China’s palace politics: Xi Jinping loyalists compete for power

Xi Jinping will use the March lianghui — the joint sessions of China’s rubber-stamp parliament and political advisory body — to confirm a batch of appointments to critical roles running the world’s most populous country and rising military superpower.

They will be mostly men he has known since his youth or trusted officials with whom Xi has worked over decades earlier in his career, as well as rising stars who have demonstrated their allegiance to the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The appointments will mark the completion of Xi’s consolidation of power as he embarks on an unprecedented third five-year term as leader of the Chinese Communist party. They also signal the emergence of a new set of factions among Xi’s acolytes and loyalists.

Wu Guoguang, who worked as an adviser to former Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, wrote in a recent essay published by the China Leadership Monitor, a US research group, that a “new era of factional politics is unfolding”.

“Xi’s status and authority as top leader are unlikely to meet any challenges from within high-ranking CCP cadres, but factional competition is already starting to take place among the various groups of Xi’s followers,” said Wu, now with Stanford University and the US-based Asia Society think-tank.

He Lifeng, left, is expected to replace Liu He as China’s economic tsar, while Li Qiang, right, is set to become China’s next premier © FT Montage/AFP/Bloomberg

A hallmark of Xi’s leadership over the past 10 years has been the centralisation of decision-making, which has reduced the influence of other senior leaders. He has already uprooted the previously powerful networks aligned with predecessors Hu Jintao and the late Jiang Zemin.

While posing no threat to Xi’s ironclad hold on power, the new factions will compete for control and influence — and ultimately who succeeds Xi at the very top of the party.

Analysts also believe that understanding the backgrounds, personalities, ideological leanings, policy preferences and personal networks of Xi’s top lieutenants is crucial to elucidating the murky and often unpredictable world of Chinese politics.

“In the years to come, factional competition will be inevitable . . . generational change, in terms of internal elite circulation and power succession, will also fuel power struggles among those sub-Xi factions that are now taking shape,” Wu said.

Wu, in his essay, says four critical groups include officials who worked with Xi in Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai, as well as Shaanxi, the northern province where Xi’s family has deep connections.

Huang Kunming
Huang Kunming is the new Communist party boss of China’s southern Guangdong province © Jason Lee/Reuters

He laid out five further groups, including a clutch of officials from the military and industrial sectors, those with ties to the prestigious Tsinghua University, members connected to the Central Party School, several officials with apparent ties to Xi’s wife Peng Liyuan and a group from the security sector.

“In the bigger picture, the rise of [the military and industrial] group is seemingly indicative of Xi’s new strategy of economic and technological development, with an emphasis on state capacity in promoting technological progress and a reduction in the weight of the private sector in the Chinese economy,” Wu said.

Victor Shih, an expert in China’s elite politics at the University of California, San Diego, narrowed the most important groupings to those Xi formed while he was governor of Fujian and Zhejiang, as well as the group of northern cadres who have been appointed to roles in the party’s powerful anti-corruption organs.

Xi protégés from Fujian include He Lifeng, whom many expect will replace Liu He as Xi’s economic tsar; Cai Qi, the new party head for propaganda and ideology; and public security minister Wang Xiaohong — each of whom overlapped with Xi when he governed the province from 1999 to 2002.

“That is a very powerful combination . . . We must remember that was the longest period in [Xi’s] career,” Shih said. “He was in Fujian for over a decade. So that place left a profound imprint on him and vice versa.” 

The officials from Zhejiang, where Xi was party boss from 2002 to 2007, include Li Qiang, a Politburo Standing Committee member and top candidate for China’s next premier, as well as new Guangdong party boss Huang Kunming and new state security minister Chen Yixin.

Cheng Li, another expert in Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution, said that experts were now only in the “early stages” of understanding the “very complicated” new landscape.

This means starting anew with analysis of the leadership’s vast web of personal networks as well as differences in policy, ideology and influence.

Still, Joseph Torigian, an expert on elite Chinese and Soviet-era politics at American University in Washington, points to a “very poor record” among China watchers of predicting contemporaneous dealings in Beijing’s secretive party compounds. However, he also draws some parallels with the Mao era, after the dictator purged leaders of his own generation and promoted younger cadres.

“You would certainly see competition among these different groups that were promoted after the last house-clearing, but they primarily played the game of trying to intuit what the top leader wanted and give it to that leader better than anyone else,” Torigian said.

Any factions taking shape within the top echelons of the CCP also risk the wrath of Xi, who has cracked down on political opposition and perceived threats to his rule.

In the months leading up to the October party congress, lengthy prison terms were handed down to former justice and public security officials accused of being part of a “political gang” disloyal to the Chinese president.

Torigian added that such political groupings in China “rarely coalesce into something as cohesive as what we would think of as a faction”.

“You don’t want to look like you’re working too much in concert with each other, because that would be an immediate warning sign to Xi Jinping . . . he would want to smash that and destroy it.”

Additional reporting by Cheng Leng in Hong Kong


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