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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Turkey's turmoil should worry David Cameron

Splits in the Turkish government could play into the Brexiteers' hands.

While Britain focused on Sadiq v Zac and Cameron v Corbyn, in Turkey an even more dramatic contest was coming to a head. For weeks there has been growing speculation about a split between Ahmet Davutoğlu, the wonkish prime minster, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the macho, mercurial kingpin of Turkish politics. The two men have differed over a growing crackdown on freedom of expression, the conflict with Kurdish militants in Turkey’s south east and Erdoğan’s ambitions to strengthen his own power. Yesterday, a nervous-sounding Davutoğlu confirmed on live television that he would leave his post.

To outside observers, this might seem like a faraway power struggle between two men with unpronounceable names. But it matters for Britain and the impending EU referendum in two crucial ways.

1. It throws the EU-Turkey refugee deal into doubt

The controversial €6bn agreement to stem the flows to Europe was born of the strong relationship between Davutoğlu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Not only does President Erdoğan have a far more ambivalent attitude towards the EU. He has also made Merkel’s life difficult by demanding the prosecution of a German comedian who penned a crude poem about him.

Though much criticised, the EU-Turkey deal has dramatically reduced the numbers being smuggled by sea to Greece. If it collapses, Europe could be heading for a repeat of last year’s crisis, when more than 800,000 people arrived on Greek shores. In Britain, such scenes will only fuel concern about migration - a key driver of anti-EU sentiment.

2. It plays into the narrative of the Brexit camp

Brexiteers have already sought to use Erdoğan’s growing illiberalism - and Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU - to win people over to their side. Turkey’s “palace coup” (as the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet called it) cements the image of Erdoğan as an all-powerful leader who will not tolerate dissent. The accusations against Turkey are often ill-informed and tinged with Islamophobia. But they are clearly seen as effective by both sides in the referendum campaign. Only this week, David Cameron was forced to distance himself from his previous enthusiasm for Turkish accession, insisting that the prospect would not be on the cards “for decades.”

For now, Erdoğan’s intentions towards the EU deal are unclear. Perhaps he would like to take credit for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to the Schengen Zone (but not the UK) - an attractive perk promised in return for Turkey’s cooperation. But it is just as easy to imagine him watching it collapse before railing against the perfidious west.

Either way, there will be nerves in Brussels, Berlin and London. Diplomats see the president as a much more difficult partner than Davutoğlu. “Erdoğan has to be handled very carefully,” said one official. “If Jean-Claude Juncker says something too blunt, who knows what will happen?”

Turkey still has several hurdles to clear before visa-free travel is approved. Ankara has made clear that it will not hold up its end of the bargain if the promise is not fulfilled. With the deadline for implementation set for the last day in June, the deal could begin imploding towards the end of next month. That, David Cameron will surely note with a gulp, would be just in time for the EU referendum.