The politics of weak leadership

According to Han Gang 韩钢, political changes in China are not necessarily initiated by strong leaders but can also happen under the leadership of weak leaders 弱势领袖. Compared to strong leaders, the politics of weak leaders is characterized by flexibility, an accommodating and communicative stance, as well as by compromise.

Han Gang 韩钢

The politics of weak leadership in China’s transition

A review by Lucas Erlbacher


Han Gang 韩钢 is a Professor of Chinese Contemporary History at the East China Normal University 华东师范大学. His research focuses on the development of China’s political system as well as on the History of the CCP. A selection of his work is available here in Chinese.


Political changes in China are not necessarily initiated by strong leaders but can also happen under the leadership of weak leaders 弱势领袖. Han Gang 韩钢 supports this viewpoint through a historical analysis of the beginning of China’s reform movement following the death of Mao Zedong. Indeed, several fundamental transformations have occurred during Hua Guofeng’s 华国锋 – a relatively weak leader – presidency. In contrast to stronger leaders, his leadership, as well as more broadly the politics of weak leaders are characterized by flexibility, an accommodating and communicative stance, as well as by compromise.

In-depth analysis

“A very familiar historical narrative in the History of China is strongman politics [强人政治] […]”, explains Han Gang 韩钢, a prominent History Professor at the East China Normal University. Indeed, not only the official political account but also the academic and social consensus readily focus on the role of strong leaders 强势领袖 in shaping the path of China’s History. “Of course, there are facts and a logic to this”, he continues, “[…] however we neglected, what I call, the politics of weak leaders 弱势领袖政治.” (Han, 2019, 3:26-3:52, transl. by author) [1]. 

Han Gang presented this viewpoint during his address at the Sapiens Institute’s forum marking the centennial anniversary of the May-Fourth Movement 五四运动 [2]. The forum brought together leading Chinese scholars such as the Professor of Sociology and Economic Development at Stanford University Zhou Xueguang 周雪光or the women’s right activist Feng Yuan 冯媛. [3]

1976-1978: transition period or the beginning of China’s transformation?

The beginning of China’s economic transformation 中国经济转型 as well as the Reform and Opening Policy 改革开放 have been closely associated with Deng Xiaoping’s 邓小平 return to power. Official histories generally point towards the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the CCP 中共十一届三中全in December 1978, which instated Deng Xiaoping as the country’s de facto paramount leader, as the watershed moment of China’s reform (Vogel, 2011, p.246). Furthermore, as the 90s patriotic hit-song “春天的故事 Story of Spring” illustrates, this view has also found an echo in China’s ‘popular’ culture. In it Deng Xiaoping – referred to as “an old man” – is implicitly credited with initiating China’s fulgurant economic rise.

春天的故事 Story of Spring [English title] by Dong Wenhua 董文华

1979/It was a spring day/An old man drew a circle by the South China Sea/Mythical rise of cities/Miraculous accumulation of gold mountains/[…]/Ah China/You’ve taken a bold new step/Entered a new springtime


春天的故事 Story of Spring [English title], Dong Wenhua 董文华

Within the official historical narrative, the period between 1976 and 1978-1979, following the death of Mao Zedong 毛泽东 until Deng Xiaoping’sassumption of power, has been defined as a transitional period 过度时期. Han Gang (2019), however, claims that this constitutes a political judgment 政治判断 rather than an academic one.

The year 1976 was characterized by the occurrence of two major events: the death of Mao Zedong on the 9th of September as well as on the downfall of the Gang of Four 粉碎四人帮notably brought about through the arrest of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing江青 on the 6th of October. According to Han Gang (2019), these two occurrences represent a fundamental breaking point in the history of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), in the wake of which profound economic, political and societal changes have happened [4].  

  1. 1976 marks the de facto end of the Cultural Revolution 文化革命. Although its end was only officially declared in August 1977, the academic consensus has settled on the previous year, 1976, as the Cultural Revolution’s conclusion (Lieberthal, 2020).  
  2. China’s leadership reinstated modern strategic goals 现代化的战略目标. In particular, in the 1976-1985 ten-year-plan the policy focus reverted to policies seeking to develop and modernize China’s economy.
  3. According to Han Gang, the beginning of social and economic policy liberalization (or relaxation) can also be dated back to the period 1976-1978 (Han, 2019, 7:39).
  4. The period following Mao’s death and the downfall of the Gang four also witnessed an initial loosening of political and ideological control within society as well as in the internal politics of the CCP. It materialized itself notably through the rehabilitation of previously banned books,  the emergence of China’s scar literature 伤痕文学. The latter sought to portray the torments experienced during the Cultural Revolution, marked by the publication of Liu Xinwu’s 刘心武 novel “The Teacher 班主任”in November 1977, as well as the burgeoning of an (ideological) enlightenment movement 思想启蒙运动following the downfall of the Gang of Four (Wu, 2014). Moreover, first signs of the weakening of ideological control within the CCP were  the rehabilitation of historical cases 历史议案, such as in April 1978 of the Inner Mongolia incident 内人党事件 or in November of the same year the Case of the 61 Renegades Clique 六十一人叛徒集团案, as well as party internal ideological debates, for example on the criteria for judging truth真理标准大讨论.
  5. Confirming Han Gang’s analysis, Wu Guoguang 吴国光 [5] adds that Hua Guofeng started a change in China’s approach to foreign relationship by visiting Yugoslavia and Romania in August 1978.

Hua Guofeng’s weak leadership

Crucially, these changes occurred under the weak leadership of Hua Guofeng 华国锋. Even though during the period stretching from 1976 to 1979 – from Mao’s death until Deng’s de facto return to power – Hua officially held the power over both the CCP 党权, the military 军权 as well as the state 政权, he can be considered as a relatively fragile or weak leader. This is especially striking in comparison to his predecessor, Mao Zedong, and successor, Deng Xiaoping.

In order to clearly differentiate Hua Guofeng’s leadership mode, Han Gang puts forward the concept of weak or vulnerable leader 弱势领袖. The latter are inferior to strong leaders 强势领袖 in terms of qualification, experience, personal connections and capability. Moreover, the politics of weak leader 弱势领袖政治, in comparison to those by strong leaders, are characterized by flexibility rather than inflexibility (柔性而不是刚性), accommodating and communicative stance rather a rigid one (融通而不是僵硬) , as well as by compromise rather than confrontation (妥协而不是对立) (Han, 2019, 13:52-14:07).

“In the History of the CCP, Hua Guofeng is definitely a weak leader. No matter his qualification, experience, personal connection or capacity, are all not the equal of those of the party elders [such as Deng Xiaoping or Chen Yun]. […] However, it was under the leadership of such a weak leader that the Chinese society was transformed. This overturns our previously familiar understanding, as the transformation of a society does not necessarily require a strong leader.”
(Han, 2019, 12:34-13:09)

Han Gang asserts that Hua Guofeng conforms to his characterization of the politics of weak leaders. Firstly, whereas official party histories emphasize Hua’s determination to supress the internal party debate on the standard of truth 真理标准讨论, Han Gang’s research seems to indicate that, while he did not approve of it, he did not take any repressive actions against it and thus adopted a relatively tolerant attitude. Similarly, while he did not actively support the rehabilitation of historical cases, he did not actively oppose it either. Lastly, in the context of agricultural reform, although Hua Guofeng disapproved for technical reasons of a large-scale roll out of the Household responsibility system 包产到户, he did make an exception for remote-mountainous and impoverished regions. This represents a fundamental change from Mao’s Manichaean approach, which is notably exemplified by the two-line struggle’s 两条路线 opposition between Mao’s proletarian revolutionary line and a bourgeois reactionary line. (Han, 2019, 14:09-20:00)

“The politics of weak leaders in fact changed the previous decision-making process of the two-line model. Under the two-lines there is only yes and no, only right and wrong, only red or black.”
(Han, 2019, 20:01-20:17)

The period of politics of weak leaders was, however, short-lived. With Deng Xiaoping’s return to power and Hua Guofeng being quietly pushed aside, China shifted back to strong leadership. Nonetheless, Han Gang’s concept of the politics of weak leaders should trigger a reflection on the conventional historical narrative surrounding the beginning of China’s transformation. In particular, the role of strong leaders, such as Deng Xiaoping, in initiating changes should be relativized. As Han Gang argues, “[…] it is possible that political change within the Chinese society was not launched through political design, but through the politics of weak leadership.” (Han. 2019, 13:32-13:51, transl. by author) [6].

[1] Original quote in Chinese: “[…] 在中国历史上, 大家非常熟悉的历史叙事是强人政治 […] 这当然有事实和逻辑的道理 […] 但是我们却非常忽略,我称之为一种弱势领袖政治.” (Han, 2019, 3:26-3:52)

[2] The May-Fourth Movement is “an intellectual revolution and sociopolitical reform movement” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019), which was triggered by a student protest on the 4th of May 1919 in Beijing. For a short-introduction see for example Yang Chunmei, 2019.

[3] A full list of speakers is available here.

[4] Han Gang has termed this historical moment as the Bingchenzhibian 丙辰之变, i.e the Change or Changes of the Bingchen year. Bingchen 丙辰 refers to the fifty-third year of the 60-year cycle. For an in-depth discussion of Bingchenzhibian see Han Gang’s talk at pengyouhui 朋友会.The talk is available here (in Chinese).

[5] Wu Guoguang 吴国光 is a Professor at the Political Science Department of the University of Victoria (see. Dr. Guoguang Wu). His remark on the change in foreign affairs under Hua Guofeng was made during the discussion following Han Gang’s presentation.

[6] Original quote in Chinese:  “[…] 有可能中国社会的政治变革不是通过某一种政治设计,而是通过弱势领袖政治来开始启动.”(Han, 2019, 13:32-13:51).

The Speech

Han, Gang (2019). The Politics of weak leaders in China’s transition [Transl. by author]. A Turbulent Century Since May Fourth: China Meets the West, Nationalism and Democracy, 1919 to 2019 [English title] (conference). Sapiens Institute (organizer). 6-8 August 2019.

韩钢. 2019. 中国转型时期的弱势领袖政治及其启示. 震荡百年——五四与今天、民族与民主、中国与西. 2019年8月6-8日.


Han 韩, Gang 钢 (2019). The Politics of weak leaders in China’s transition [Transl. by author]. 中国转型时期的弱势领袖政治及其启示 [Original Chinese title]. In A Turbulent Century Since May Fourth: China Meets the West, Nationalism and Democracy, 1919 to 2019 [English title], 震荡百年——五四与今天、民族与民主、中国与西 [Chinese title] (conference). Sapiens Institute (organizer). 6-8 August 2019.

Lieberthal, K. G. (2020). Cultural Revolution. In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Vogel, E. F. (2011). Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press. doi:

Wu 吴, Wei 伟 (2014). China’s ideological enlightenment movement in the late 70s [transl. by author], 70年代末中国的思想启蒙运动 [Original Chinese title]. New York Times Chinese edition, 纽约时报中文网. 13 January 2014.