No one will doubt that the ability of a national leader is extremely important for the nation to be led. History has shown us many great leaders were responsible for transforming their countries. Granted, hindsight we may pinpoint and connect the circumstances that offered opportunities to the leaders to perform great deeds that historians can give credits to their leadership. However, even hindsight, historians or educators can not answer explicitly how the great leaders become great leaders as they develop in their careers. The root of this puzzling question is really how great leaders are groomed to be leaders? Is there such a process of leadership grooming? One may point out that there are many programs in education and society at large devoted to leadership training, but they are general characteristics of leadership involving people skill,
persuasion ability, oratorical talents, logical thinking and charismatic manners etc etc. These leadership qualities are important to lead to a successful career but are they sufficient in qualifying a leader to take the top national leadership position to become a great leader? I am afraid that the answer is negative since we find that in the history, there were many political leaders who possessed the above leadership qualities but never became a great leader particularly when we focused on the top national leadership, say the Presidency of a country.
The top national leadership is very critical in the modern world where not only the domestic issues of a country are complex and pressing but also its international affairs are intrigue with serious short fuse as well as long term impacts. Therefore, regardless what government system, a democracy, a Royal rule or an authoritarian administration, there is a common issue: How can the nation assure a great leader is groomed to take the top leadership position? In the process of grooming, one hopes that more leaders are groomed peacefully with smooth outcome even though ultimately only one leader will ascend to the top position. One also hopes that the grooming process will continue to groom the next generation of top leader for succession. In this column, we attempt to examine this critical issue of grooming of the top leadership using the United States and China as examples with reference to the career paths of President Trump and President Xi.
In the United States, the Constitution guarantees that all citizens born in the United States are qualified to run for the President of the U.S. Thus in theory, there are numerous life journeys one may take in education, social engagement and career path to prepare oneself for running for the top leadership position. The campaign and election of the Presidency and other elected positions in the career serve as an important grooming process since the candidates in campaigns and elections are forced to think and deal with domestic and foreign issues. If the elected offices give the candidates opportunities to develop policies and/or execute programs, that experience adds to the grooming process preparing the candidate with aspiration for the top leadership position valuable legislative, administrative and executive ability.
The above described grooming process is never rigid, nor transparent to the general public except when the candidate is running for a national office. In hindsight, we can examine backwards of the U.S. Presidency from Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton to realize that their paths to Presidency surely didnot follow a rigorous nor common grooming process. This fact has a strong correlation to how great a President they may become except there is an element of surprise, “on-job learning”, which may enhance the President’s performance.
In China, its Constitution allows a one party governing system hence the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been in control of the government for the past seventy years. The top leadership position of the country is served by the top leadership holder of the party. Therefore, the responsibility of grooming of the top leader falls on the CCP. In the past 70 years, from Chairman Mao to President Xi today, the grooming process of the top leadership has been gradually transformed to assure a peaceful process resulting in smooth succession, more so in the last two decades. This grooming process for leadership in CCP is quite transparent contrary to what Western observers tend to believe. The first step although may not have to begin at a young age is to qualify to become a CCP member. The party tends to give the labor class (workers and farmers) and the offspring of distinguished party members a little preference (in a way similar to Harvard Kennedy School giving poor black minority and offspring of distinguished alumni a preference). Once becomes a CCP party member, the rigorous grooming process applies.
The CCP grooming process is rigorous and competitive both in education track and career track. Young party members are usually assigned to the lowest level or poorest areas （village） or most challenging positions as public servant or professional of a trained field. Educationally, one can compete to get advanced studies earning degrees, career wise to get promoted to bigger responsibilities, typically from village to town, city, province and metropolis in that sequence. The assignment depends on past performance and new knowledge and new skills to be gained with an objective to challenge the Party member’s full potential. Xi Jin Ping’s career path is a typical example, serving from the bottom, promoted step by step to be designated as successor for Hu JinTao. The grooming process may seem to be opaque to Western observers but Chinese people even nonparty members can track the top performers easily even pepper them with gossips.
Xi was designated as successor to Hu in 2007 CCP Party Congress (CPC) to take the leadership on 2012. The CCP Party Democracy works in Chinese style - reaching consensus through meetings, debates, and negotiations so that the final vote will appear to be harmonious and unanimous. The final step for Xi to take over the top position took many months of negotiation to materialize prior to the 18th CPC. At this year’s 19th CPC, Xi supposed to name his successor but he didn’t, most likely because a consensus could not be reached. There are many speculative reports about the power shuffle at the 19th CPC. Xi being a strong leader with excellent performance obviously has to name a strong capable leader to continue the long term plans laid out in the 19th CPC. I wouldn’t be surprised that the grooming is extended a couple of years to assure a right top leader is selected among all groomed candidates.
Andrea Lungu, a Romanian political researcher (President of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia Pacific, RSIAP), specializing on Chinese politics, recently published an article, Xi Jinping Has Quietly Chosen His Own Successor, in Foreign Policy (FP, 10-20-2017), speculating the Chongqing Communist Party Secretary, Chen Min-Er, to be Xi’s favored successor. I am more leaning to my analysis that Xi and his party leaders simply need to add a couple of years to the grooming process to pick the final choice to assure successful continuity. In comparison, the lack of a rigorous grooming process for the top US leader puts a challenge to the elected US President to organize an experienced team to assist him and to learn quickly on the job.