In This Review

Coalitions of the Weak: Elite Politics in China from Mao’s Stratagem to the Rise of Xi
Coalitions of the Weak: Elite Politics in China from Mao’s Stratagem to the Rise of Xi
By Victor C. Shih
Cambridge University Press, 2022, 232 pp.

In the last ten years of his life, Mao Zedong purged his senior colleagues and installed in high positions very young officials or those with checkered records. Shih is the first scholar to draw theoretical insight from this curious fact. He suggests that at moments of vulnerability, dictators may surround themselves with “coalitions of the weak” to prevent challenges from powerful rivals. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, and his fellow elders followed a similar strategy near the end of their lives, putting a weak group of leaders in place. Shih bases his narrative of intricate factional strife on the biographies of Chinese elites, enabling him to assess who was strong and who was weak partly on the basis of how many connections each politician had generated with other ranking actors on his path to high office. Xi Jinping, who came to power with a strong personal network, was able to step into the post-Deng power vacuum and start a new cycle of one-man control, backed by his own coalition of the weak.