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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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”