It is a seminal event, because it has brought to public attention the usually secret power-struggles and factional infighting within an institution that tries to project itself as being monolithic. There has been some excellent coverage and provocative commentary on the unfolding scandal (e.g. Wang Hui's controversial essay in the London Review of Books), and the best of it has tried to fit it within a broader historical context - such as this BBC comparison with three other CPC rising stars who were brought back down by factional competition.
But, in general, I think that inadequate attention has been paid to the question of what factions in the CPC are for: where did they come from?; what functions do they serve in the wider political system?; what is the difference between a "faction" and a "party"? If, as Cheng Li argues, we are witnessing the emergence of bipartisanship in China in all but name (a system he describes as "One Party, Two Coalitions"), then the need to understand the historical causes and effects of the major factions inside the CPC becomes all the more urgent.
What is a party faction? In their NBER paper, Persico, et al. (2007) provide a useful overview of how the concept has been used by political scientists. In his study of the Italian Christian Democratcs (DC) Zuckerman (1975) defines it as something more durable than a single-issue or time-limited alliance:
"A structured group within a political party which seeks, at a minimum, to control authoritarive decision-making positions of the party. It is a "structured group" in that there are established patterns of behaviour and interaction for the faction members over time. Thus, party factions are to be distinguished from groups that coalesce around a specific or temporarily limited issue and then dissolve [...]"
According to Zuckerman, two features make a given party especially vulnerable to factionalism - promotion within the party depends on other officials' support, and the power to allocate resources (incl. public goods) is broadly dispersed. The CPC certainly exhibits these characteristics; despite the centralisation of authority in the party, in practice there is a high degree of interdependency between different levels of authority, especially given the absence of strong external safeguards against the abuse of power.
As the diagram below shows, the CPC relies on a precarious system of institutionalised self-regulation; according to Pye (1981), "the prime basis for factions among cadres is the search for career security and the protection of power."
Bettcher (2005) further distinguishes between "factions of principle" (ideology-based) and "factions of interest", the latter being "hierarchical networks of patron-client relationships among party officials." Ideology matters, but the key coalitions of factions in the CPC should be understood as factions of interest.
Finally, just for the sake of conceptual clarity, here is a definition of a political party from Heywood (2007):
"A group that is organised for the purpose of winning [or securing] government power; parties typically adopt a broad issue focus and are united by shared political preferences and a general ideological identity."
This definition makes clear the essential differences between parties and party factions: parties are to some extent defined by a shared general ideology, whereas factions needn't be; the immediate goal of a party is to secure government power, whilst the immediate goal of a faction is to control how the party uses its power.
One of the more enthralling articles about the Bo Xilai affair was a piece by John Garnaut in Foreign Policy, which traced Bo's demise - and his implicit criticism by Premier Wen Jiabao - to the fateful battle between Bo's father and Wen's patron 25 years earlier.
But to really understand the function of faction in Chinese politics - the useful purpose it serves, albeit at a huge risk - you have to go back even further, to the years before and after the birth of the Republic and the end of the last Imperial dynasty, at the beginning of the last century.
And to a time when the CPC was itself a faction in another, larger party.
In 1894 Sun Yat-sen, the man remembered on both sides of the Taiwan Straits as "a pioneer of the revolution", founded the Society to Restore China's Prosperity. Like many of the other secret societies actively trying to overthrow the ailing Qing dynasty, it was small, consisting of about 100 members.
In 1905, Sun formed a union of many of the secret societies - it was called Tongmenghui (Alliance Society).The various secret societies that formed it (with names like 'Regeneration' and 'Revive the Light') were all united by the goal of an anti-Qing revolution; their four stated aims were "to expel the Tartar barbarians, to revive the Chinese nation, to establish a Republic, and to distribute land equally among the people." Unlike its predecessor organisations, it was very effectively organised, operating cells at home and abroad (Sun oversaw its HQ in Tokyo).
This map shows the Tongmenghui HQ, and its 18 "shadow branches" - on in Shanghai, and one for each of the 17 provinces:
Internally it became a microcosm of the modern republican government that Sun, as its Chair, hoped to build in practice - with executive, legislative and judicial branches.
In 1911, they got their chance when a military revolt against the Qing erupted in the city of Wuchang. When the court dithered, other southern provinces joined Wuchang in declaring their secession. The regent summoned the esteemed Gen. Yuan Shi-kai out of retirement to save the Qing, but once Yuan saw which way the wind was blowing he changed sides and negotiated an armistice.
The revolution caught the leaders of Tongmenghui off-guard. Sun raced back to China upon hearing the news, and he was promptly elected the first President of the Republic by the Nanjing Assembly. Yet almost immediately he realised that he lacked the authority to lead the new Republic - in effect, the revolution had removed any lingering illusions about where power really resided, but the only authority that mattered still lay in the military not the civilian sphere.
When the KMT won majorities in both chambers of the Assembly in Feb. 1913, Song rejected forming a coalition government so that the new parliament could act as a powerful check on President Yuan - who was outside of the KMT, and resented any such restraint on his authority. Two months after his victory Song was assassinated whilst waiting for a train, on his way to give a speech in defence of strong parliamentary government - evidence linked the gunman to Yuan, who proceeded to strip the National Assembly of any potential for independent action, sending armed men to surround the building and intimidate opponents into submission.
Here is a postcard featuring Yuan next to the new flag, the banner of 'Five Races Under One Union':
Horrified by this betrayal, Sun launched an unsuccessful "second revolution" against Yuan, who sent him into exile again and banned the KMT as a "secret organisation." From his swearing-in ceremony in 1913 to his death in 1916, Yuan managed to alienate even his most conservative civilian and military supporters with his attempts to rule by violence alone. His final years began a decade of chaos known as the "Warlord Era" - and made necessary an alliance between the KMT and the newly-formed CPC.
In return for arms and military/political advisors, Sun consented to the Comintern's condition that the members of the CPC be allowed to join the KMT. Both parties would work together for the greater good of defeating the warlords and reunifying the country. Below I have included a map to illustrate how fragmented the country was - red lines indicate areas ruled by different military units:
Although Sun wanted a face-saving condition that they would have to abandon Marxism and agree to follow KMT leadership, the agreement of 1922-3 - the beginning of the 'First United Front' - allowed the Communists to remain as CPC members and to keep their weapons.
The two parties shared the Leninist principle of "democratic centralism" - "under which any KMT [or CPC] decision, once reached by a majority of members of the relevant committees, would be wholly binding on all party members" (Spence 1999). Everyone was meant to know their place in the party, and whilst one could debate any issue within one's jurisdiction, one was not free to debate that issue at any time, in any place, or with just anyone.
The Comintern established a military training academy on Whampoa Island, under the command of Gen. Chiang Kai-shek. There, Chiang made his name and developed a powerful following. In 1925 he took charge of the KMT, but unlike Sun he had a visceral hatred of communism and intended to eradicate the CPC as soon as he no longer needed their support.
According to Stuart Schram (1967), by the time of Sun's death "his name had become the symbol of a firm policy of collaboration with the Communists." Spence tells us: "When overseas supporters cabled Sun that he was being subtly "Sovietized", he answered that if the CPC were not allowed to cooperate with the KMT, then he himself would join the CPC." Here was one respect in which Chiang differed sharply from his mentor.
Chiang believed the Soviets were stalling him to give the CPC time to use KMT resources to build their own support base. So in 1926 he staged a coup within his own party, rounding up Communists and putting Soviet advisors under "protective custody." He then got the KMT Central Executive Committee to pass a resolution stating, "comrades of the left...should retire for a while." All instructions issued by the CPC had to be approved by the KMT first. No CPC members could head KMT or government bureaus.
In a backlash against Chiang's seizure of power, the civilian administration, mostly from the left of the party, moved to Wuhan and "tried to rein in Chiang, cancelling the special powers granted to him at the start of the expedition, and making him answerable to a commission which included a Communist." But Chiang was now confident enough to show his true colours, and in 1927 he launched the "White Terror" to purge the KMT of Communists.
Here is a documentary clip about the Northern Expedition and the White Terror:
Chiang had responded to the growing polarisation of the KMT leadership by entrenching those divisions - there were two rival KMT governments, a left-wing one in Wuhan, and a right-wing one in Nanjing. Fenby describes how acrimonious the split was:
"Wuhan expelled Chiang from the KMT. A mass meeting in the leftist capital denounced him as the 'counter-revolutionary chief'. [...] The [Wuhan] government sought to keep the united front alive as mass organisations and trade unions sprouted."
However, when Moscow advised the CPC to start building their own army, it was too much for the KMT, even its radical wing; Wuhan responded by expelling the Communists from its administration. For Chiang, expelling the Communists without exterminating them seemed incredibly dangerous - the rival wings of the KMT were reconciled, and there were mutterings of a new government being formed without him. Only after a failed CPC rising in Canton did the different KMT factions rally behind him as a strong leader.
One last event of the 'Nanjing Decade' (1928-37) is noteworthy. Four years after it was founded, the CPC recruited a student activist named Bo Yibo - Bo Xilai's father. Here is a picture of the young Bo taken after the 1949 revolution that brought the CPC to power:
After Chiang had declared war on the communists in 1927, Bo had gone underground. But he was captured by the KMT in Tianjin in 1931. Like many of his captured comrades, Bo wrote a confession condemning the communists in order to get out of jail.
Nearly four decades later, when China was in the grip of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, Mao began mobilising - and arming - groups outside of the formal CPC organisation to confront sections of the Party that had dared to oppose him.
Mao had not always been so intolerant of opposition - in the 1920s he had enthusiastically supported the CPC joining the KMT and was at one point labelled a "right-wing opportunist" for his forgiving attitude towards the right-wing of the KMT.
Perhaps the repeated setbacks and near-defeats of the next two decades taught him that this kind of 'soft-Leninism' was not a sustainable strategy. Either way, by the mid-1960s Mao was throwing "democratic centralism" out of the window in order to purge the CPC of officials who had criticised his more utopian schemes. These included Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping - and Bo Yibo, who had risen to chairman of the State Economic Commission. Mao's ringleaders in the Cultural Revolution jumped on his confession as 'proof' of his guilt as a "counter-revolutionary." Red Guards declared: "He is a dog, crawling out of the KMT den." Here is a photograph of Bo defending himself against these accusations:
Hua lacked a power base of his own, and he was quickly sidelined by the moderate Party grandees. Bo, as one of the so-called 'Eight Immortals' (survivors of the Long March from the KMT in the 1930s), returned to prominence.
Through the 1980s, tensions between economic reform and political stasis rumbled just beneath the surface. The CPC anxiously shifted between reform and reaction, launching short-lived campaigns against "spiritual pollution." But some rising stars in the next generation of leaders wanted to accomodate social trends by democratising the Party from within, and allowing greater civil liberties. Their figurehead was Hu Yaobang, secretary-general of the CPC.
Here is Hu Yaobang, with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao on the right:
The conservatives were nervous; they feared that by undermining restrictions on the freedom to disagree in public, Hu risked unleashing the chaos of the Cultural Revolution all over again. In Dec. 1986, Bo went to visit Deng to demand Hu's dismissal for his alleged sympathy towards students protesting about their living standards; after Hu stepped down, Bo wrote the official Party verdict on Hu, a lengthy report called Document No. 3, which accused him of supporting "bourgeois liberalisation" - i.e. multiparty democracy.
This clip shows how the same elders' fears led Deng to order the crackdown against the students in Tiananmen Square in 1989:
The prospects for meaningful Party reform seemed bleak. Nevertheless, as the grandees have faded from view the Party has been moving in the direction of greater institutionalisation and regularisation.
The "elitist" faction is dominated by "princelings" (those who rose to leadership via family connections to revolutionary veterans, mostly via positions in the prosperous "blue states"); the "populists" are centred around the "tuanpai" (those who rose up from the Communist Youth League in the 1980s, and who are more likely to have worked in the poorer interior "yellow states").
The only problem is that some officials, like Bo Xilai, try to have the best of both worlds, using the fragility and interdependency of factionalism to engage in high-stakes brinkmanship. Bo tried to use his "Chongqing model" to put himself centre-stage, gambling that the leadership would not dare to stop him for fear of upsetting the delicate balance.
Unfortunately for him, he miscalculated. And when damaging rumours of a military coup flew around the internet after his dismissal, we saw the downside to using factions as a power-balancing mechanism - the lack of transparency that breeds mistrust of officialdom and risks making every unanticipated reshuffle seem a portend of general chaos.
But then, "One Party, Two Coalitions" with transparency wouldn't be "One Party" anymore.