
|Chairman of the CPC Central Politburo||20 March 1943 – 28 September 1956||1 October 1949
9 September 1976
(26 years, 344 days)
|Mao Zedong Thought||Himself
|Chairman of the CPC Central Secretariat|
|Chairman of the CPC Central Committee||19 June 1945 – 9 September 1976|
|Chairman of the PRC Central People's Government||1 October 1949 – 27 September 1954|
|Chairman of the CPPCC National Committee||9 October 1949 – 25 December 1954|
|Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission||8 September 1954 – 9 September 1976|
|President of the PRC||27 September 1954 – 27 April 1959|
Hunan At-large (64–78)
Beijing At-large (78–83)
|Premier of the PRC State Council||4 February 1976 – 10 September 1980||9 September 1976
22 December 1978
(2 years, 104 days)
(Mao Zedong Thought)
|1st Vice Chairman of the CPC Central Committee||7 April – 7 October 1976|
|Chairman of the CPC Central Committee||9 September 1976 – 22 December 1978|
|Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission||6 October 1976 – 28 June 1981|
Beijing At-large (59–64,78–83)
PLA At-large (83–97)
|1st Vice Premier of the PRC State Council||17 January 1975 – 18 June 1983||22 December 1978
18 October 1992
(13 years, 301 days)
|Deng Xiaoping Theory
(Socialism with Chinese characteristics)
|Chairman of the CPPCC National Committee||8 March 1978 – 17 June 1983|
|Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission||28 June 1981 – 9 November 1989|
|Chairman of the CPC Central Advisory Commission||13 September 1982 – 2 November 1987|
|Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission||6 June 1983 – 19 March 1990|
Shanghai At-large (88–08)
|General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee||24 June 1989 – 15 November 2002||19 October 1992
14 November 2002
(10 years, 26 days)
|Three Represents||Himself||Li Peng
|Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission||9 November 1989 – 19 September 2004|
|Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission||19 March 1990 – 13 March 2005|
|President of the PRC||27 March 1993 – 15 March 2003|
Guizhou At-large (88–93,98–03)
Tibet At-large (93–98,03–08)
Jiangsu At-large (08–13)
|General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee||15 November 2002 – 15 November 2012||15 November 2002
15 November 2012
(10 years, 0 days)
|Scientific Outlook on Development
(Socialist Harmonious Society)
|President of the PRC||15 March 2003 – 14 March 2013|
|Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission||19 September 2004 – 15 November 2012|
|Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission||13 March 2005 – 14 March 2013|
Fujian At-large (98–03)
Zhejiang At-large (03–08)
Shanghai At-large (08–present)
|General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee||15 November 2012 – Incumbent||15 November 2012
(5 years, 7 days)
|Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era||Himself||Li Keqiang|
|Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission|
|President of the PRC||14 March 2013 – Incumbent|
|Chairman of the PRC Central Military Commission|
|Leader of the CPC Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms||30 December 2013 – Incumbent|
|Chairman of the CPC National Security Commission||25 January 2014 – Incumbent|
"A lot of analysts now see it as a given" that Xi will seek to stay party general secretary, the country's most powerful post, said Christopher K. Johnson, a former CIA analyst and now China specialist at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.