China’s Political ‘Coalitions of the Weak’

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China’s Political ‘Coalitions of the Weak’

Insights from Victor C. Shih.

China’s Political ‘Coalitions of the Weak’
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Victor C. Shih  ̶  Ho Miu Lam Chair Associate Professor in China and Pacific Relations at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego, and author of “Coalitions of the Weak: Elite Politics in China from Mao’s Stratagem to the Rise of Xi” (Cambridge, 2022) is the 339th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Explain the benefits and pitfalls of one-party dictatorships in modern China.

The Leninist structure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as its willingness to pursue internal unity even at the cost of extremely bloody internal purges, created a party that was much more coherent and disciplined than the Kuomintang (KMT). This of course finally ended a long period of civil disunity in China with the CCP victory over the KMT in 1949.

Starting in the mid-1950s, this extremely powerful revolutionary party also began to re-engineer China socially and economically. It created some benefits, such as seizing land from landlords and redistributing it to poor farmers, as well as providing basic social services to even rural residents for the first time in Chinese history. Nonetheless, in the course of transforming society, hundreds of thousands of people in the “bad classes” were executed. Later, Mao’s utopian vision for high agricultural production led to the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign, which led to the death by starvation of tens of millions of Chinese.

Analyze how the “coalition of the weak” strategy was successful for Mao Zedong.

In the first 10 years of the People’s Republic, Mao governed over factions that had formed in the revolutionary period by balancing them against one another. Because he was always the most powerful and respected leader, all the factions listened to him. With the Great Leap disaster, however, some of the elite, such as Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi, began to criticize him openly. To forestall further criticism and a potential usurpation of his power, Mao embarked on a course of replacing highly networked revolutionary veterans with either historically tainted or sparsely networked junior officials.

As we know, he pursued this in the Cultural Revolution with the purges of scores of veteran revolutionaries starting in 1966. They were then replaced by “splittist” members of the Fourth Front Army, as well as radical ideologues with little political experience. I call this a coalition of the weak strategy, which, when fully executed in the wake of Lin Biao’s purge in 1971, allowed Mao to govern in the twilight of his life with no further challenge to his power.  Basically, this strategy worked well for Mao personally, but institutionalized policymaking in China came to a complete stop as Mao just made policy by oral dictates toward the end of his life.

Describe the evolution from weak coalition to weak successors.

Because Mao pursued a coalition of the weak strategy, members of the Fourth Front Army faction, who had split the party in the 1930s, came to dominate the military in the 1970s. In order to ensure their loyalty, Mao entrusted Deng Xiaoping, their commander in the 1940s, as well as Ye Jianying, the main accuser of their “crimes,” as the most senior military figures in China. After Mao had passed, these two individuals continued to play a pivotal role in the military. Deng, not wanting Fourth Front Army veterans to dominate the military, rehabilitated scores of revolutionary veterans purged during the Cultural Revolution. This set the stage for rule by coalition in the 1980s.

In the first half of the 1980s, Deng and Chen Yun realized that they were all getting older and must find successors who had some experience in high level politics. When they asked the rehabilitated veterans to choose potential successors, most of them chose thinly networked and obedient technocrats, instead of densely networked children of veteran revolutionaries, commonly called the princelings. A few princelings did well initially but ran into resistance to further promotions at the ministerial level. Meanwhile, a few of the inexperienced technocrats, because they were good at pandering to aging revolutionaries, got widespread support for promotions. Leaders like Jiang Zemin, Wen Jiabao, and Hu Jintao, all became national leaders because they listened to their elders and did what they were told.

Examine the correlation between weak successors and the rise of Xi Jinping.

Most of the Chinese leaders born in the 1940s and 1950s ended up being obedient technocrats instead of politically savvy and ambitious princelings. By the late 1990s, most of the princelings had given up on the power game and instead went into the commercial world to make money. Other princelings served in the military, which prevented them from taking senior civilian positions, but made them important resources for princelings still in the political game.

A few princelings survived in politics by leaving Beijing and serving at first as relatively junior officials at the local level. Xi Jinping, Bo Xilai, and Yu Zhengsheng all did this. Out of the limelight and the competition in Beijing, they rose in rank steadily, which allowed them to enter high politics by the mid-2000s. At the same time, a generation of weak technocrats promoted other weak technocrats to senior positions. Hu Jintao promoted the likes of Li Keqiang and Hu Chunhua, for example. They did not have the bonds with princeling officers in the military, which princeling officials had. Thus, in the political struggle between princelings and non-princelings, they did not fare well.

As my book details, the lack of competition from other princelings, as well as much stronger ties with the military, allowed Xi Jinping, one of the few princeling officials at the top level, to dominate the party soon after taking office as the general secretary in 2012.

Assess the impact of the coalitions of the weak strategy on the future of Xi Jinping’s leadership.

For now, it doesn’t look like Xi is pursuing a coalition of the weak strategy. Members of his faction tend to have smaller networks than members of Hu’s faction, but they still have sizable networks of their own. As Xi’s rule continues, however, he may choose to pursue a coalition of the weak strategy to prevent any challenges to his power.

In terms of foreign policy, this could create an interesting situation. If he ordains aggressive foreign policy, he will need to delegate more power to members of the PLA and to some part of the economic bureaucracy. This may allow officials in these organs to gain power, ultimately posing a threat to him. Mao, Stalin, and Beria all faced this problem. On the other hand, if he pursues a coalition of the weak strategy of promoting thinly networked officials without political experience, the execution of ambitious policies may not be effective since no one would listen to these weak officials. However, he would gain by having a stable domestic political environment. This will be an interesting tradeoff for Xi to navigate in the coming years.