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Joseph Torigian | September 21, 2022

Event Summary by Laurel Holley

On September 21, Professor Simon Miles hosted Professor Joseph Torigian. Professor Torigian is a professor at the School of International Service at American University and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. He received his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has held a variety of fellowships at institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, Princeton-Harvard’s China and the World Program, and the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation. His work centers on elite power struggles, civil-military relations, and grand strategy, to achieve a deeper understanding of Russia, China, and North Korea. Professor Torigian spoke with AGS about his most recent book, Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion: Elite Power Struggles in the Soviet Union and China after Stalin and Mao.

Professor Torigian began by explaining the premise of his book, which discusses how leaders in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union (USSR) fought and won internal power struggles. He noted that for years, party journals in the PRC published controversial materials, and party briefs from the USSR were not heavily redacted, in contrast with U.S. political releases which tend to be more censored. As a result, there was plenty of rich material for him to draw upon for his book. Professor Torigian emphasized that when people first encounter the issue of elite power conflicts, they assume that competition in these power systems is based on internal campaigning, meaning that elites seek to convince fellow elites of their merit. In reality, elite power competition is comprised of conflict, where players with the upper hand use compromising evidence to expose their rivals’ shortcomings and to manipulate rules. This same material is used by the dominant side to force compromise.

Professor Torigian went on to discuss other characteristics of Leninist systems, which are political systems that emerged in the USSR and the PRC. He noted that these systems were comprised up of members who believed in the party above all else. Additionally, in Leninist systems, top leaders may not have truly won elections, but work to make it look legitimate once they have “won.” Status in these systems was often defined by how much one had contributed to the revolution establishing the system. For example, in the mid-20th Century, if someone joined the party prior to significant wins, they were seen as truly believing in the party. By understanding how Leninist systems work, the public can better understand and interpret today’s current events. Moreover, Professor Torigian emphasized that this background allows people to understand the “sprawl” – the depth to which the political system actually extends, beyond the public eye. Sprawl also implies that public interpretations of political happenings are often proven wrong, decades into the future, when historians are able to access and synthesize relevant documents.

The audience’s questions explored Professor Torigian’s research and interview processes as he wrote Prestige, Manipulation, and Coercion, best practices for understanding these power struggles as a member of the Western public, the North Korean relationship with the PRC and Russia, and historically significant PRC elites. Professor Torigian imparted upon the audience the value of a historical perspective, which as Professor Miles notes, can both “help us make sense of the present and give us some ideas about what to do in the future.”