The Eclipse of the Communist Youth League and the Rise of the Zhejiang Clique

Emblem of the Communist Youth League. The league previously served as a path for aspiring cadres--and a powerbase for Former president Hu Jintao.

Power struggle is not a dinner party. Internecine bickering and back-stabbing among rival factions and personalities are intensifying as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) prepares for its 19th Congress next year. Apart from constructing a Maoist-style personality cult around himself, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pulling out all the stops to remove a major threat to his consolidation of power—the Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction (tuanpai; 团派), which is still one of the CCP’s biggest cliques in the Chinese Communist Party.

Cadres affiliated with the CYL Faction, which is led by former President Hu Jintao, form the biggest bloc within the 25-member Politburo that was endorsed at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. Hu, a former First Secretary of the CYL, is generally considered a timid, bureaucratic politician. But he served in the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) for 20 years until his retirement in 2012, during which he had ample opportunity to boost the clout of his clique and advance the careers of his fellow travelers. CYL alumnae were particularly strong in the regions, leading to the saying that Hu was following the tactic of “the regions surrounding the center” (包围中央) in countering the authoritarian tendencies of his boss, former president Jiang Zemin, who headed the Shanghai Faction (VOA Chinese, January 12; Oriental Daily [Hong Kong], July 4, 2015).

President Xi’s tough tactics for elbowing aside the CYL Faction were summed up by his widely-circulated internal assessment of the League, that it was “paralyzed from the neck down.” At a mid-2015 national conference of cadres working in mass organizations such as the CYL, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and the All-China Women’s Association, Xi warned that the CYL ran the risk of “being marginalized by young people and being marginalized by the party-state [apparatus]” (VOA Chinese, April 29; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], October 25, 2015). The CYL was also lambasted for being too “bureaucratic, procedurally minded, aristocratic and entertainment-oriented” (机关化、行政化、贵族化、娱乐化). Since late last year, the Central Commission on Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) has stationed a work team in the CYL to look at problems of corruption and infractions of party discipline (South China Morning Post, February 9; New Beijing Post, July 7, 2015).

In a recent article on the website of the CCDI—which has been interpreted as a full-scale confession of guilt—the CYL Party Committee admitted that League members suffered from “weak party leadership, aberrations in party construction, and failure to run [CYL units] strictly.” The League leadership vowed to uphold the “Four-fold Consciousness,” (四个意识) meaning “political consciousness, consciousness about the whole situation, consciousness about following the “core” [of the leadership] and consciousness about remaining in unison [with the top party leadership].” The Four-fold Consciousness is understood as a slogan about professing absolute loyalty to President Xi, the putative “core of the leadership” (see China Brief, March 7). Top CYL cadres also made a self-criticism regarding their criteria for grooming up-and-coming officials, which, they said, were marred by “elitism, ignoring the grassroots, lack of representation, and narrow coverage [of disparate sectors in society’” (Straits Times [Singapore], April 29; CCDI.gov.cn, April 25).

Xi has largely abolished the role of the CYL—which was particularly evident during the Hu Jintao era—as a method for nurturing future party and government leaders. Early this year, Xi gave orders that the personnel establishment of CYL units both at central and regional levels should be cut. The CYL’s budget for 2016—306.27 million yuan—represents a cut of some 50 percent compared to that of last year (Xinmin.cn, May 2; CCYL.org, April 15). Moreover, the China Youth University of Political Studies (CYUPS)—which is responsible for training cadres within the CYL system—is expected to curtail its student enrollment from September this year. Some CYUPS faculty members have expressed fears that the institution, which is sometimes referred as the CYL’s equivalent of the Central Party School, will be severely downgraded (Radio Free Asia, April 23; Radio French International Chinese Service, April 22).

Leverage Against Rival Factions

In their battle against the CYL, Xi and his allies such as Head of the CCDI Wang Qishan, have benefited from graft-related crimes committed by prominent League member Ling Jihua, who used to be the right-hand-man of former president Hu. Investigations into Ling’s alleged misdemeanors, which began in late 2012, have exposed similar economic crimes of a number of top CYL Faction affiliates who reportedly included Vice-President Li Yuanchao. The wives of Ling Jinhua and Li Yuanchao were said to be close business partners. Ling’s demise has also smothered the voice of former president Hu, who has lost substantial influence due to the perception that he failed to rein in the excesses of Ling and other CYL officials (Radio Free Asia, August 25, 2015; BBC Chinese, December 23, 2014).

The Ling affair—and Xi’s heavy criticism of the CYL—has cast a shadow over the political fortunes of PBSC member and Premier Li Keqiang as well as ordinary Politburo members such as Li Yuanchao; Vice-Premiers Liu Yandong and Wang Yang; Director of the CCP Department Liu Qibao; and Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua (unrelated to former president Hu). Premier Li has been sidelined by Xi and no longer has authority over economic policy. While he might retain his PBSC membership at the 19 Party Congress, it is possible that he would move over to head the National People’s Congress. It is likely that Li Yuanchao, Liu Yandong and Liu Qibao will be given post-retirement jobs at the NPC or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. In theory, Wang Yang, the only CYL Faction member with solid reformist inclinations, should be promoted to the PBSC. But it is not certain whether Xi wants two CYL Faction members in this inner most sanctum of power especially when there is a possibility that the membership of the PBSC may be reduced from the current seven to five (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], November 29, 2015; United Daily News [Taiwan], August 29, 2015).

Of perhaps more significance is the political fortune of Hu Chunhua. Hu and Chongqing Party Secretary Sun Zhengcai, both born in 1963, were put into the Politburo by the out-going PBSC led by former president Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao. They are the only two Sixth-Generation cadres (those born in the 1960s) in the current Politburo. Similar to the older Hu, Hu Chunhua served as First Secretary of the CYL; like Hu, a former party secretary of Tibet, the younger Hu built up his career in the autonomous region. It is well understood, however, that Xi has a low assessment of Hu’s ability. And the possibility of Hu Chunhua making the PBSC next year is deemed very slim (Radio French International, Chinese Service, November 29, 2015; Radio Free Asia, August 17, 2015).

Stacking the Deck

After doing all he can to eclipse the CYL Faction, President Xi is investing a lot of resources on putting together his own “Xi Jinping Faction,” of which the Zhejiang Clique is a major component. Similar to what Jiang Zemin did in grooming the Shanghai Faction, Xi has bent over backwards to elevate officials who had served under him when he was Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province from 2002 to 2007 (See China Brief, February 7, 2014). Other components of the Xi Jinping Faction include the Gang of Princelings; the Shaanxi Clique—officials who served in Xi’s home province, including Director of the General Office Li Zhanshu and Director of the Organization Department Zhao Leji; and Xi’s cronies including schoolmates Chen Xi, who is Executive Vice-Director of the Organization Department and chief economic advisor Liu He, who heads the General Office of the Central Leading Group on Finance and Economics (South China Morning Post, March 2; World Affairs Journal [Washington], May 1, 2014). It is evident that Xi wants his Zhejiang Clique to be as powerful as the Shanghai Faction under former president Jiang, one of his major political foes.

Foremost among serving and former Zhejiang Province officials who already possess ministerial status—and are tipped for further promotion at the 19th Party Congress—are Party Secretary of Zhejiang Xia Baolong (born 1952) and Zhejiang Governor Li Qiang (1959). Also prominent are Acting Tianjin Party Secretary Huang Xingguo (1954), who is a former Zhejiang vice-governor; Executive Vice-Director of the Propaganda Department Huang Kunming (1956), who used to head Zhejiang’s Propaganda Department; and Guizhou Party Secretary Chen Min’er (1960), another former Zhejiang vice-governor. (BBC Chinese, July 31, 2015; Apple Daily, December 31, 2014;

Particularly significant is the fact that a disproportionately large number of Zhejiang officials close to Xi have been picked to staff key Central Leading Groups or Central Commissions such as the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reforms (CLGCDR); the Central Leading Group on Finance and Economics (CLGFE) and the Central National Security Commission (CNSC). For example, former deputy secretary-general of the Zhejiang Party Committee Shu Guozeng (1956) is now Deputy Director of the General Office of CLGFE. Former executive vice-governor of Zhejiang Cai Qi (1955) has been promoted Executive Vice-Director of the General Office of the CNSC. Late last year, former member of the Standing Committee of the Zhejiang Party Committee (SCZPC) and party secretary of Wenzhou Chen Yixin (1959) was named Vice Director of the General Office of the CLGCDR (Guancha.cn [Beijing], December 3, 2015; Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], December 3, 2014; South China Morning Post, March 24, 2014).

Moreover, Xi has tried to emulate former president Hu’s tactic of installing protégés in key provincial slots. Two former SCZPC members and party secretaries of the cosmopolitan city of Ningbo have been elevated to leadership posts in the regions. They are Jilin Party Secretary Bayin Chaolu (1955) and Jiangxi Deputy Party Secretary Liu Qi (1957). Similarly, Lou Yangsheng (1959), a former head of the Zhejiang’s Organization Department and United Front Department, was in 2014 promoted Deputy Party Secretary of Shanxi Province. Gong Zheng (1960), a former member of the SCZPC and party secretary of the provincial capital of Hangzhou, was last August promoted Deputy Party Secretary of Shandong Province. Last month, SCZPC member and Head of the provincial Organization Bureau Hu Heping (1962) was made Governor of Shaanxi Province (People’s Daily, April 28; Ming Pao, March 3).

President Xi’s Zhejiang protégés have also been assigned to senior military posts. The best example is Zhong Shaojun (1968), who was a right hand man to Xi when Zhong served as Xi’s personal secretary and vice-director of the Zhejiang Organization Department. In 2013, Zhong, who had had no military experience, was parachuted to the People’s Liberation Army in the capacity of Deputy Director of the General Office of the Central Military Commission (GOCMC). The power of the GOCMC has been immensely raised in the wake of military structural reforms undertaken in late 2015 (China Brief, March 7).

Particularly noteworthy among Zhejiang Clique neophytes are members of the Six-Generation (6G) leadership, a reference to officials born around 1960 or slightly afterwards. They include Chen Min’er, Li Qiang, Zhong Shaojun, Hu Heping, Gong Zheng, and Chen Yixin.

Conclusion

While none of these 6G upstarts has achieved either a national stature or solid achievements particularly in economic reform. Moreover, establishing power blocs within the party goes against his own injunctions against cadres forming tuantuanhuohuo (团团伙伙; “factions and cliques”) (China News Service, February 16; People’s Daily, January 12, 2015). However, Xi seems convinced that as the putative “leadership core,” he has the requisite authority to emulate predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao by protecting his legacy through anointing his protégés as successors.