Deep internal divisions ahead of China’s leadership change

A split between the "Red Princelings" and party technocrats threatens to derail the smooth leadership transition.

On November 8th, China’s once-in-a-decade leadership transition will begin. The 18th National Congress – known simply in China as “Shi Ba Da” – marks the final stretch in what has been a tumultuous year for the party, with Xi Jinping expected to replace Hu Jintao as the party’s paramount leader.

Curiously, arrangements for the landmark fixture were delayed by a month this year amid profound internal fissures in the Chinese Politburo. Despite party members attempting to hide behind a thin veil of party unity, factional wrangling has left the Chinese leadership in disarray ahead of the most crucial event in the country’s political calendar.

The current split within the party mirrors increasingly volatile tensions in the country: the most extreme wealth gap in Asia, rampant institutional corruption, extensive state censorship and appalling state contempt for the human rights of its citizens.

And on the backdrop of a slowing economy, a growing middle class, and bitter territorial disputes with Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbours, the Chinese Politburo is beginning to feel the heat.

The main rift over the state’s future trajectory has emerged between the party’s “Red Princelings” – sons of former Communist heroes who flourished under nepotism – and the party technocrats. The current leadership, Hu Jintao is a firm technocrat, whilst his would-be successor, Xi Jinping, is a "princeling".

Despite trying to appease the technocrats by pledging to reform the economy, Xi Jingping has come under fire from numerous technocrat elders who have pounced on his talk of political reform as a sign of weakness. Furthermore, Xi has also spoke of confronting party corruption, which has upset a raft of senior party members who routinely line their pockets through state-owned businesses and bribes.

During a fierce meeting at a Chinese beach resort in August, arguments over the suitability of Xi between party elders almost came into blows, with former President Jian Zemin having to step in to break up the confrontation.

Perhaps the best indicator of the widening gulf between “Red Princelings” and party technocrats was the disagreement over how to deal with the Bo Xilai scandal. Widely considered to be on the top rung of the Politburo before his ignominious expulsion from the party, Bo Xilai was the flag-bearer of the “Red Princelings” and a close friend of Xi Jinping.

His rapid fall from grace was not an isolated incident, it was a feat of political engineering from the party’s technocrats to deal a profound blow to the increasing clout of the “princelings” and their Maoist supporters.

However, the technocrats’ alienation of the party’s “new left” could have a more profound impact than delaying the 18th National Congress; it runs the danger of angering the powerful Chinese military, who Bo enjoyed considerable popularity with.

What we see before us is a party shrouded in uncertainty; a party rife with internal fissures that threaten to derail the prospect of a smooth leadership transition. What we see before us is a party losing friends abroad and legitimacy at home.

Profound internal divisions won’t help that.

The Chinese Politburo wraps up the 17th five-yearly Party Congress inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, 21 October 2007. Photo: Getty

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.