18th Party Congress

Struggle for supremacy by party factions now on public show

Deng Xiaoping's answer to party infighting was rule through collective leadership, but the consensus approach is starting to show cracks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 10:42am

A swirling miasma of speculation, doubt and anxiety has led to growing uncertainty ahead of China's most important leadership change in a decade.

Factionalism, a spate of scandals and a heady mix of outrageous rumour and salacious gossip have thrown the imminent political shake-up of the ruling party into disarray. It is quite a change from the expected smooth transition to a new generation of leaders that was supposed to be the culmination of Hu Jintao's decade-long rule over the country.

More intriguingly, the current leadership crisis, unleashed by the downfall of former Politburo member Bo Xilai early this year and fuelled by a smothering blanket of secrecy, has raised questions about the grand succession plan envisaged by Deng Xiaoping in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

Knowing the party's survival was at stake because of the never-ending intrigue and infighting at the very top, the late paramount leader laid down a scheme aimed at ensuring future leadership successions would proceed in a more predictable and orderly manner.

But instead of introducing open ballots or competitive elections, Deng decided to anoint Jiang Zemin and Hu as his two successive successors and set up a collective leadership.

The move, according to Perry Link, a Sinologist and professor emeritus of East Asian studies at Princeton University, was aimed at eliminating the succession guessing game while setting rules and boundaries for horse-trading and manoeuvring by factions of the party elite represented by Jiang and Hu.

Deng and his disciples apparently believed a split among the party's top leaders had impaired the authorities' ability to nip the pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in the bud, Professor Alice Miller, an expert on China's elite politics at Stanford University, wrote in China Leadership Monitor, an online quarterly sponsored by the Hoover Institution.

And collective leadership under the Politburo Standing Committee was seen as the cure for such a leadership crisis.

In fact, Deng made no secret of his ultimate goal of guaranteeing one-party rule for generations to come. In a speech just days after the People's Liberation Army crushed the Tiananmen protest, he said China's stability hinged on the top leadership and especially the Politburo - the party's top echelon of power.

"As long as there is no problem [with the Politburo and its standing committee], China will remain as stable as Mount Tai," Deng said, referring to the most famous of China's "five great mountains".

His words, seen as an effort to institutionalise the succession process and revered by party leaders ever since, have been proven mostly true over the past 23 years. "As a consequence, leadership differences over power and policy have since been fought out behind a rigorously sustained public facade of leadership unity and discipline," Miller said.

Under the consensus-based collective leadership of the post-strongman era, China has seen a period of rapid economic expansion and relative political stability, including the first peaceful transition of power in the history of the People's Republic - from Jiang to Hu - in 2002.

The success in preventing factional rivalry from erupting into political turmoil led to many people being surprised this year when a murky power struggle set off the current biggest leadership crisis - jeopardising the succession due to take place in weeks.

The mainland rumour mill has been in overdrive since Bo, former Chongqing party boss and a front runner for the new Politburo Standing Committee, fell from grace in March following his former top aide Wang Lijun's failed attempt to seek asylum at a US consulate and the involvement of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai , in the murder of a British businessman.

And despite the talk of harmony, the disunity of the top leadership has been on display, highlighted by Beijing's inability or reluctance to defuse time bombs of rumour and hearsay that analysts say have added to public frustration about the party's culture of secrecy.

The authorities have remained tight-lipped on intense speculation about key personnel issues and intense factional infighting, from the fate of Bo and the mysterious two-week disappearance from public view of Hu's heir apparent, Xi Jinping , to the next Politburo line-up.

Analysts said Beijing's embarrassing silence showed the authorities had yet to reach a consensus on how to deal with Bo and how to divide the limited seats at the party's top table among its various factions.

The failure of the collective decision-making process not only adds uncertainty to the leadership transition but also underlines the vulnerability of the party's oligarchic rule.

"The combination of Hu's very controlling personality, which has been evident for many years, and the very large uncertainties that are swirling around at the moment because of the leadership transition uncertainties is creating a sort of perfect storm where the worst of everything is shown up," said Professor Kerry Brown, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Sydney.

It is generally believed there are three powerful political camps within the party.

Besides Hu's Communist Youth League camp and Jiang's "Shanghai Gang", Jiang is also closely associated with the princelings - or taizidang - the offspring of prominent state leaders and revolutionary party elders. Both Xi and Bo are princelings.

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said Bo's removal remained a source of contention among party factions.

Although Hu's bloc and the Jiang-Xi bloc appeared to have cut a deal on removing Bo, Tsang said the difficulties in reaching an agreement on Bo's fate and the fact Bo was only suspended from the Politburo suggested Hu, who appeared to back Bo's ousting, had met resistance from Xi, who was refusing to let Hu win outright.

"The drag in announcing arrangements for the party congress suggests that the fight is not yet over and the balance of the new Politburo Standing Committee and the Politburo has not yet been agreed," he said.

Link said the way the party removed Bo on technical grounds had been widely criticised by both the left and right in China because of its deliberate attempt to avoid touching upon deeper questions about the "general direction" - luxian - in which China should be headed.

Analysts warn of an increasingly evident split among the top leadership as a result of factional infighting, which is potentially highly destabilising for the country's political system.

"The tension between the two blocs provides a kind of 'check and balance', but it also means that the risk of a policy split is higher" if a real crisis emerges, Tsang said.

Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, agreed. "China-watchers once believed this transition would be 'smooth' because the party had institutionalised itself," he said. "As we have seen since February, nothing could have been further from the truth."

Analysts say factional infighting and conflicts will intensify in the future, making efforts to seek consensus even harder.

Worse, party elders and retired leaders, including Jiang and Hu, may continue to wield influence and undermine the new leadership, warns Dr Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

"This new leadership will be quite constrained early in its tenure," she said. "It has lost one of the pillars of legitimacy - namely having served as a revolutionary leader or having been directly selected by Deng Xiaoping.

"If they are largely united in their policies, then the influence of the retired officials will diminish rapidly. If not, there will undoubtedly be far more attempts made from outside the [Politburo] Standing Committee to play political games."

Chang and Tsang disagreed with many analysts who said Hu would depart from Jiang's precedent and relinquish his political and military authority by March next year.

"It's unlikely Hu will easily give up his post as chairman of the party's Central Military Commission, and this will mean another period of uncertainty as the country will effectively have two 'suns' - Xi and Hu," Chang said.

Tsang said he believed Hu would retain his powerful military seat for another two years, making him still a force to be reckoned with - somewhat similar to what Jiang did at the start of Hu's tenure.

Citing a recent analysis of the leadership succession by mainland writer Wang Lixiong , Link said the crisis had raised questions about whether Deng truly solved the problem.

"On the surface, the leader should display no outward disagreement and pretend one has no ambition other than to answer the call of the masses; and under the surface, serve the interests of the power elite," he said.

"Bland managers like Hu and Xi, interchangeable parts in the system, are ideal candidates, no matter how unsatisfying their personalities or governing styles may be to the Chinese people," Link said.

Professor Zheng Yongnian, from the National University of Singapore, argued in a recent article the party needed to streamline its decision-making process at the highest level.

Zheng said the emergence of political strongmen like Mao Zedong and Deng was now unlikely.

He attributed the difficulties in consensus-building and the party's weak leadership to the expansion of the Politburo Standing Committee, from five seats in the late 1980s to nine over the past decade, which inevitably fuelled factional rivalry.

Citing the country's widespread corruption he said the diffusion of power and lack of accountability and public scrutiny had rendered the party's anti-graft drive useless.

"We have seen too many cases of combating corruption with factional politics within the party, which is an anti-corruption drive for the sake of power struggle," Zheng said.

Analysts also said the lines between the various party factions had blurred in the past few years and the leadership transition was likely to see a realignment of the factions. They said power struggles within the party were usually fought along the lines of conflicting interests rather than factional divisions.

"On an issue such as political reform, for example, it appears to me that some leaders, such as Wang Yang , Li Keqiang and Li Yuanchao , might share some understanding, yet their backgrounds are quite different," Economy said. "Even then, there will be surprises. Many of the great reform leaders in history gave little indication that they would transform their country during the earlier part of their career - it was only when confronted with the actual challenge of leadership that they moved decisively to change the direction of the country."