China: Ruling Communist Party’s 17th National Congress

‘Fifth generation’ leaders groomed for office in 2012

The five-yearly congress of the “world’s largest political party” – with a membership of 73 million, or 5 percent of the population – which concluded on 22 October, produced few new policies and little else that was newsworthy. Like most congresses of ruling parties around the globe, this event was little more than a media circus, the real decisions having been taken in advance. As one observer noted, the appointment of two front-runners to succeed President Hu Jintao and his premier Wen Jiabao in 2012, “will have practically no effect on how China fares in the next five years.” (Minxin Pei, Financial Times, 23 October).

The 2,200 ‘delegates’ marshalled like film extras into Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, presented the customary show of unity for the top leadership.

”I didn’t take part in any election campaign. I have no idea how delegates are elected,” confessed one congress delegate from Hubei province. A delegate from the finance sector told the South China Morning Post, ”Our bank recommended six candidates, out of which five were successfully elected.”

Democratic reforms?

Hu mentioned the word ”democracy” more than 60 times in his opening speech, yet there were no proposals to soften the CCP’s monopoly on political power. Hu said it must remain “the core that directs the overall situation and coordinates the efforts of all quarters”.

This underlines the dilemma facing CCP strategists. They understand the party is becoming increasingly unpopular and could gain by opening up to a more democratic form of rule. At the same time they fear this could unleash uncontrollable political pressures that could sweep the party from power and even endanger China’s cohesion as a unitary state. In particular, unbridled corruption is stoking enormous popular resentment. Hu recognised this in what was perhaps the only remarkable segment of his opening speech, saying corruption scandals pose “a threat to the party’s survival.”

However, apart from admonishing local officials, and forcing them to undergo refresher courses in government ‘ethics’, the central leadership have proved just as powerless to curb corruption as other looming social and economic problems. The only way to do this would be to lean on social forces outside the party and state bureaucracy and use this pressure to check the worst excesses and criminal activity of what in many regions is a thoroughly rotten administration. But this idea – unleashing forces that could prove uncontrollable – gives Hu & Co. sleepless nights.

When mass protests erupt over land-grabs by corrupt local officials, for example, they are quickly crushed in the name of “stability and order”. The only exception is a certain limited license to the state-run media to explore corruption cases, though even this has been restricted, compared to the situation under Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Zemin. In the run-up to the party congress several thousand websites were closed down by the regime’s cyber police (including chinaworker), while harassment and surveillance of known dissidents was stepped up. So much for any ’democratic reforms’!

Two candidates, two factions

Following a laborious round of horse-trading, two younger leaders – Xi Jinping, 54, party boss of Shanghai, and Li Keqiang, 52, party secretary of Liaoning Province – were elevated to the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo. This is the pinnacle of power inside the CCP. This means they will inherit the two top jobs when Hu and Wen step down in 2012, assuming the CCP still rules China then.

These two men are virtually unknown to ordinary Chinese people,” according to the BBC’s correspondent. The selection process, which ended with Hu’s favourite, Li, being relegated to second place behind Xi, has prompted much speculation among China watchers. The ranking means Xi is set to succeed Hu as president and party leader, while Li should take over Wen Jiabao’s portfolio as premier.

Xi is a ’princeling’ – the son of Mao Zedong’s deputy prime minister, Xi Zhongxun – and is closer in internal party loyalties to former boss Jiang than he is to Hu. Li is a former leader of the Communist Youth League (tuanpai), which is Hu’s internal power base. The ’princeling’ or ’Shanghai faction’ and the ’tuanpai faction’ are the party’s two main blocs that rule through a delicate power-sharing arrangement.

Gone are the days when a powerful autocrat like Mao or Deng Xiaoping could largely determine such things by themselves. The present leadership, with much reduced authority and support in society at large, must rule through a complex system of collective decision-making. Some commentators have drawn comparisons with Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, where powerful internal factions horse-trade over key posts and influence.

Hu’s tuanpai faction dominates the provincial levels of government, the media and national party organisation. The ’princelings’ on the other hand have a far stronger economic position, especially in banking and foreign trade. Due to their privileged position and high-level connections they have secured top positions in the coastal economic powerhouses. Tuanpai faction members, working their way up more gradually through the party machinery, predominate in the poorer inland provinces. There are seven ’princelings’ in the new 22-seat Politburo chosen at the congress and eight representatives of the tuanpai – roughly a third each. Politically, however, there are few differences between the factions – both stand for capitalism and nationalism.

”They’re both known to be very pro-business,” an advisor to Citygroup commented on the promotion of Xi and Li. ”I can’t imagine a better team.”

Cultural Revolution

But Li and his mentor, Hu, are more concerned about China’s burgeoning social problems and more inclined to project a ’compassionate’ or populist image. In that sense, the ’Shanghai-princeling faction’ is more stridently neo-liberal but also marginally more open to the idea of democratic ’reform’. This can seem paradoxical, given that many of this faction’s members boast a ’revolutionary’ (i.e. Stalinist) pedigree. But Xi’s father, who pioneered China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in the 1980s, to attract foreign capital by reducing workers’ wages and benefits and offering tax breaks and cheap land, was purged by Mao in the 1960s. He spent 16 years in prison. He was tortured and banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

It is not surprising therefore that many of today’s ’princelings’ are deeply antagonistic to Maoism, and determined China must never go down that road again. They are the nearest thing in the CCP’s ranks to ’anti-communists’. In the 1980s, Xi Zhongxun (Xi’s father) reportedly told Deng Xiaoping, ”We need to reform China and implement this economic zone even if it means that we have to pave a bloody road ahead and I am to be responsible for it.”

Previously Xi Jinping was party boss in Zhejiang province, where the private business sector accounts for 90 percent of employment. Xi stressed the recruitment of private sector business leaders into the CCP – nearly 20,000 during his term in office. He is ”the candidate of entrepreneurs and the emerging middle class,” notes sinologist, Cheng Li, in Foreign Policy (October 2007). ”In the provinces that he ran, Xi was particularly noted for his promotion of the private sector. His likely policy priorities lie in enhancing economic efficiency and promoting market liberalisation,” he added.

Xi moved to Shanghai a year ago when the city’s ”warlord”, Chen Liangyu, was sacked in one of the highest-level corruption scandals ever. Chen’s expulsion from the CCP was ratified at the congress last month. He now faces criminal charges in connection with the misuse of billions of yuan in the city’s pension fund.

Chen was also a member of ex-president Jiang’s ’Shanghai faction’, and the move to oust him required long drawn-out negotiations so as not to upset the factional balance. A key role in these deliberations was played by Vice President Zeng Qinghong, previously the most powerful ’Shanghai faction’ representative in the government. In a surprise move, Zeng was retired at the congress, probably the result of another crucial trade-off – to secure Xi’s promotion ahead of Li as the presidential heir apparent.

A second article by Vincent Kolo on China after the CCP congress, looking at the economy and the threats to the party’s grip on power, can be found on (opens in new window).

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November 2007