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Watching the new emperors

Watching the new emperors

Jonathan Sullivan12 Mar 2015Leave a comment


Written by Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley.

Last weekend, as the National People’s Congress convened in Beijing to show solidarity behind the Chinese president Xi Jinping, the American scholar David Shambaugh published an article in the Wall Street Journal provocatively titled The Coming Chinese Crackup. As an experienced China observer, Shambaugh is aware of the risky involved in predicting the demise of an authoritarian regime. However he gives us five indicators to consider: (1) China’s economic elites appear ready to leave en masse if and when the system starts to collapse; (2) Xi has further intensified the political repression since 2012, which shows the party leadership’s deep anxiety and insecurity; (3) party loyalists do not embrace the party’s own propaganda any longer and merely feign compliance; (4) Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has thus far targeted former president Jiang Zemin’s patronage networks. As Jiang remains the godfather figure of Chinese politics, Xi’s strategy may cause a serious backlash; and (5) the Chinese economy is facing a series of systematic problems which cannot be resolved easily without fundamental and structural transformation.

I found it enjoyable and informative to read Shambaugh’s analysis in conjunction with Kerry Brown’s book, The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014). Brown quotes a passage from former American President Lyndon Johnson:

When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary; to hide traits that might make others reluctant to give him power; to hide also what he wants to do with power; if men realized the traits or realized the aims they might refuse to give him what he wants. But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins (p.104).

If we trust Johnson’s insight, it can be said that Brown helps us see through the layers of concealment over the years in order to uncover how Xi Jinping became part of today’s political elite. As the power struggles settle and the revealing process begins, Shambaugh enables us to assess the possible consequences of Xi’s power.

It is often argued that factionalism is an important factor in understanding the rise and fall of Chinese leaders. According to Brown, there are five major factions: (1) the Shanghai faction, (2) the China Youth League, (3) the princelings, (4) the oil faction, and (5) the Qinghua University faction. However Brown is critical of the factional approach as he finds that membership often straddles different groups. For example, Xi Jinping joined the China Youth League in 1971, studied at Qinghua University between 1975 and 1979, and as the son of communist veteran Xi Zhongxun, he is also considered one of the princelings. So how should we sensibly position Xi’s factional affiliations? Moreover, Brown finds that factionalism imposes too restrictive and static a view on modern politicians’ career trajectories as if one’s interests, views and loyalties can never be changed. Clearly how Chinese elite politics work is far more complex and fluid than the simple explanation of factionalism.

Therefore Brown proposes to scrutinize the networks and ties that bind more closely, including:

  • Blood ties, i.e. the links that elite leaders have with their immediate families and family networks, including alliances forged through marriages
  • Political links, i.e. the capital and influence that elite figures pick up while working in specific government or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) entities
  • Friendship and non-blood kinship ties, i.e. relationships formed during their youth, at universities and in other social areas outside the purely political
  • Business links, which normally overlap with provincial links and cover both state-owned enterprises and non-state activities
  • Intellectual and academic links, i.e. intellectual influences on Chinese leaders and the people they turn to for advice and inspiration. Brown observes that there has been fierce debate about ideology (or some may say ‘political positioning’) in China. Although it is difficult to argue that Jiang Zeming and Hu Jintao represent two easily identifiable approaches to policy and policy development, the ideological battle between the Reformists and the New Leftists still matters in Chinese politics. This observation echoes Mark Leonard’s analysis in What does China Think? (London: Fourth Estate, 2008)
  • Army links, a formidable lobbying and influence power that Xi Jinping is close to. Apparently during the period of Bo Xilai’s downfall in early 2012, it transpired that Bo also appealed to sectors of the military
  • Intimate links, including mistresses; and
  • Enemies, i.e. the ‘people who have been alienated, offended or damaged by the rise of leaders, and who are seeking ways of redressing their grievances or seeking revenge’ (p.52). Brown uses Bo Xilai’s case to demonstrate how enemies might not be a concern when things are under control. Yet once trouble appears, the collection of enemies might become a source of alliances that topple promising careers. He points out that Bo Xilai had bad relations with Premier Wen Jiabao for many years. But it was only when Bo had been compromised by his wife Gu Kailai and former police chief Wang Lijun that Wen was able to deliver the final blow by indirectly denouncing Bo in a press conference at the 2012 National People’s Congress. After that, Bo’s fate was sealed (p.53).

These parameters help us understand how Brown sees power and networks evolve and develop in Chinese elite politics, and they also give us useful tools to interpret the five signs noted by Shambaugh. In particular, how political, business and personal interests have become so intertwined in the party-state system and deeply rooted in patron-client networks that the problems will not be eliminated by any anti-corruption campaigns. Furthermore, when things are going well, president Xi’s enemies may be manageable. However if and when problems and weaknesses surface – be it the economic downturn, social unrest, or an international dispute – perhaps it will not be so unthinkable that potential opposition to Xi Jinping’s leadership may bring the CCP closer to a breaking point.

Surely no one can foresee when and how Chinese political elites may succeed or fail, or whether the CCP may thrive or will collapse. However by learning where, who and what to look for, we may gain some understanding of how power is distributed and structured in a complex organisation such as the CCP during a bewildering time in China’s development.

Dr Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley is a China Policy Institute Fellow, a research associate at SOAS and Secretary-General of the European Association of Taiwan Studies. 

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