Changing the Guard

Now is also the time for Zhongnanhai-ologists: The China watchers and journalists whose job it is to keep one eye fixed on the gates of the CCP leadership compound, a converted imperial park just to the west of the Forbidden City. Who’s in? Who’s out? What will this mean for the future? It is, by nature, a closed process, and even the handiest China experts are more often wrong than right. Edgar Snow’s book Red Star Over China was one of the first serious efforts by a Western journalist to understand the CCP’s role in the Chinese Revolution, but even he had to cringe later over statements like, “Mao appears to be quite free from symptoms of megalomania.” Opinions evolve. Predictions are qualified. Bets get hedged. It’s all in the game.

Looking back at how the overseas press has reported and speculated on leadership changes in China through history, one is immediately struck not by how wrong they were, but by the intense sense of optimism at each transition.