China’s Inner-Party Democracy: Toward a System of “One Party, Two Factions”?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 24

There are no simple answers when it comes to the questions of whether or how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will become a democracy. The democratic transition of the world’s most populous nation, if it occurs, will certainly be no easy task. At present, political power in China is monopolized by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which prohibits the formation of competing political parties or an independent judiciary. The Party also exercises strict control over the content of the mass media; indeed, censorship has become even tighter in recent years. In the absence of a broad-based and well-organized political opposition in the PRC, it is unlikely that the country will develop a multi-party political system in the near future.

Yet, despite these facts, it would be a mistake to ignore the important political developments that have occurred in recent years. President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and other Chinese leaders have initiated discussions, in both formal and informal meetings, regarding China’s commitment to political reform and the development of a limited democracy (Liaowang Xinwen Zhoukan [Outlook News Weekly], October 15) [1]. Perhaps even more significant are the new dynamics that have emerged within the CCP leadership. Top Chinese leaders have begun using the term “inner-Party democracy” (dangnei minzhu) to describe the idea that the Party should institutionalize checks and balances within its leadership (Xinhua, January 6).

Recent developments within Chinese elite politics might best be described as the evolution of a system of “one Party, two factions,” characterized by the emergence of a balance of power between two informal and almost equally powerful political groupings since the late 1990s. For the first time in the history of the PRC, the ruling Party is no longer principally led by a strongman, such as Mao or Deng, but instead consists of two competing factions or coalitions. These two factions cannot be divided along typical ideological lines, such as liberals versus conservatives, or reformers versus hardliners. Rather, a more accurate set of labels would identify the two factions as the “elitist coalition” and “populist coalition,” with the former led by ex-President Jiang Zemin and current Vice President Zeng Qinghong and the latter by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. These new factional dynamics have three main features: (1) the two coalitions represent two different socio-political and geographical constituencies; (2) the coalitions have contrasting policy initiatives and priorities; and (3) they compete with each other on certain issues but are willing to cooperate on others.


The elitist coalition and the populist coalition represent two starkly different socio-political and geographical constituencies. These differences are largely reflected in their leaders’ distinct personal careers and political associations. The core faction of the elitist coalition is the so-called “Shanghai gang,” which includes prominent leaders such as Wu Bangguo (chair of the National People’s Congress), Huang Ju (executive vice premier), Chen Liangyu (former Party secretary of Shanghai) and Zeng Peiyan (vice premier). Like Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong, many prominent figures in the elitist coalition—Wang Qishan (mayor of Beijing), Bo Xilai (minister of commerce) and Zhou Xiaochuan (governor of the People’s Bank)—are themselves princelings, or children of high-ranking officials.

Many of the leaders of the elitist coalition were educated abroad (the so-called “sea turtles” or haiguipai) and have advanced in the areas of finance, trade, foreign affairs, IT industries and education. The leaders in the elitist coalition often represent the interests of the economic and cultural elites as well as the most economically-advanced coastal regions. A recent official PRC study of the 3,220 richest Chinese entrepreneurs (each of whose total net worth stands at more than 100 million yuan, or US$12.7 million) revealed that a large majority are children of high-ranking officials, almost all of whom live in eight provinces and cities in the coastal region (Guangdong, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Beijing, Jiangsu, Shandong, Fujian and Liaoning). Approximately 85-90% of these individuals work in just five sectors: finance, foreign trade, real estate, construction and securities.

By contrast, neither Hu Jintao nor Wen Jiabao comes from a family with strong political credentials, and both spent many years working in China’s poorest areas. Most of the members of the populist coalition advanced in their political careers through local and provincial administrations, and many worked in the areas of youth affairs, rural administration, Party organization, propaganda, united front work and legal affairs. Similar to Hu and Wen, they often come from less-privileged families and inland provinces. The core faction of the populist coalition is the Chinese Communist Youth League (CCYL), the so-called tuanpai who worked in the national or provincial leadership of the Youth League in the early 1980s when Hu Jintao was the head of the organization. Four front-runners for membership in the next Politburo as well as its Standing Committee—Li Keqiang (Liaoning Party Secretary), Li Yuanchao (Jiangsu Party Secretary), Liu Yandong (Director of the CCP United Front Work Department) and Zhang Baoshun (Shanxi Party Secretary)—all served as Hu’s deputies in the CCYL in the early 1980s. The new party secretary of Chongqing, Wang Yang, another rising star of the fifth generation leadership, served as the secretary of the provincial CCYL committee in Anhui during the early 1980s.


Despite the spectacular economic growth witnessed during the Jiang Zemin era, the period also witnessed a rapidly widening economic gap between rich and poor and between the coastal areas and the interior. Jiang allocated a disproportionately large amount of economic resources to Shanghai and other coastal cities, while allowing many inland provinces to lag behind. Within a generation, China has been transformed from one of the most equitable countries in the world in terms of income distribution—with a Gini coefficient of 0.33 in 1980—to one of the least equitable—with a Gini coefficient of 0.45 in 2004 [2]. Additionally, China has paid an enormous cost in environmental degradation for its myopic focus on economic growth at all costs.

Alarmed by the serious problems associated with Jiang’s leadership, Hu Jintao, in the three years since he assumed power, has changed China’s course of development in three important ways. First, he has shifted the country’s focus from an exclusive concern with maintaining a high GDP growth rate to a developmental model that places greater emphasis on environmentally-friendly sustainable growth. Second, Hu has led the shift from an emphasis on coastal development to a more balanced regional development strategy. Third, he has redirected the national developmental policy from a tilt in favor of entrepreneurs and other elites toward a more populist approach that protects the interest of farmers, migrant workers, the urban unemployed and other vulnerable social groups. The emphasis on a more balanced regional development has already placed some inland cities, such as Chengdu, Chongqing and Xi’an, on track to achieve fast-paced economic growth on the strength of high investment levels. For example, new industrial renovation projects in Chongqing will have a fixed asset investment of 350 billion yuan (US$43.5 billion) over the next five years (Diyi Caijing Ribao [The First Economics and Finance Daily] February 6).

At the same time, Hu and Wen have undertaken several popular measures, such as reducing the tax burden on farmers, abolishing discriminatory regulations against migrants, and launching a nationwide donation campaign to help those in need. These policy changes and public gestures by the president and the premier suggest that current top Chinese leaders are not only aware of the tensions and problems confronting the country, but also are willing to respond to them in a timely and often proactive fashion.


While the two factions of the CCP compete with one another for power, influence and the right to enact policy initiatives, they also cooperate with each other to maintain political stability. An interesting phenomenon is that in each of the six most important national leadership bodies within the PRC, such as the presidency and the Central Military Commission (CMC), the top two positions are split between one leader from each of the two different coalitions, creating a built-in system of checks and balances [3]. While Hu’s populist coalition in the national leadership continues to grow, this dynamic of a complicated factional interdependence will most likely continue to hold in the years to come.

Factional politics is certainly not new in China; what is novel is the trend toward cooperation and the sharing of power rather than the traditional zero-sum game in which the winner takes all. This trend is reflective of the fact that neither coalition is capable of defeating the other, nor are they actively seeking to do so. Each coalition has come to recognize that it possesses strengths that the other does not possess and vice versa. For instance, tuanpai officials are adept at dealing with organizational and propaganda questions and often possess experience in rural administration, especially in poor inland regions. Because of their limited exposure to the finance and trade sector, they are usually less qualified at handling the international economy. Furthermore, both coalitions share a few objectives in common: to ensure the regime security of the CCP and to promote China’s status as a major international actor abroad. These shared purposes make so-called “bipartisanship with Chinese characteristics” a sustainable proposition for the near- to medium-term future.

Since leaders and factions are constantly engaged in coalition building, political negotiation and compromise, they will likely continue to find ways to ensure their collective continuity in power. The recent fall of the Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, a prominent leader of the Shanghai gang, who was accused of corruption, reaffirmed this new dynamic in Chinese factional politics. The details of the deal between Hu and the leaders of the Shanghai gang are unclear, though one can reasonably assume that the nationwide campaign to promote the publication of Jiang’s collected works prior to Chen’s removal, and the appointment of Han Zheng, a member of the Shanghai gang, to be the acting Party Secretary of the city (instead of transferring in a populist coalition leader from elsewhere) were all parts of the deal.


Despite its dynamic nature, China’s inner-Party “bipartisanship” has significant limitations. Factional politics and political coalitions within the CCP lack transparency, and unlike factional politics found in other countries’ parties, factional politics within the CCP are not yet seen as legitimate under the Party’s constitution. China’s inner-Party factional politics may provide checks and balances in the Chinese political system and thereby revitalize the CCP leadership; at the same time, however, the CCP, at least in its current form, is unlikely to survive indefinitely, because societal forces are almost certain to demand increasing access to and representation in China’s political process. Moreover, inner-Party partisanship itself probably will not prove to be a static phenomenon. Political lobbying and negative campaigns, which are now officially prohibited, will likely develop in the future given the introduction of limited political competition. The CCP leadership recently decided that, in the election for the delegates of the 17th Party Congress next fall, every ballot will have a minimum of 15% more candidates than there are spaces available, meaning some candidates on the ballot will fail to be elected (Shijie Ribao [World Journal], November 13). Similarly, elections to the Central Committee are also likely to become more competitive as time passes.

In the elections for the 16th Party Congress in 2002, most members of the elitist coalition appear to have voted for both Hu and Wen, since neither individual lost more than a few votes. One can reasonably predict that during the elections for the 17th Party Congress, both Hu and Wen are unlikely to receive the same categorical support. Members of the elite coalition have already begun to realize the need to constrain the powers of the populist coalition, and China’s politicians will be more familiar with the new “rules of the game” in elite politics. If these assumptions are correct, we may soon witness an even more dynamic and “bipartisan” phase in the development of China’s elite politics.


1. According to President Hu and his advisors, China’s political reforms will occur in four major areas: (1) the accountability of Chinese officialdom to the public and the institutionalization of a supervisory mechanism within the Party; (2) direct elections at the grassroots level (i.e., in rural villages and urban districts); (3) the consolidation of the rule of law; and (4) the emergence of civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

2. Ru Xin, Lu Xueyi, and Li Peilin, eds. 2005 Zhongguo shehui xingshi fenxi yu yuce (Analysis and forecast on China’s social development, 2005), Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, 2004, p. 180-85. For Gini coefficients, see the Gini index published by the UN Human Development Report 2004, p. 50-53, available online at:

3. For example, Hu Jintao is the chairman of the CMC, while General Guo Boxiong, the second highest ranking vice chair of CMC, is a close friend of Jiang Zemin.