Book Review: China’s Leaders, From Mao to Now by David Shambaugh

I started this book with some trepidation. It’s a subject I know almost nothing, if not absolutely nothing, about. Shambaugh takes the reader on a journey through a subject he has been immersed in for many years, making it accessible and informative along the way. He has an impressive list of previous publications in the academic world, but he wanted this book to be for the general reader, and for me he succeeds in this quest. He eases the reader in gently with a chapter looking at all five leaders he writes about, telling us about their childhood and making links about their parents.

He then goes on to take us on a more in depth journey through the lives, both political and personal of what he thinks of as the five most influential leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. These are Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zezinho, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. It is the added personal details that made the book come alive for me. The leaders have all had differing impacts on the people of China with their own leadership styles and backgrounds bringing both good and bad into play in the real people’s lives.

For example, when Mao decided that all the sparrows should be killed, and the people followed his orders, insects then had free reign on the crops and people starved. Deng Xiaoping allowed a more open society, with farmers allowed to have ‘side production’ interests, handicrafts, for example. This led to improvement in health and income. However, he was also responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Jiang Zemin, is perhaps the guy I would like to meet! He was seen as an ornamental leader, known as “The flowerpot”, because he didn’t do much. He was an intellectual, with a liking for Elvis Presley and Italian opera and singing Russian revolutionary songs. An extrovert, with a tendency to wander off topic, he must have driven his aides wild, as he burst into song when meeting international delegations!

Hu Jintao is a complete contrast to Zemin, Bland and given the name ‘Who’s Hu’ by other leaders. He made no improvisation in speeches and made no eye contact with his audience. Apparently Tony Blair wanted a cosy fireside chat with him in 2005. He was told, most definitely, that Hu did not do informal fireside chats. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall as aides dealt with that episode.

Xi Jingping is China’s current leader and has worked to reclaim China’s position as a world power. Lee Kua Yeu, a Senior Singaporean Statesman described him as having iron in his soul. He initially lived a life of ‘Red Privilege’ until his father was purged by Mao in 1962. He tried 8 times to join the party, joining at age 21. Shambaugh explains how he has revamped repression in a way similar to Mao and how the use of electronic surveillance has added to this repression.

The final chapter pulls all of the elements of the book together with a compare and contrast style that I didn’t want to end. New knowledge is a good thing.

I recommend this book, it’s an interesting accessible read, I have increased my knowledge and understanding on this world power that still remains a mystery to most of us. David Shambaugh has opened a door on his subject with enthusiasm and a writing style to be enjoyed. He believes that the people’s desire for freedom will win out eventually. Shambaugh humanised the leaders for me, making history and political manoeuvres real.

China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now is out now published by Polity

Review by Carolyn Batcheler

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