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HomeIndiaThis is how Xi Jinping gang sidelined CCP deep factions

This is how Xi Jinping gang sidelined CCP deep factions

Xi Jinping ended the Chinese Communist Party’s internal democracy that Deng Xiaoping had established.

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The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become increasingly assertive in its foreign policy over the past couple of years. This has led many scholars and analysts to conclude that such shift is directly correlated with President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power in Beijing, and his side-lining of long-established principles of political conduct in the domestic arena. However, if one takes a longer view of domestic Chinese politics, such a conclusion, though not incorrect, rests on an unstable premise.

Pundits who argue that China’s newfound aggressive economic, military, and diplomatic external policy is a consequence of a politically stronger leader, make the assumption that for decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leadership have been a monolith. In their understanding, China’s foreign policy shift is merely a consequence of a change in preferences within the CCP. Such an understanding comes from taking the idea of a centralised one party state, quite literally. Viewing the CCP as a monolith is misleading, and impedes the understanding of domestic Chinese politics, and the dynamics of factional politics within it, which have governed the party’s behaviour over the past few decades.

The dynamics of factional politics within China are an effective barometer of the nature of political power in Beijing at any given time.

To be sure, neither factions within the CCP nor their study are new phenomena. “No party outside the party reflects an imperial ideology; no faction within the party is an incredibly bizarre notion,” said Mao during the Eleventh Plenum of the 8th National Party Congress, held at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Consequently, it was the Cultural Revolution and the purging of many high-ranking CCP officials during that period, which sparked scholarly interest in factional conflict as a lens to comprehend Chinese politics. While the study of Chinese factional politics is not new, it has been mostly limited to media outlets in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and a few scholars in the West. The use of factional conflict and dynamics to ponder Chinese politics remains an underutilised tool among most China observers, including those in India.

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China’s organisational structure: An overview

The key indicator of which CCP faction is dominant is how they can comprise the majority of positions in institutions. For instance, during Jiang Zemin’s rule, members of the Shanghai Gang mostly filled the positions; today members of the Xi gang do. Conversely, if no faction enjoys a majority, then it suggests a power-sharing arrangement between factions, such as during the Hu era.

Moving to the bureaucracy of the state, while there is technically a distinction between the party officials and public administration, it is largely a mirage. To develop a better understanding of Chinese politics, one has to begin by looking at the bureaucracy. The Chinese bureaucracy involves two vertical hierarchies, the state and the party. These two vertical hierarchies are then replicated across the five levels of government: central, provincial, county, city, and township. According to scholar Kenneth Lieberthal, such criss-crossing lines of authority leads to a “matrix” structure.

It is important to look at political power in China through the lens of this matrix structure, primarily because it shows how the final power lies with the party, and not the government. The party exercises this power through the Organisation Department and its ability to control appointments from the central to the township level. For instance, at the provincial level, there are two parallel leadership posts of the governor and a provincial CCP secretary. But for all practical purposes, the governor is subordinate to the party secretary.

Following the single-man leadership in the Mao era that was characterised by excesses, Deng sought to make definitive changes in how the CCP conducted itself: to make a set of individuals responsible for decision-making, as opposed to just one man. Deng issued a series of political documents to articulate this championing of collective leadership. Foremost of these was the document, “Several Principles on Political Life in the Party”, which established the principles of collective leadership, inner-party democracy, the rights of all the CCP members, and prohibiting the development of a personality cult.

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One party two gangs

Throughout the 1990s, Chinese politics was dominated by Jiang and his Shanghai Gang. The subsequent decade saw Hu and his CCYL faction at the helm of Chinese affairs, but their power was balanced by the Shanghai Gang. Jiang and his faction represented elite and coastal interests within China, resulting in more market-friendly policy preferences in the Jiang era. Meanwhile, Hu and his faction mostly hailed from the Chinese hinterland, and demonstrated their preference for more populist policies, that aimed to restore the balance of power between the wealthy eastern coastal provinces and the poorer interior ones.

After Hu’s tenure ended, the appointment of Xi – who belonged to the Shanghai Gang – was considered by most observers as the two factions alternating in the “driver’s seat”, the top-position in the CCP. The near complete domination over Chinese politics between these two factions has been categorised as “one party, two factions” by Cheng Li.

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The rise of the Xi gang

The rise of a new power-seeking faction under the patronage of President Xi is one of the biggest developments in elite Chinese politics over the past three decades. On one hand, the composition and the inner workings of this new faction are quite similar to the previous two dominant factions. The members of the Xi Gang are essentially party officials who have had a professional, educational, or personal connection with Xi at some point during the latter’s career – much like members of Shanghai Gang and CCYL had with Jiang and Hu. On the other hand, the rise of the Xi Gang has meant a shift in the factional dynamics of the CCP, specifically resulting in the weakening of the power-sharing arrangement between factions.

In a paper titled The King’s Men and Others: Emerging Political Elites under Xi Jinping, Guoguang Wu of University of Victoria shows how a new class of political elite has experienced upward political mobility in the Xi era. Wu focuses on “elites who have emerged in recent years at or above the deputy provincial and vice-ministerial levels” in the CCP, and then categorises these politicians into seven distinct groups based on their nature of connection with Xi: princelings, Shaanxi, Tsinghua University, Hebei, Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shanghai. Through his research, Wu has shed light on the composition of the new Xi Gang. Each of these seven groups represent a particular stage in Xi’s political career. Therefore, all the members of the Xi Gang essentially formed a relationship with the leader as Xi rose up the ranks. Additionally, some close allies of Xi such as Wang Qishan have also formed their own patron-client networks, and these are also included in the Xi Gang.

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Xi establishes new rules

Xi’s attempts to establish complete control over Chinese elite politics through handpicked appointments has been accompanied by a series of other measures that have further destabilised the idea of collective leadership. These measures include altering the membership recruitment patterns of CCP, rewriting the official CCP rules regarding collective leadership, and enhancing the party’s decision-making role by formalising leading small groups.

In terms of CCP’s recruitment trends, the number of new members has significantly fallen during the Xi era. In 2012, party membership was growing by 3.1 percent, but during Xi’s first term (2013-17) the recruitment fell by 1 percent. The acceptance rate to the CCP organisation fell from 14.5 percent in the Hu era to 8.8 percent in 2015. More substantively, under Xi the party composition has also changed, and it is now more elitist and diverse.

In terms of governance, Xi’s thrust has been to bring decision-making powers back to the party, and away from the government. One of the most significant developments in the Xi era has been the formalisation of leading small groups of the CCP to the level of Central Committee Commissions. Four Central Committee leading small groups, including the Central Leading Small Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, the Finance and Economy Leading Small Group, the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, and the Cybersecurity Leading Small Group, were elevated to Central Committee commissions in 2018. “Effectively formalizing what previously had been informal policy coordination task forces,” writes Alice Miller. Xi heads all four of these leading small groups.

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Xi and the balance of power

In the post-Deng era, Chinese politics had been dominated by two rival factions—the Shanghai Gang, headed by Jiang Zemin, and the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL), led by Hu Jintao. Over the years, the two factions developed an arrangement of power sharing. Seats at the country’s key decision-making bodies – the Politburo and the Politburo Standing Committee – were divided between these factions. The two factions alternated their time at the top, the party’s general secretary, also the president of China. The Shanghai Gang and CCYL competed for influence but also cooperated on some issues. This factional interplay has been the most substantive symbol of Deng’s idea of collective leadership by the CCP. Deng had established the idea of collective leadership in the aftermath of Mao’s rule, in an attempt to safeguard China from the excesses of a one-man’s dictatorial rule.

The appointment of Xi Jinping as party secretary in 2012 could be seen as an outcome of this factional power sharing arrangement. Xi, a member of the Shanghai Gang had replaced Hu, the leader of the CCYL. However, as Xi consolidated power during his first term, he began to establish his own new faction, the Xi Gang. The rise of this third faction has been one of the most significant developments in elite Chinese politics over the past three decades. Xi has sought to appoint his loyalists at a majority of central and provincial positions across China. Most significantly, the rise of the Xi Gang has come at the cost of influence of the previous two factions. The idea of collective leadership has been severely watered down. As things stand, Xi’s faction enjoys majority at all significant decision-making levels, and the two rival factions are unable to balance its power.

Srijan Shukla obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Economics at McGill University. He writes on global affairs. Views are personal.

The article is an excerpt of a paper titled The Rise of the Xi Gang: Factional politics in the Chinese Communist Party. Read the full paper here.

The paper first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.

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