The Death of Factions within the Chinese Communist Party?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 9

Premier Wen Jiabao

On the surface, trends in recent months would suggest that the conservative and reformist wings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are locked in a ferocious struggle over seminal issues such as political liberalization and the treatment of dissidents. On the one hand, public and state security units have, since the outbreak of “color revolutions” in the Middle East and North Africa, launched the most severe crackdown on “destabilizing forces” in recent memory. A few members of the CCP Politburo have also called for the resuscitation of values heralded by late chairman Mao Zedong. On the other hand, pleas for political reform and tolerance for individual expression have continued to be made by supposed reformers including Premier Wen Jiabao. Yet, Beijing appears to be undergoing a major shift toward conservative and even quasi-Maoist norms, which begs the question: are there still checks and balances among the party’s disparate camarillas? This is despite the fact that while the 90-year-old party has always claimed that there are no “mountain strongholds”—meaning cliques and power blocs—within its leadership, factions pushing different ideologies and policies have existed since Mao’s days.

Before answering this question, it is instructive to examine the unprecedentedly iron-fisted repression of dissent. Since the spring, CCP authorities have attempted to impose near-total control over all aspects of the nation’s political, ideological and cultural life. In addition to globally known activists such as artist Ai Weiwei, scores of weiquan (“protect civil rights”) lawyers, dissidents and NGO organizers have been detained since early this year (Reuters, May 14; AFP, May 14). A dozen odd editors and reporters in relatively liberal media such as the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolitan News have been reprimanded for appearing to show sympathy for Ai, as well as detained Nobel Peace Prizewinner Liu Xiaobo (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], May 13;, May 13). Police action against a broad array of underground churches has also intensified. Last Sunday, Beijing’s public-security officers clamped down on worshippers at the Shouwang Church—who were trying to hold an open-air gathering in the capital’s southwest corner—for the sixth Sunday in a row. Hundreds of believers were briefly detained. Arrests of leaders of “house” churches in the provinces have also increased (South China Morning Post, May 16; BBC News, May 12).

Out of fear that dissidents may call for a Chinese version of the Jasmine Revolution that hit Tunisia earlier this year, the word molihua (“jasmine”) has been banned in the print and electronic media as well on the internet. The China International Jasmine Cultural Festival, which was scheduled to open this month in Guangxi Province, has been cancelled. To ensure that the airwaves are broadcasting only politically correct and “harmonious” materials, the State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television has urged TV stations nationwide to broadcast in prime time “wholesome” and “patriotic” programs such as Cultural Revolution-vintage “revolutionary operas.” Apparently, “Westernized” and “vulgar” programs such as detective shows and spy thrillers have also been proscribed (, May 11; New York Times, May 11).

More significantly, much of the nation is in the throes of a feverish campaign to resuscitate Maoist values. The western metropolis of Chongqing, which initiated the Maoist revival three years ago, has asked cadres as well as students to spend at least one month a year working in impoverished villages so as to “learn from the masses.” Prisoners in Chongqing’s jails are being released earlier if they excel in belting out Maoist ditties. Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is also head of the Central Party School, said at a semester-opening ceremony last week that students should devote more time to studying the “major works of Mao Zedong” and other Marxist canon. Such efforts, Xi said, would help up-and-coming cadres to become more “politically reliable” and better able to “creatively use the Marxist standpoint and perspective to solve problems” (New York Times, May 5; China News Service, May 14).  

Observers who think a modicum of checks-and-balances still exists within the CCP factions have cited a series of remarks recently made by Premier Wen Jiabao, who is deemed the most liberal cadre within the 25-member Politburo. Wen is the only senior official to have insisted that “there is no way out” for the country if political reform is frozen; he has also reiterated that the achievements of economic reform will be rolled back in the absence of political liberalization (See “Premier Wen’s ‘Southern Tour’: Ideological Rifts in the CCP?” China Brief, September 10, 2010). The premier repeated more or less the same mantras during his visit to Malaysia and Indonesia last month. More significantly, during an hour-long meeting with a senior pro-Beijing politician from Hong Kong, Wu Kangmin, the premier lashed out at “two political forces” that were holding up reform: “the remnants of feudalism and [representatives] of the residual poison of the Cultural Revolution.” Wen accused adherents of these forces of “refusing to tell the truth and being enamored of lies” (Chinareviewnews.April 26; Ming Pao, April 27).

It is doubtful, however, whether Wen can be characterized as a bona fide representative of the CCP’s traditional “right” or liberal faction. Despite his time-honored rhetorical support for “universal values” such as human rights and rule of law, Wen has never once criticized his Politburo colleagues for the repression of civil rights of dissidents, NGO activists, or Christian missionaries. It is perhaps for this reason that a sizeable number of Chinese intellectuals have called Wen “China’s best actor” (The Telegraph, October 17, 2010; BBC News, October 16, 2010). After all, most of the associates and advisers of the party’s two most prominent “rightist” leaders—former general secretaries Hu Yaobang (1915 – 1989) and Zhao Ziyang (1919 – 2005)—have been marginalized since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 22 years ago. Liberal cadres who still clamor for a resumption of reforms once championed by Hu and Zhao—such as former vice-director of the CCP Organization Department Li Rui, former chief editor of People’s Daily Hu Jiwei and former director of the State Press and Publications Administration Du Daozheng—are well past 75 years of age. Bao Tong, 78, Zhao’s political secretary who has been indefatigable in calling for Western-style political reform, is still under 24-hour police surveillance (Asianews.It, March 23; Radio Free Asia, March 22).

There are, of course, still a good number of academics and intellectuals who dare risk police harassment by speaking out against the on-going conservative trends. Economist Mao Yushi (no relations to Chairman Mao), who runs a private think-tank in Beijing, has made thinly veiled attacks on conservative cadres for turning back the clock. In a widely read essay entitled “Returning Mao Zedong to his original person,” which was circulated earlier this month May on the Internet, Mao said that China’s intellectuals should have the moral courage to “assess and condemn the many Mao blunders that have ruined the nation.” Shanghai-based historian Xiao Gongqian warned that the restitution of Maoist principles could deal a body blow to reform and open-door policy. “There is an intimate connection between ‘red culture’ and ‘extremely leftist’ ideologies and policies, and we must raise our guard [about the Maoist revival],” Professor Xiao noted (Dwnews, April 26; The Times of London, May 5). While the liberal credentials of elite intellectuals such as Mao and Xiao are not in doubt, they do not belong to any CCP clique, and they have very limited means of influencing top-level decision-making.

The clearest indication that the overwhelming majority of top cadres are embracing conservative, even quasi-Maoist values, comes in the form of the apparent alliance between President Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League (CYL) faction and crypto-Maoists headed by Politburo member and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Together with Vice-President Xi, Bo is a senior member of the powerful Gang of Princelings, a reference to the offspring of party elders. Bo has since 2008 waged in Chongqing the twin campaigns of “hitting out at the black [elements] and singing the glories of redness.” In Chinese politics, black elements refer to the triads or the Chinese mafia, while “redness” is shorthand for Maoist precepts. At the beginning, Hu and his CYL colleagues refused to render support to the charismatic Bo. Some of Hu’s aides even hinted that the president was scandalized by Bo’s Machiavellian use of the “black-and-red” crusade to bolster his national profile—and to lobby for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) (See “Chongqing’s Mafias Expose Grave Woes in China’s Legal Apparatus,” China Brief, November 4, 2009).

Since late last year, however, a phalanx of top cadres from Beijing has begun to show up in Chongqing, and to heap encomiums on Bo’s performance. They have included the following PBSC heavyweights: propaganda czar Li Changchun, Vice-President Xi, anti-corruption chief He Guoqiang and law-and-order supremo Zhou Yongkang. Xi, who is slated to succeed Hu as CCP General Secretary at the 18th Party Congress and state president soon afterward, indicated that “the anti-triad campaign is well done because it has won popular support and brought relief and happiness to the masses” (, December 19, 2010; Chinaelections.Net, March 14). Eyebrows were raised last month when NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo and Politburo member in charge of organization Li Yuanchao also paid their pilgrimages to Chongqing (Xinhua News Agency, April 10; China News Service, April 19).

Li’s trip caught the most attention because of the CYL affiliate’s intimate ties with President Hu. Chongqing media quoted Li as endorsing Bo’s track record: “We must persevere with the anti-triad campaign because triads wreak havoc on society as well as the basis of state power.” Li eulogized the so-called Chongqing model of socio-economic development because, he said, the city’s innovative policies “represent a new approach to solving China’s many problems.” The CYL stalwart even lent his support to the reinstatement of Maoist standards. Referring to the fast-growing fad of “red songs,” the Organization Czar indicated that “if we don’t sing these songs, our society may soon change color” (Chongqing Daily, April 20; Ming Pao April 20). “Changing color” is a party term for the possibility that the socialist state might morph into a “vassal of capitalism.” Li’s backing of Bo highlights the growing concern of the party’s dominant factions toward dissenting voices and could signal that the two factions have struck a deal to jointly suppress the nation’s apparently growing opposition forces.  

Indeed, a firm consensus seems to have emerged among major factions such as the CYL, the Shanghai Faction and the Gang of Princelings that the CCP’s “perennial ruling party” will be jeopardized unless Beijing is able to stamp out dissent with ruthless efficiency. There was nary a sign of discord within the National People’s Congress when the CCP-dominated parliament approved earlier this year a budget of 624.4 billion yuan ($95 billion) for the purpose of weiwen or “upholding socio-political stability.”  For the first time in CCP history, weiwen expenditures have exceeded funds earmarked for the People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, party-and-state organs in charge of ideology, propaganda and organization have pulled out all the stops to foster harmonious and patriotic norms, many of which have clear-cut Maoist roots (Asia Times, March 12; Asianews.It, April 12).

This is not to say, of course, that CCP cliques have stopped being embroiled in heated competition. Up until the era of Deng Xiaoping, the apple of discord among heavyweight power blocs used to be ideology, especially whether the country should adopt market mechanisms or absorb foreign capital. Battles among the factions, however, are now apparently fought over issues of personnel and economic spoils—not ideological or political matters. For example, different power blocs are jockeying for the maximum number of seats on the CCP Central Committee and Politburo that will be formed at the 18th Party Congress in October 2012. Equally significant is the rivalry among the camarillas over control of lucrative business sectors (Asia Times, May 6; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], May 17;, February 16). For instance, the fast-rising Energy Faction within the party hopes to continue their monopolistic grip over state-held conglomerates in the oil-and-gas, electricity and nuclear-power sectors (See “The Rise of the Energy Faction in Chinese Politics,” China Brief, April 22).

On the surface, the falloff in factional bickering could render the CCP more united and better placed to tackle the tough challenges of the 21st century. Yet, the death of the cliquish in-fighting—at least as far as key ideological and political issues are concerned—carries inherent risks for China’s political future. Particularly, given the indefinite moratorium imposed on political liberalization, the diminution of checks and balances within the party’s top echelons could result in the authoritarian regime becoming even more isolated from the aspirations of the masses. So far, the most tangible result of the consensus within the Hu-led Politburo is the no-holds-barred suppression of “disharmonious” voices in the community. Partly due to the uniformity of thinking at the very top, decision-makers as well as mid-ranking executioners of policy may become less sensitive to whatever mistakes overzealous law-enforcement departments have committed in their scorched-earth policy against dissidents and other alleged sympathizers of the West. A highly unified leadership—especially one that is reviving Maoist and nationalistic values—may also make it less predisposed to listening to the advice let alone the criticism of Western countries.

As China gets ready to take its seat at the head table of the international community, it may discover that its Leninist political structure, which has been reinforced by the curtailment of factional give-and-take, will render the country increasingly at odds with those universal values on which the global architecture is anchored.