Coalitions of the Weak: Elite Politics in China from Mao’s Stratagem to the Rise of Xi, Victor C. Shih

Reviewed by Andrew Scobell

This is the most consequential book on Chinese elite politics to appear in three decades. Not since 1994, when the late Richard Baum published his magisterial tome on reform era politics, Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Era of Deng Xiaoping, has a scholar produced such an empirically rich, theoretically innovative, and sweeping study of Chinese communist elite dynamics. This high praise is not to imply that other studies of domestic politics in China during the past thirty years have somehow been subpar; rather, it is to underscore the reality that most scholars tend to focus on narrow topics or in-depth case studies. Big-picture studies of Chinese politics tend to be rare.

Coalitions of the Weak significantly advances our understanding of elite politics in the People’s Republic of China across eras. Victor Shih examines the sweep of post-1949 China, not just the tenure of Mao Zedong (1949–76) but also the era of Deng Xiaoping (1977–97) and the post-Deng period. Shih also extends his analysis to the rule of Xi Jinping and offers prognostications about the future. The central puzzle motivating this book, according to the author, is how an aging, increasingly frail, and aloof dictator like Mao Zedong managed to remain in power for so long and avoid a vicious power struggle in his waning years. Shih’s answer is that M

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