Fear of instability in authoritarian regimes has led leaders to make calculated decisions in their attempts to consolidate and protect their own power. The relationship between a dictator and an appointed lieutenant has in many cases allowed the dictator to manage issues more effectively, but when a leader considers the lieutenant’s growth in power to be overly threatening, this may lead to his/her forced removal. An analysis of the relationship between Mao Zedong and Peng Dehuai provides valuable insight into the key factors that may influence a leader’s decision to purge a once trusted lieutenant. Victor Shih, Pengfei Zhang, and Mingxing Liu argue that this decision rests on the ability of a lieutenant to deal with exogenous shocks, coupled with the perceived threat of the accumulation of an internal power base from which a coup may be launched.
Shih, Zhang, and Liu discuss a multitude of factors that influence the behavior of the dictator as well as the lieutenant. An exogenous shock to a regime may compel a dictator to delegate skillful lieutenants who are better equipped to deal with different shock types. While the dictator may then eliminate a threat that he himself is unable to manage effectively, the successful lieutenant may eventually garner enough internal support to challenge the authority of the dictator. If the threat of an exogenous shock to the regime is low, then the dictator may be more willing to purge the lieutenant, whose abilities are thus no longer essential. An ambitious lieutenant must also grapple with the payoff of usurping the dictator and the risks of a failed coup, as well as the ability to manage the regime if the coup is successful. The lieutenant may realize that they risk being purged after dealing with successive shocks, though at a certain threshold there may be a point at which the lieutenant has amassed enough power to be protected from being purged. If the dictator has a skill that the lieutenant lacks, however, the lieutenant may be unlikely to launch a coup even if capable of doing so.
Peng Dehuai appeared to be consolidating power within the PLA and had reached considerable influence in the Chinese military by 1959. Peng was respected as a successful general in the Korean War, and was gradually edging out his rivals despite having repeatedly disobeyed Mao. In the mid-1950’s, Peng criticized and sidelined several of his rivals within the PLA, including Su Yu and Xiao Ke, reflecting a maneuvering similar to that of Gao Gang. This likely indicated to Mao that his accumulated power posed a potential threat to the stability of the regime. However, Mao still did not move against Peng, perhaps as a result of the threat of a possible Sino-American war. One view of Peng’s purge at the 1959 Lushan Conference focuses on his daring challenge to Mao’s Great Leap Forward policy, angering Mao into mobilizing the rest of the elite to oust Peng. Another popular theory hypothesizes that Mao held Peng responsible for the death of his son, Mao Anying, who served in Korea under Peng’s command. Shih, Zhang, and Liu link the decline of the possibility of an all-out war between the US and China after the Korean War as a medium-term trigger for Peng’s purge. In a 1958 internal speech, Mao assessed that the imperialists were more focused on Lebanon and Latin America, and were unlikely to take aggressive actions in Asia. As the threat of this exogenous shock decreased – a risk that Peng would have been competent in addressing – Mao may have calculated that the probability of war was so unlikely that a purge could occur without any overwhelming risks.
Shih, Zhang, and Liu argue a dictator can eliminate a lieutenant who has continuously dealt with no more than n shocks with certainty, even if the lieutenant enjoys the highest possible initial political resources. When the lieutenant successfully deals with n+1 consecutive shocks, neither can be sure that they have sufficient political resource to unseat the other. If a strong shock were to hit, the dictator has a vested interest in assigning a proven strong lieutenant; if a different appointed lieutenant is unexpectedly weak, the regime is at risk of collapse. After a lieutenant resolves at least n+2 shocks, Shih, Zhang, and Liu determine that the lieutenant will be able to unseat an initially strong incumbent. A dictator must thus balance the need to keep a strong lieutenant by paying the lieutenant enough to protect against a coup attempt, in turn diminishing the need to purge the lieutenant.