The Debate

China’s Factional Politics

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The Debate

China’s Factional Politics

China’s leadership transition has been seen as a victory for retired President Jiang Zemin — but change seems certain.

The recent 18th Party Conference has been widely seen as a victory for retired Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Ten years after leaving office his faction remains a force to be reckoned with in the Communist Party — outgoing President Hu Jintao succeeded in placing only one close ally, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, on the Politburo Standing Committee, the highest tier of Party leadership. By contrast, Jiang is seen as having had at least five allies ascend to the powerful body.

But China’s factional system is ripe for change. Jiang’s age, 86, and Xi Jinping’s rise to the presidency, makes it unlikely that future negotiations will take place among the intra-party groups we now recognize.  Rather, Xi will likely follow the example of his predecessors Hu and Jiang in building his own faction, with new individuals who owe their advancement entirely to him.

Today, two groups, both associated with Jiang but distinct from one another, seem to be the in the ascendant: the “Shanghai Gang,” made up of associates of Jiang’s from his time in Shanghai, and the “Princelings Party,” made up of the scions of China’s first generation of revolutionary leaders — one of whom is President Xi Jinping.  In five years, it is more likely than not that both of these groups will have largely faded as forces within the party.  As my colleague Zackary Keck wrote in this space last month, Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League faction, although currently at a low ebb, looks best positioned for the leadership scramble in 2017.

Factions in Chinese politics have little connection with ideology.  Rather, they are primarily patron-client networks, and as such there is little reason to believe that they will continue to function as groups without their organizing patrons.  The Princelings are a great example of this: since the deaths of their prime patrons – their own fathers and, mostly importantly, Deng Xiaoping – in the 1990s, they have drifted in directions as disparate as the technocratic managerialism of Wang Qishan and the flamboyent neo-Maoism of Bo Xilai.

Even while they stick together for personal advancement, factions seem to have limited ideological traction – consider Hu Jintao’s allies from the Communist Youth League, whose views appear to range from a deeply conservative fixation on incremental reform, to Party professionalism (Hu) to flirtations with democratic ideas such as the independence of the judiciary and the strengthening of civil society (outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Guangdong Governor Wang Yang).

The Princelings face extinction for the same reason that their influence has been growing: members of their generation are growing older, and are now mostly in the last postings of their careers.  Although many have reached positions of great influence, almost all will have reached the mandatory retirement age of 68 by the end of their current five-year terms.  Few of their own sons have followed them into political careers, and with the first-generation leaders who served as their patrons – most notably Deng Xiaoping – now dead, it seems they will not be replaced by newly-minted princelings.

The fate of Jiang’s Shanghai group is also dim, given that it is most likely tied to him. Without him, it is likely that his allies on the new Standing Committee will find they have little in common.

Despite his association with Jiang allies, Xi Jinping is unlikely to inherit their network – it is far more likely that he will use the coming months to begin forming his own faction.  Peter Martin, a sometime co-author of mine who works as a policy analyst at APCO Worldwide’s Beijing Office, argues that Xi will follow Hu and Jiang’s example in promoting men he knows from his time working as a provincial administrator: “He’s much more likely to want to establish his own network of patronage, and in doing so he’s likely to draw upon people he knows and trusts from earlier stages in his political career.  In a year or two’s time, it seems plausible to me that we might be talking about the Xi Jinping Party or the Fujian or Zhejiang Gang.”

David Cohen is a freelance journalist and Diplomat China Power blogger. He blogs at and his writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian Online, the Global Times, the China Daily and the Lowy Interpreter among other publications.