Now that Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's astounding economic advancement, is about to exit the scene, it is worth asking whether the era of post-Deng politics has already begun. At 92, Deng is long past active leadership and healthy participation in decision-making. The corruption charges brought against some of his favorite cronies and the efforts of Jiang Zemin, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party since 1989, to put his own stamp on policy show Deng's waning influence. But the Chinese system of powerful, trusted personal secretaries means that Deng's office carries on even when the master is asleep. So long as he has a pulse, Deng is more an institution than a man, and a certain public awe shapes the political environment.
Succession has four aspects: who will be the top leader, which generation seizes the reins of power, how the government will be structured, and which direction policies will take. Who will get the top job is largely unpredictable, but whoever he is, he cannot possibly achieve the stature of Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. This is a structural change, not just a comment on available leaders. World War II produced Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Churchill, and de Gaulle. Similarly, only the stresses of the revolution could produce leaders of Mao's or Deng's stature. The governance of China after Deng will be spread among many leaders, and their policies will depend more on broad support and the consensus of elites than individual predilection.
The standing and ideological bent of the new generation of leaders is much more ambiguous than those of the 'immortals,' the octogenarians who prove more mortal every month. The so-called third generation of Jiang, Premier Li Peng, and Vice Premier Zhu Rongji is largely made up of Soviet-style electrical engineers. But in many institutions, the more technocratic,