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«The China Quarterly Additional services for The China Quarterly: Email alerts: Click here ...»

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The End of the CCP’s Resilient Authoritarianism? 609 Nevertheless, both Jiang and Hu owed much of their power to Deng’s endorsement.

As the Hu Jintao era comes to an end, Chinese elites have started to review his administration, and a central theme is a profound sense of disappointment. Hu has been criticized – fairly or not – for his “inaction” (wuwei 无为) – a popular term in both Chinese blogs and everyday conversations. Some prominent Chinese public intellectuals have openly called the two five-year terms of the Hu leadership “the lost decade.”58 Premier Wen Jiabao has also been regarded as “weak” and “ineffective.” These criticisms of Hu and Wen may only reflect the views of some interest groups and opinion leaders, and not necessarily the general public. China’s vast population of farmers and migrant workers may still see Hu and Wen as leaders who have worked to protect and advance their interests, and many liberal intellectuals in China still seem to consider Wen their best hope for arriving at real political reform. But these widely held negative sentiments nevertheless serve to undermine the power and authority of the Hu–Wen administration.

The profound shift in the source and legitimacy of the leadership is even more salient for the emerging fifth generation of leaders. At the start of their tenure, the upcoming generation of leaders, led by the dual-successor pair Xi Jinping 习近平 and Li Keqiang 李克强, are likely even weaker than their predecessors due to their lack of previous achievements, their need to share power and the growing competitive pressure among their peers. They thus will have to rely even more on collective leadership when making major decisions. In line with this development, Chinese authorities have placed increasing emphasis on “collective leadership,” which the 2007 Party Congress Communiqué defines as “a system with division of responsibilities among individual leaders in an effort to prevent arbitrary decision making by a single top leader.”59 Collective leadership naturally makes factional politics all the more essential.

The CCP leadership is now structured around two informal coalitions or factions that check and balance each other’s power. The two groups can be labelled the “populist coalition” (mincui tongmeng 民粹同盟) led by President Hu Jintao, and the “elitist coalition” ( jingying tongmeng 精英同盟) which emerged in the Jiang era and is currently led by Wu Bangguo, chairman of the national legislature (and currently the second highest ranking leader in the CCP). The two most likely top leaders after the 18th Party Congress, elitist Xi and populist Li, each represent one of these coalitions. This division of power can be referred to as the “one Party, two coalitions” ( yi dang, liang pai 一党两派) political mechanism.60 The elitist coalition consists mainly of princelings (leaders whose parents are high-ranking officials) and the Shanghai gang (leaders who advanced their political careers in Shanghai when Jiang was the Party chief there in the 1980s), while 58 Li and Cary 2011.

59 Xinhua News Net, 15 October 2011, http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2007-10-15/113314089759.shtml.

60 Li 2005.

The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623 the populist coalition consists primarily of former Chinese Communist Youth league officials (known as tuanpai 团派), which is Hu Jintao’s power base.

These two coalitions have contrasting policy initiatives and priorities. The elitist coalition emphasizes GDP growth while the populist coalition advocates social justice and social cohesion. In general, the elitist group dominates the economic and financial sectors and represents the interests of the coastal region while the populist coalition prevails in Party organizations and often claims to voice the concerns of the inland region. In terms of political reforms, leaders of the populist coalition are more interested in promoting intra-Party elections than their counterparts in the elitist coalition, because even members of the political establishment, such as delegates to the Party Congress, often vote against well-known princelings. For example, Bo Xilai was eliminated twice in the elections for the Central Committee at the Party Congress in the 1990s.

Factional politics is, of course, not a new development in the PRC. Major events during the Mao era, such as the Anti-Rightist campaign, the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, were all related to factional infighting within the CCP leadership. But factional politics in present-day China is no longer a winner-takes-all zero-sum game. This is largely because these two political camps have almost equal power. They have divided the number of seats in the top leadership organizations into a near-perfect balance.

Table 1 shows that in every important leadership body in 2011 (prior to Bo Xilai’s downfall), the elitist coalition and populist coalition have had an equal

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allocation of seats in terms of either the representation of fifth-generation leaders or general composition. The two coalitions have managed to arrange a perfect balance of power among the fifth generation of rising stars (one of each in the PSC, three of each in the Politburo and two of each in the six-member Secretariat, an important leadership body that handles the Party’s routine business and administrative matters. This balance was also evident in the composition of the four vice premiers and four state councillors (civilian members) in the State Council, including both the fourth and fifth generations.61 These two camps have different leadership skills and expertise, as well as access to different socio-economic and political resources. The remarkably meteoric falls of two “heavyweight rising stars” in the Politburo – Shanghai Party Chief Chen Liangyu 陈良宇 (a member of the Shanghai gang) in 2006 and Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai (a princeling) in 2012 – are testimony to the phenomenon of “weak leaders, strong factions.” Faction leaders involved in serious scandals can be easily dismissed, but factions or coalitions are too strong to be dismantled.





The leaders who replaced Chen and Bo, Xi Jinping and Zhang Dejiang, came from the same respective coalitions. Deals have to be made in the shared interest of the CCP’s survival. Checks and balances of power between these two coalitions have remained intact in the wake of both crises.

Neither the elitist coalition nor the populist coalition can, or even wants to, totally defeat the other. Each coalition has its own strengths, including representing different constituencies, which the other does not possess. Their relationship, when it comes to policy-making, is one of both competition and cooperation. For example, the Party leadership will be extremely cautious and will avoid expanding the scope of the Bo Xilai case to other senior leaders. Purges will be relatively limited. The fact that certain leaders closely affiliated with Bo, such as Chongqing Mayor Huang Qifan 黃奇帆, have remained in their leadership posts implies that the top leadership does not intend to punish too many people. The fact that the country is facing so many destabilizing factors on the eve of the 18th Party Congress will also impel the leadership to limit the scope of recrimination.

Therefore, though the Bo case is a victory for Hu’s camp, this victory will not necessarily translate into additional populist seats on the Politburo Standing Committee. The makeup of the future Standing Committee will largely be determined through compromises between the two coalitions. The balance of power within this system will not be easily changed. If the princeling faction were to collapse, this would constitute an unimaginable revolution. Thus, at the moment, there is a tremendous incentive for the Party’s top leadership to preserve the current structure of “one Party, two coalitions,” and display unity and solidarity.

Because factional politics play such as an important role in present-day China, understanding the composition of the next Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) 61 Two tuanpai leaders, Li Yuanchao and Liu Yandong, are also princelings in terms of their family backgrounds, but their career experiences and close political association with Hu Jintao (who played a direct role in their promotion to the Politburo) make them more loyal to Hu and the populist coalition.

The China Quarterly, 211, September 2012, pp. 595–623

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tends to attract the greatest attention in the study of Chinese politics. While no one knows which seven or nine leaders will eventually reach this pivotal body of power, 14 leaders stand out among their peers as leading candidates (see Table 2). This list is based on a combination of factors such as the leaders’ current positions, ages, term limits on the Politburo, tenures on the CCP Central Committee, and previous leadership experiences.62 Among the 14 candidates listed, ten currently serve on the 25-member Politburo and two (Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang) are already on the current PSC. It is interesting to note that these leading candidates are equally divided by political coalition – seven elitists and seven populists. Within the elitist coalition, four leaders are princelings, two are the protégés of Jiang Zemin and one is a prominent member of the Shanghai Gang. Within the populist coalition, all seven are tuanpai leaders who have strong patron–client ties to Hu Jintao.

These two coalitions share an interest in domestic social stability and aspire to continue China’s rise on the world stage, and these common goals often lead the 62 For a detailed discussion of the credentials of these candidates, see Li 2012a.

The End of the CCP’s Resilient Authoritarianism? 613 two coalitions to compromise and cooperate with each other. Yet, as Chinese society becomes increasingly pluralistic in views and values – and as the Chinese leadership confronts a variety of daunting policy challenges – policy differences within the leadership are likely to become more transparent to the public.

Trend two: weak government, strong interest groups Compared with many other countries in the world, the PRC government has tremendous financial and political resources, largely as a result of both its rapid economic growth and its authoritarian political system. Yet the Chinese government faces a multitude of daunting problems, such as economic disparities, inflation, a possible property bubble, growing local debt, rampant official corruption, frequent instances of social unrest, environmental degradation, resource scarcity, food safety and public health security issues, the lack of a social safety net, and ethnic tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet.

It has been widely noted that the State Council has become less effective at controlling China’s provinces, major cities and even key SOEs with regards to economic policies. A recent, popular barb, that “the premier cannot control a general manager” (zongli guanbuliao zong jingli 总理管不了总经理), reflects serious problems with the administrative capacity of the central government.

The tension and competition between the two competing coalitions discussed earlier also tend to make the decision-making process lengthier and more complicated, which could even result in deadlock one day. China is no democracy, but in this regard might develop some problems characteristic of democracies.

Purged local chiefs, most noticeably Bo Xilai and Chen Liangyu, were also known for their explicit challenges to the authority and the policy initiatives of Premier Wen and the central government.

More importantly, never in the six-decade history of the PRC have interest groups been as powerful and influential as they have been in recent years. Like elsewhere in the world, Chinese interest groups are a diverse lot. They include, for example, geographic regions, bureaucratic institutions, the military, the increasingly commercialized media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local governments.

Local governments in the coastal and inland regions are political interest groups that exert strong influence in Beijing and work to ensure that the central government adopts socio-economic policies that advance their regional interests.63 By way of background: in 2010 among China’s 100 wealthiest counties 93, including the top 40, were located in coastal provinces.64 According to one recent study, nearly 90 per cent of China’s exports still come from the coastal 63 For the local factors in sociopolitical changes in China and other East and Southeast Asian countries, see White, Zhou and Rigger 2013 forthcoming.

64 See http://bbs.nhzj.com/viewthread.php?tid=377464.



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