President Xi Jinping is readying for the big day, the 19th Party Congress scheduled this autumn. Many if not most, are working overtime to predict its possible outcome. With China—a political system so opaque—no one knows for sure. There are some clues that lead us up the garden path. The Congress is a once-in-five-years event, marking five straight years of Xi’s dramatic ascent (2012) from the sidelines. It also marks five years of Bo Xilai’s downfall, the erstwhile Secretary of Chongqing municipality, a strong and ambitious contender for the top job. Bo stands relegated, as Chinese observers assuage us, to a high-end political prison veritably regarded as the dustbin of political history. But clearly the infighting in the Party had a fall-out that mirrored in the anti-corruption campaign (launched in 2012) that sought to weed out potential contenders.
Elite Factions — ‘One party, two coalitions’?
President Xi’s ascent was a hard-won one, given that Communist Party of 90 million (50 million plus cadres, or officials) is one Party—but as astute observers Cheng Li (Brookings Institution) and Bo Zhiyue (Univ of Wellington) reminds us, given to its own internal peculiarities and dynamics such as the presence of multiple factions. Technically, both Xi and Bo, hailed from different subsets of the same faction—‘Princelings’ or children of China’s ‘red nobility’.
The elite factions are diverse: from Princelings (akin to India’s political dynasty, in China’s case, offspring of venerated veterans) to the weighty ‘oil faction’ (who have control over oil sector’s state-owned enterprises) to the ‘secretary’ faction (secretaries to prominent leaders, eg ex-premier Wen Jiabao).
There is China’s Communist Youth League, which traces its rise to power through allegiance to the Youth League, to cadres who have risen through networking through same-province/same-hometown/same-locality connection.
China’s eastern, coastal and more prosperous provinces carry more political weight. The ‘Shanghai clique’ from the prosperous Shanghai municipality has dominated the political centre in fits and bouts.
Factions coagulate around educational background such as Tsinghua or Peking University, the crème de la crème of educational institutions. There is overlap: for example, Xi belongs to all three—‘Princelings’ ‘Tsinghua’ and ‘Shanghai’ faction. At the Congress, the end-result is a power balance. As Cheng Li tells us, the Congress arrives at a balance by the way of ‘one party, two coalitions’—a Chinese avatar, more or less, of American system of ‘check and balances’—only that it is informal and de-institutionalised, but has become a convention.
As much as observers decry the party’s undemocratic ethos, the party is large, complex and adaptive, with a large turnover and circulation of elites. The party continues to be organised from top-down.
Sinologist Zheng Yongnian (National University of Singapore) calls it an ‘organisational emperor’ as it casts a wide net on Chinese society, permeating all layers with ease.
Lest you scorn, the party is uniquely curated through practical rigours, where only the best, the meritorious and the political survivors make the cut. They are the ones with the highest political stakes battling it out at the Congress for plum posts via the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (the most powerful body in China), the 25-member Politburo (the second most powerful body) and the 376-member Central Committee. Finally, some norms ensure ‘circulation of elites’. These, by China’s moderniser Deng Xiaoping (1978-1997), are so far, firmly in place. These include two terms in office; ‘honourable’ retirement or an exit policy, which does not favour those older than 68 years which has evolved into an unwritten rule, “seven up, eight down” (meaning if you are 67 years old, you may go up, but if you turn 68, you come down or retire); and consensual, collective leadership. Everything is unwritten, and rules that the players know.
Towards Party centralisation or precarious balance of power?
Many observers have noted that Xi has risen as one of the most powerful leaders in China since Deng Xiaoping, who had sought to create a consensual, collective leadership that embraced critics of all hues, such as economist Chen Yun (who opposed ‘ Reform and Open Door’). The presence of an opposition to economic and political reforms within the party was what the late Sinologist Richard Baum called and explained as ‘fang’ (open) and ‘shou’ (retraction from openness)—a hard balancing between factional positions that steered China ahead. American Sinologist David Shambaugh (George Washington University) has observed that today China is seeing an extended period of clampdown (or ‘shou’) with critics not in sight. In contrast to Deng and other leaders (though some of them, including Deng retained the Chairman of the Central Military Commission a tad longer), Xi wore all “three hats” (president, general secretary and chairman) in 2012. But he went on to wear a few other hats (heading several Leading Groups) accumulating so many formal positions and designations (unlike several of his predecessors; such as ten party-state bodies and seven leading groups) that the irrepressible observer of China, Geremie Barme (Australian National University) called Xi, COE or “Chairman of Everything”.
The Sixth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress held in October 2016, adopted the resolution ‘Party central leadership with Xi Jinping as the core’ (replacing “the Party central leadership with comrade Xi Jinping as the general secretary”) and codified or rather glorified, Xi as the “first among equals”.
Unlike Deng Xiaoping, who eschewed formal positions but remained a keen player behind the scenes, Xi’s marked proclivity to amass power through formal positions is being read as a sign of power and possibly, a third term. It could otherwise indicate a conscious power-build meant to outlast his last term in office. Noted observer Suisheng Zhao (University of Denver) suggests that Xi has harnessed Mao’s legacy (Mao’s personality cult and centralisation of power), but suggests that this indicates an “embarrassing confession of regime fragility”. What Zhao suggests is damaging—that Xi’s centralisation of power suggests shaky hold on power. Despite being named the ‘core’, party documents speak paeans on ‘collective leadership’ and the prohibition of ‘personality cult’. This, as Sinologist Lance Gore (NUS) has indicated, implies resistance within the party.
How to read China’s extended anti-corruption campaign?
Perhaps, Zhao’s observation should be read in conjunction with the last five years of Xi’s office, which have seen an extended anti-corruption campaign that has netted lower-rung cadres or ‘flies’ and weighty vice-ministerial and above cadres or ‘tigers’. Many have complimented Xi’s right-hand man, Wang Qishan, who heads Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI).
Wang Qishan is popular in China in his own right. Indeed, many attribute Wang’s extraordinary hold in peoples’ hearts because he has no children, favoured relatives, favourites or protégés, somewhat a Narendra Modi-figure in China. Hence, as the average Chinese say Wang is objective about the needed anti-corruption campaign. The revolution was almost 70 years ago.
However, the campaign has more often selectively felled and axed powerful political contenders (Indians would understand)—such as former presidential aide Ling Jihua whose son met with an accident in a Ferrari and former security czar Zhang Yongkang whose life (second marriage to Jia Xiaoye) was aired in former CCTV reporter Shen Bing’s story ‘My Story with Zhou Yongkang’ (2015). Such dirty linen was seldom aired in China.
The campaign has kept conveniently mum on ex-Premier Jiabao’s wealth, which was brought out by NYT and Bloomberg five years ago— and got them into trouble. NYT’s correspondent David Barboza (who subsequently won the Pulitzer in 2013) had to pack up from Shanghai. China’s campaign has evaded controversies such as the rise of Xi’s own brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui so much so the meme ‘brother-in-law’ was banned on China’s internet. Rumour mills suggest that Qishan (due to retire this year) may not retire, as he is Xi’s eyes, ears and hands.
The media has dug out one skeleton from Wang’s closet in the form of a nephew related to Wang (through his wife, Yao Mingshan, the daughter of party veteran Yao Yilin) shows that party infighting is far from over. Guo Wengui (alias Miles Kwok) a New York-based real-estate magnate has been threatening to disclose unsavoury details about party figures, including Qishan’s distant nephew.
Politburo Standing Committee
All eyes are on the PSC as five of the seven members (born in 1940s) are deemed to retire. Currently, the PSC is manned by a majority of ‘Princelings’ who apparently owe allegiance to Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) not Xi. Will this body be trimmed to a five member body, and who will be the new faces is the big question. Half of the positions in the 25-member Politburo will be available. Again, it is said that many of the members owe allegiance to either Zemin or Hu Jintao (2002-2012), belonging to Youth League, Shanghai or the Princeling faction. This is Xi’s big chance to have his men. And there will be new members joining the Central Committee.
Some suggest Hu Chunhua (Guangdong), Sun Zhengcai (Chongqing, age 53) as the next combine (president-premier), Chen Min’er as the proverbial dark horse (from Guizhou, age 57) and Wang Yang (vice Premier, age 62) all born in the 1960s as the new faces.
The norm has been that the four centrally administered municipalities—Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing and ‘hardship’ provinces such as Xinjiang and Guangdong enjoy higher status and the secretaries of these six places may find a place. The trend has been provincial leaders with experience. But again, nobody knows for sure.
The composition of these bodies will indicate the weightage given to Party factions, provinces, gender and ethnic minorities and unveil the face of the ‘sixth’ generation.
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What lies ahead?
As Xi embarks on the next five years, the Congress comes a Chinese version of a ‘mid-term’ poll: there are signs of centralization and paradoxically, of regime fragility; of factional power-play and party ‘core’; of grand reform plans and of policy paralysis.
But through this, Indian Sinologist Manoranjan Mohanty indicates that China will not err on supply-side structural reforms promoting innovation-driven growth, ‘Make in China 2025’ addressing poverty and inequalities. The key to understanding some of these paradoxes and future challenges will be the outcome of the Congress—it will confirm if Xi will continue to amass more power or whether the other factions will be able to secure a foothold. And in all this, whether Xi builds his and succeeds in his ‘China dream’ is the big question.