The writing was on the wall for the Communist Youth League, the power base of former president Hu Jintao, as early as 2012 – even before Xi Jinping came to power.
Ling Jihua, then the chief of staff to Hu and widely seen as the league’s future flag bearer, reportedly mounted a failed bid for the top leadership in the run-up to the 18th party congress, which ended up ensuring the ascendancy of Xi as head of the party and the state in late 2012.
The revelations about Ling’s attempts to cover up the crash of a Ferrari which killed his son that year led to the end of his political career, and marked the beginning of the end for one of the party’s most powerful factions of recent decades. Last month Ling was sentenced to life in prison on charges including corruption and leaking state secrets.
It should come as no surprise that on Tuesday Xinhua made public a comprehensive plan to overhaul the league’s leadership structure and downsize its management. The announcement was preceded by official media reports that quoted the party’s anti-graft investigators blasting the league as “bureaucratic, elitist, and entertainment-oriented”, and that said the league’s budgets for this year had been slashed by more than 50 per cent. There were also reports that one of the universities operated by the league would be shut down. All this came amid widespread speculation about Xi’s personal distaste for the league’s dysfunctions.
The latest development will no doubt drastically curtail the influence of the league and basically cut off one of the major paths for younger officials to rise to power, at least for the foreseeable future.
This marks another landmark in Xi’s drive to consolidate his power ahead of the party’s 19th congress, scheduled next year, when most of the current top leaders except for Xi and Premier Li Keqiang are expected to retire to make way for a new leadership.
Inevitably, this has given rise to further speculation about Premier Li’s standing in the new leadership line-up after next year’s congress following reports of a rift between Xi and Li over the country’s economic development. Li’s political career started at the league where he rose to become its first secretary in the 1990s after working closely with Hu, who was the head in the 1980s.
The 20 years before Hu’s retirement in 2012 were a golden era for the league as Hu expanded its influence and promoted many of its officials to central and local government positions.
Hu used the league as a power base to counterbalance the Shanghai faction headed by former president Jiang Zemin that comprised mainly of officials from Shanghai where Jiang was the party secretary in the 1980s.
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Those two factions largely held the balance in China’s secretive politics until Xi came to power.
As Xi’s unprecedented campaign to tackle rampant corruption within the party continues unabated after more than three years, it has dealt major blows to both factions as many top party, government and military officials belonging to them were investigated and jailed on graft charges.
Meanwhile there have been reports that Xi is trying to parachute officials from Zhejiang, where he was party secretary, into important positions in central and local government, giving rise to suggestions a Zhejiang faction is on the rise. But those suggestions sound premature. The jury is out on how Xi will orchestrate the composition of the leadership for the next five year term.
As Xi has emulated Mao Zedong in his efforts to exert absolute control over the party, he clearly shares Mao’s distaste for the cliques and factions within the party, a point Xi has made often in speeches. His past suggests he did not make special efforts to groom his own people before he came to power. For instance, he worked in Fujian for 17 years where he held various leadership posts including that of provincial governor but he has not promoted many officials from the province over the past three years.
Later, he became the party secretary of Zhejiang from 2002 to 2007 and the party head of Shanghai less than one year before he was elevated into the party’s Politburo Standing Committee. Those relatively short periods of leadership suggest there was not enough time for him to groom his own people.
Moreover, the elevation of officials from Zhejiang and Shanghai, two of China’s most dynamic economic areas, has long been a tradition for the party leadership.
As the son of a revolutionary who helped found the People’s Republic, Xi belongs to the group of children of senior party leaders known as princelings or “second generation red”. He is widely believed to have gained strong support from those princelings in important military posts. But the princelings are a very loosely defined group and whether their members will make significant inroads into the party and government remains to be seen.
More likely, Xi will take heart from one of Mao’s sayings that party cadres should come from “five lakes and four seas”, referring to their diverse backgrounds. The underlying message is that being an absolute ruler, one does not need any particular faction of supporters.