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

Photo: Getty
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Emmanuel Macron can win - but so can Marine Le Pen

Macron is the frontrunner, but he remains vulnerable to an upset. 

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is campaigning in the sixth largest French city aka London today. He’s feeling buoyed by polls showing not only that he is consolidating his second place but that the voters who have put him there are increasingly comfortable in their choice

But he’ll also be getting nervous that those same polls show Marine Le Pen increasing her second round performance a little against both him and François Fillon, the troubled centre-right candidate. Her slight increase, coming off the back of riots after the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man and Macron’s critical comments about the French empire in Algeria is a reminder of two things: firstly the potential for domestic crisis or terror attack to hand Le Pen a late and decisive advantage.  Secondly that Macron has not been doing politics all that long and the chance of a late implosion on his part cannot be ruled out either.

That many of his voters are former supporters of either Fillon or the Socialist Party “on holiday” means that he is vulnerable should Fillon discover a sense of shame – highly unlikely but not impossible either – and quit in favour of a centre-right candidate not mired in scandal. And if Benoît Hamon does a deal with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – slightly more likely that Fillon developing a sense of shame but still unlikely – then he could be shut out of the second round entirely.

What does that all mean? As far as Britain is concerned, a Macron or Fillon presidency means the same thing: a French government that will not be keen on an easy exit for the UK and one that is considerably less anti-Russian than François Hollande’s. But the real disruption may be in the PR battle as far as who gets the blame if Theresa May muffs Brexit is concerned.

As I’ve written before, the PM doesn’t like to feed the beast as far as the British news cycle and the press is concerned. She hasn’t cultivated many friends in the press and much of the traditional rightwing echo chamber, from the press to big business, is hostile to her. While Labour is led from its leftmost flank, that doesn’t much matter. But if in the blame game for Brexit, May is facing against an attractive, international centrist who shares much of the prejudices of May’s British critics, the hope that the blame for a bad deal will be placed solely on the shoulders of the EU27 may turn out to be a thin hope indeed.

Implausible? Don’t forget that people already think that Germany is led by a tough operator who gets what she wants, and think less of David Cameron for being regularly outmanoeuvered by her – at least, that’s how they see it. Don’t rule out difficulties for May if she is seen to be victim to the same thing from a resurgent France.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.