“I’ll see your Bo Yibo and I’ll raise you Xi Zhongxun”: Factionalism and succession in the Chinese Communist Party

Posted on | maart 25, 2012 | No Comments

The current behind-the-scenes political travails in China as President Hu Jintao prepares the transition to the country’s next President in 2013 can be compared to game of poker or perhaps more accurately to a popular card game from Britain in the 1970s and 1980s known as top-trumps. In the game top-trumps children picked a handful of cards representing different cars or superheroes, soccer players etc. Each card showed statistics about the model of car, its engine size, its weight, its length, and its top speed. In the case of superheroes it would be special powers, speed, like strength and bravery etc. The first player would pick an attribute and read out the value, if subsequent players had a better statistic for that variable they would ‘trump’ the player and take the card.

So whats the connection in China? Many of the prominent figures in the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party are in one way or another the descendants or protégés of the so-called 8 elders or 8 immortals as they are sometimes referred to in reference to the 8 immortals in Taoism. These 8 elders were the most senior figures in the party during the 1980s and 1990s and included Deng Xiaoping, (1904–1997) paramount leader from 1978-92, Li Xiannian (1909-1992), Chen Yun (1905–1995), Peng Zhen (1902–1997), Yang Shangkun (1907–1998), Bo Yibo (1908–2007), Wang Zhen (1908–1993), and Song Renquiong (1909–2005). It is alleged that the children and protégés of these eight have benefitted significantly from nepotism and corruption and they are often referred to as ‘the Princelings’.

Many of the Princelings were promoted to important positions in the party toward the end of the Presidency of Jiang Zemin, creating what some have called the elitist Jiang faction, to counter the technocratic populist faction (known as Tuanpai ) of current President Hu Jintao that originated from the Communist Youth League. In January for example, prior to the recent Bo Xilai affair, Hu had celebrated former leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous speech on political reform given in Shanghai to openly criticize Jiang Zemin.

What the Bo affair, and the subsequent announcement that 3,300 party cadres from the security apparatus would be sent to Beijing for ideological retraining, demonstrate is that while China may have resolved the succession crises that historically plague authoritarian regimes, the lack of a formal institutionalized process of succession coupled with factionalism within the party nevertheless does present the potential for instability. In a country scarred by the tumultuous upheavals of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution such concerns are taken very seriously.

In the end Bo’s fate shows that being a Princeling ultimately did not make him invulnerable. In the classic game of top trumps he may have played his father’s card in order to protest at the appointment of Xi Jinping as Hu’s successor, but he was trumped not just because Xi could choose to play the current President but also because his own father Xi Zhongxun. Although not one of the 8 immortals, was nevertheless one of the first generation of Chinese Communist leaders and a pivotal figure in the reform process begun under Deng Xiaoping serving successively as the provincial secretary, governor and political commissar of Guangdong where he proposed and implemented China’s first “special economic zone” in Shenzhen and emerged as a vigorous advocate of market reform. Perhaps then Bo’s fate was that he was ultimately trumped by a wild card… China’s 9th immortal?

AUTHOR: Dr. Jason Abbott
URL: http://profjabbott.blogspot.com
E-MAIL: jason.abbott [at] louisville.edu


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