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The Power Dynamics In China: Has Xi Jinping Silenced His Detractors? – Analysis

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By Prof. B.R. Deepak

In the post-Mao era, owing to the institutionalisation of the offices of the top guns, leadership change and power transition have become more transparent and predictable. However, the feud between the factions is not as simplistic as was during the 1980s when Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were disgraced for being liberals, while Deng Xiaoping who ironically emerged as the biggest liberals as far as economic reforms were concerned but never shunned his political conservatism as could be seen during the Tiananmen protests. Post Deng power dynamics are more complex and rather sophisticated as it would be seen through the events folding before and after the 18th Party Congress in 2012, however, the historic dichotomy of reformers and conservatives has remained more or less intact albeit we find more factions in present day China.

The Factions

It is extremely important to understand the power dynamics in China; for these have serious implications for China’s next stage reforms, and national as well as foreign policy priorities. Over the years five to six factions have emerged from the struggle within the party.

First is the so called ‘princelings’ or the taizidang(太子党) consisting of the descendents of the first generation revolutionaries. Four in the present Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) namely Xi Jinping, Yu Zhengsheng (Chairman CPPCC), Wang Qishan (CCDI) and Zhang Dejiang (Chairman NPC) are princelings.

Second faction is the Youth League Faction or the so called tuanpai (团派) having their roots in the Chinese Communist Youth League (共青团). Hu Jintao being from this faction elevated people to higher positions during his reign. Present Prime Minister Li Keqiang also belongs to this faction.

The third is the powerful Shanghai Clique or the so called Shanghaibang(上海帮), the people who had worked in Shanghai Municipal Administration under Jiang Zemin or those who have been associated with Jiang and rose to prominence once Jinag was at the helm of Chinese politics. For example, in the PSC, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Zhang Gaoli and Zhang Dejiang are still considered as pro-Jiang figures. However, as Jiang retired from the office in 2003, the influence of this clique has waned.

Fourth faction consists of neoliberal reformers or gaigepai (改革派)who advocate greater economic and political freedom. These are Guangdong based, and the voice is found in Wang Yang, present politburo member as well as one of the four vice premiers of the State Council. He has handled crises well, contradicted the Central leadership on many occasions. Two such examples are not paying head to the bankruptcies of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) in Guangdong in the wake of 2008 financial crisis, contrary to Wen Jiabao’s advocacy that bankruptcies will cause unemployment; secondly he successfully handled the Wukan crisis in 2011 when he allowed people to exercise universal franchise to choose their representative in village elections. Fifth and very nationalistic faction is the neo-Maoists or the baoshoupai (保守派 )who argue that the state must be strengthened and the ‘state capitalism’ an alliance of rich and the powerful must be destroyed. Finally there are neo-Confucianists who lament on the dwindling moral values in China, and wish to revert to China’s soft power, and sell the same globally.

Notwithstanding the factions, there are no clear cut demarcations between the ranks and files of these factions. For example, Bo Xilai, one time contenders of China’s top post was from the ‘princeling’ faction but was a hard core neo-Maoist. It was he who initiated the so called ‘singing red songs and strike hard the criminals’ (唱红打黑) campaign in Sichuan, and perhaps became the second Lin Biao in Chinese history. This faction uses Mao as their shield, and has extreme nationalistic tendencies. Bo Xilai and the so called angry youths or fenqing(愤青)is a point of reference. The omission to Mao Zedong’s thought in their speeches and debates by Jiang Zemin, especially Hu Jintao and now by Xi has provided the ‘Maoist’ an opportunity to reemphasise values of Mao’s revolution and dislodge the reformers. However, so far the reformers have had an upper hand. If Wang Yang could be considered as a neo-liberalist, he is also a tuanpai. It was under Hu Jintao’s regime that he served in various provinces such as Anhui, Chongqing, before Bo Xilai took over in 2007 and then Guangdong. The same is true for the Shanghai Clique, for, four of the present Standing Committee members Yu Zhengsheng, Wang Qishan and Zhang Dejiang are ‘princelings’ at the same time. Therefore, there are no clear cut distinctions between the factions, one may cross lines depending on the circumstances, for example Zhou Yongkang could be considered a Jiang protégée but Jiang agreed to panelise him when approached by Xi when Zhou-Bo nexus got exposed.

Clearing the Factional Fog

It had become clear prior to the 18th Party Congress that the Shanghai faction’s appointees were in power struggle with Xi Jinping. The man behind the scene was pro Jiang heavyweight Zhou Yongkang, who after making it to the Politburo in 2002 was also made the Minister of Public Security in the same year. In 2007, he made it to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, and also the chairman of the Central Political and Legislative Affairs Commission, an organ that oversees all legal enforcement authorities, including the police. Zhou’s power stretched into various apparatuses of the state including courts, police, paramilitary and intelligence. The defence budget of Public security in 2014 reached $114 billion more than the declared defence budget of China. It was during this period that Zhou installed his own people at Centre, provinces, and oil and gas industry. At Centre he wished to promote Bo Xilai as the head of the Central Political and Legislative Affairs Commission, in oil and gas there was his son Zhou Bin, and others like Jiang Jiemin, and in the provinces primarily Sichuan he controlled politics and industry through a mining tycoon Liu Han who was executed early this year for corruption, underworld crimes, smuggling of arms and murder.

Striking hard on corruption has been used by various Chinese leaders to boost their own public image, and at times quite selective. Bo Xilai’s campaign ‘singing red songs and striking hard on criminals’ was no different and was endorsed by Zhou Yongkang during his Chongqing visit in 2010. In fact it was Zhou again who informed Bo about Chongqing Police Chief finding asylum in the US consulate in 2012, where he spilled the beans about British businessman Neil Heywood’s murder by Bo’s wife. It was also Zhou who told Bo how to deal with Wang Lijun’s defection to the US consulate, as revealed by Bo during his trial in August 2013. ‘Leaking state secrets’ by Zhou was none other than the fact that he warned Bo Xilai in 2012 that Bo was about to be ousted. The scandal not only halted Bo’s campaign as a credible contender to the CPC’s top post but also opened up a Pandora’s box which now implicated his patron Zhou Yongkang too. The feud more than the individuals is a classic example of feud between the reformers and the conservatives. Bo’s downfall has put the neo-Maoists on the back foot; however, they may stage a comeback if the vacuum left by Bo is filled by some other strongman.

It is also clear that irrespective of your affiliation to a particular faction, there is widespread corruption and abuse of power among high-ranking leaders of the CPC. The nepotism and cronyism exposed by a recent weibo post is a classic example; the post has been deleted within hours since it surfaced for violating China’s law. The post titled ‘Political Conmen of a County’ by Peng Junqi, a Ph.D researcher at China’s prestigious university reveals that in Xinye county in Henan, of 2018 cadres he interviewed at section and director level without exception hailed from 161 political families generation after generation, and it was impossible for an outsider to join the bureaucratic ranks in this county.

Xi successful in silencing his detractors?

Unlike Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai, Xi Jinping has no solid power base. Nonetheless, he has proved that he has handled the statecraft with a master strategy. Xi has neither aligned himself to the reformers nor the conservatives, for he is aware that both the reformers and conservatives are very strong in China; siding with anyone will invite huge trouble. Conversely, he has unfolded an agenda that has forced both the camps to lend their support to Xi. For example his pet project China Dream is not his creation as generally attributed to, rather it was a PLA colonel, Liu Mingfu who wrote a book titled China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post American Era in 2009 and expounded the notion. The book is typical of Maoist and Sino-centric ideology; it was written to denounce the ‘peaceful development of China’ by the reformists. It may be remembered that the word ‘peaceful rise’ was replaced with ‘peaceful development’ in a white paper by the Chinese government in 2006. Colonel Liu rather advocates military rise of China and believes that China should surpass the US as number one military power of the world. No wonder the book was so popular and Hu Jintao had to ban the reprinting of the book for the fear of making the Maoists too strong. Under Xi, reprint of the book has been allowed. In the same vein, Xi took the notion of ‘Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ an idea of the reformists that is been increasingly seen as a game changer as far as geo-economics and geo-politics across continents is concerned. Obviously, there are other factors such as ‘pivot to Asia’ and the ‘Trans Pacific Partnership’ of the US, which according to China is aimed at containing China. Therefore, Xi has displayed enormous wisdom, patience and ultimate art of statecraft in dealing with his detractors.

Secondly, in order to diminish the influence of Zhou Yongkang in China’s security apparatus, in an unprecedented move Xi created National Security Commission, which controls the police, intelligence and judicial apparatuses and became its Chairman. In order to keep the reformists under his command, he created Central Leading Group for Comprehensibly Deepening Reforms and became its head. In other words he has been successful in rallying both the conservatives and reformers around him.

Taking on the Military

Thirdly, cleansing the ‘Military tigers’ is another act analysts see Xi consolidating his power. The biggest catch has been General Xu Caihou, former Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) held for cash for rank. Recently another General and also a former Vice Chairman of the CMC, Guo Boxiong has been dismissed from the party and is being investigated for corruption. It has been reported that there are 38 more people being investigated for ‘serious discipline breach.’ Yang Jinshan, second in command of the Chengdu Military Division is another. There are other ‘military tigers’ that have benefited from Xu’s and Guo’s positions and are being investigated. Lt. General Gu Junshan, former deputy director of the logistics department of the PLA is just one of them.

The fallout of these campaigns is that the stories of ‘a mistress behind every successful communist party official’ has disappeared all of a sudden, signifying the impact. The stories of jilted mistresses exposing the sexcapades and other wrong doing of the official, for example the case of Liu Tienan, former deputy chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission have almost disappeared. Liu was fired after his mistress revealed to media that he had embezzled $200 million from banks. Though there are cases such as Ling Jihua, former head of the central committee’s United Front Work Department, and once top aide of former president Hu Jintao. His abuse of power was exposed in March 2012 when his son Ling Gu died in a Ferrari accident that has one nude and another semi nude girl on board. A debate set the social media ablaze as to how a son of a party official can afford $800,000 car!

The intensity of the anti corruption drive in China is indeed great, and the people are supportive of President Xi’s drive. Last year alone, the CCDI investigated 68 high ranking official, and punished more than 70,000 officials for graft. Since last January, it has also launched an official website, www.ccdi.gov.cn that allows netizens or the whistleblowers to interact with disciplinary officials. Wang Qishan, head of the CCDI has said that the site will be a bridge between the public and anti-corruption agencies. It appears that the drive will be a long drawn battle, and many in China fear that may well lead to troubles for President Xi Jinping.

Difficult to penetrate China’s inner circles

Chan Kai Yee has written an excellent book titled Tiananmen’s Tremendous Achievements: The Silent, Peaceful Coup D’état in China (2011). In one of the sections, he talks about China’s inner circles which he calls black boxes and says that it is extremely difficult to penetrate into these. According to Chan, the first is the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the second is the group of powerful elders who are heads and important heavyweights of various factions. The third is the secret security department that is even more difficult to penetrate. When a new leadership is chosen in 2017, only 14 of the present 25 politburo members would be eligible to continue. Of these 9 are from tuanpai and 5 from ‘shanghai clique’ implying that Hu Jintao’s and Jiang Zemin’s protégées will still be able to have some influence. However, if Xi is able to erode the influence of these factions, we will see him emerging even stronger in 2017.

If Xi proved to be a weak leader, not only he is doomed to failure, but the CPC’s credibility and legitimacy will also be at stake. Therefore, the campaign against corruption is a mean to strengthen and consolidate his position, and also to salvage the CPC out of the crisis. It is obvious that the power struggle within the CPC has changed in form and substance; if denouncing each other in Marxist-Leninist-Maoist jargons has long been dropped out, so is the fashion of ‘big-character posters’ or so called dazibao (大字报),intimidating opponents by pinning political levels, and mass violence. Nowadays, the detractors are condemned by revealing out their debauchery and favours curried by them to their friends and relatives, and the wealth they have ill-gotten over the years.



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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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