Wednesday, 30 May 2012


One of the most significant and dramatic events to occur in post-Tiananmen Chinese politics happened earlier this year. In this post I have tried to take a long view of that event.

On March 15th, the then Chinese Communist Party (CPC) chief of the "mega-city" of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, was removed from his post and disappeared from public view. This was a month after his police chief, Wang Lijun, had fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, reportedly to seek asylum. Since then, Bo has been formally stripped of all his Party posts and his wife is under investigation in connection with the suspicious death of a British businessman with whom she had had business dealings.

For those unfamiliar with the key personalities, and the various twists and turns , here is a useful report and panel discussion on Newsnight:

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.

Sun Yat-sen
Sun had once been an advocate of peaceful reform, and he had even written to the Imperial court with suggestions for how they could win back national independence and modernise industry. Disillusioned with the seeming inability of the monarchy to reform itself, he had turned to organising underground networks of opposition, and attempted several unsuccessful uprisings, before and after being exiled abroad.

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.

Song Jiaoren
After only three months Sun passed over the Presidency to Yuan and devoted his time to organising a mass party to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections. The Tongmenghui formed the nucleus of the new Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT). At the time of his inauguration, Sun had clashed with the man leading the KMT into the election, Song Jioaren. Song wanted the new constitution to enshrine an assertive parliament and prime minister, and a mere figurehead President, to which Sun replied angrily that he would not "stand apart like some holy excrescence."

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.


Yuan's period of misrule persuaded Sun that the task of bringing the warlords to heel could not be safely outsourced - and he set about making the KMT a body of national power, militarily and politically. Rebuffed by Britain and the United States, he turned to the USSR.

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.

Chiang Kai-shek

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.

To the Communists it seemed as if their plan to exploit the KMT from within had backfired - as the smaller, lesser-equipped force, they were more vulnerable to sudden shifts in the mood of the KMT leadership. But there were still dangers for the KMT: "though Chiang had asserted his supremacy, divisions between the right and left of the KMT simmered below the surface." The Communists were potential recruits that might embolden factions in the upper echelons of the KMT to challenge Chiang.

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.

Fundamentally, the country had not yet moved on from ruling by resort to violence, to political rule, and yet at the same time it was plain that the country could not be reunified by force alone. As long as various warlords remained ensconced around the Republic, the political stability necessary for political rule would be difficult to achieve - there were systemic incentives for rival factions in the KMT to escalate intra-party competition, in the hope of bringing about a new balance of power.

Denied formal channels to resolve their grievances, an anti-Chiang coalition emerged under the telling title of the Enlarged Conference of the Kuomintang. It was a broad alliance of frustrated politicians, but it too was soon brought under control, and Chiang used the opportunity to push through changes to the constitution that increased his power.


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:

Bo and his family suffered vicious persecution; three of his four children were detained and his wife died from the beatings she received in prison. (In a grim piece of irony, Bo Xilai was active at the time as a student Red Guard.)

After Mao died, Bo was rehabilitated along with other conservatives in the Party. As they set about restoring authority and discipline to the formal organs of the Party, the scars of the period remained. By publicising private disagreements, the Cultural Revolution had given ammunition to organised opponents of the Party's rule, and the result had been anarchy. The overriding priority was to rebuild an outward appearance of unity to prevent any resurgence of opposition.


The first phase of strengthening the centre was to cut off the left and the right. Mao's successor Hua Guofeng was at first opposed to the rehabilitation of economic reformers like Deng, but his primary focus was on defeating the radical left, which he achieved by purging Mao's inner circle, the "Gang of Four."

Below is a picture of Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, standing trial in 1981:

And here is an infamous photograph of mourners at Mao's funeral, with the Gang of Four expunged:

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.

Just as important is the emergence and consolidation of two factional coalitions in the CPC in recent years, a development that, according to Cheng Li, "reflects the trend in the Chinese political establishment to maintain a balance of power."

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 history of factionalism in Chinese politics is one of ruling parties facing a recurring choice between tolerating autonomous, and potentially oppositional, external forces in society, dominating them by force, or attempting to absorb and co-opt them.

The first mass political party in China was formed out of an alliance of secret societies that operated on the basis of strictly controlling the flow of information among its members. The KMT chose to co-opt the CPC and discovered that this did them more harm than good - a Leninist party within a Leninist party was a source of factional conflict in the host organisation. Remembering how Chiang's party had torn itself apart from within, Mao rallied external opponents to 'purify' the Party machine through struggle. Those who were struggled against devoted themselves to restoring a stable balance of power in the Party - and, in the process, they contributed to the rise and fall of Bo Xilai two decades later.

The leaders of both Leninist-style parties repeatedly sought to strike a balance between internal unity and inclusivity, bringing just enough outsiders inside the ring to keep any potential opposition divided. The most famous recent example of this was Jiang Zemin's decision to allow entrepreneurs to become CPC members.

The "function of faction", therefore, is to check and balance the excessive accumulation of power by informal and internal means, without the need for robust external institutions like an independent judiciary. Equilibrium is maintained so long as the two factions recognise their relationship as one of mutual interdependence, based on respect for the different knowledge and experience each contributes. As Cheng argues: "The two coalitions tend to fix each other's problems, thus avoiding a single-minded approach. [...] Factional politics is no longer a vicious power struggle and zero-sum game in which a winner takes all. Neither coalition is willing to, or capable of, defeating the other."

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.

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