In the latest issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, Willy Lam writes that the reformist vs. conservative construct present in some analyses of China elite politics is likely mistaken. I have argued the same, most recently in Views On Political Reform And Leadership Splits In China.
Lam writes in “The Death of Factions within the Chinese Communist Party?” that:
Observers who think a modicum of checks-and-balances still exists within the CCP factions have cited a series of remarks recently made by Premier Wen Jiabao, who is deemed the most liberal cadre within the 25-member Politburo. Wen is the only senior official to have insisted that “there is no way out” for the country if political reform is frozen; he has also reiterated that the achievements of economic reform will be rolled back in the absence of political liberalization… The premier repeated more or less the same mantras during his visit to Malaysia and Indonesia last month. More significantly, during an hour-long meeting with a senior pro-Beijing politician from Hong Kong, Wu Kangmin, the premier lashed out at “two political forces” that were holding up reform: “the remnants of feudalism and [representatives] of the residual poison of the Cultural Revolution.” Wen accused adherents of these forces of “refusing to tell the truth and being enamored of lies”…
It is doubtful, however, whether Wen can be characterized as a bona fide representative of the CCP’s traditional “right” or liberal faction. Despite his time-honored rhetorical support for “universal values” such as human rights and rule of law, Wen has never once criticized his Politburo colleagues for the repression of civil rights of dissidents, NGO activists, or Christian missionaries. It is perhaps for this reason that a sizeable number of Chinese intellectuals have called Wen “China’s best actor”… After all, most of the associates and advisers of the party’s two most prominent “rightist” leaders—former general secretaries Hu Yaobang (1915 – 1989) and Zhao Ziyang (1919 – 2005)—have been marginalized since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 22 years ago. Liberal cadres who still clamor for a resumption of reforms once championed by Hu and Zhao—such as former vice-director of the CCP Organization Department Li Rui, former chief editor of People’s Daily Hu Jiwei and former director of the State Press and Publications Administration Du Daozheng—are well past 75 years of age. Bao Tong, 78, Zhao’s political secretary who has been indefatigable in calling for Western-style political reform, is still under 24-hour police surveillance…
The clearest indication that the overwhelming majority of top cadres are embracing conservative, even quasi-Maoist values, comes in the form of the apparent alliance between President Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League (CYL) faction and crypto-Maoists headed by Politburo member and Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. Together with Vice-President Xi, Bo is a senior member of the powerful Gang of Princelings, a reference to the offspring of party elders. Bo has since 2008 waged in Chongqing the twin campaigns of “hitting out at the black [elements] and singing the glories of redness.” In Chinese politics, black elements refer to the triads or the Chinese mafia, while “redness” is shorthand for Maoist precepts. At the beginning, Hu and his CYL colleagues refused to render support to the charismatic Bo. Some of Hu’s aides even hinted that the president was scandalized by Bo’s Machiavellian use of the “black-and-red” crusade to bolster his national profile—and to lobby for a seat on the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC).
Since late last year, however, a phalanx of top cadres from Beijing has begun to show up in Chongqing, and to heap encomiums on Bo’s performance. They have included the following PBSC heavyweights: propaganda czar Li Changchun, Vice-President Xi, anti-corruption chief He Guoqiang and law-and-order supremo Zhou Yongkang. Xi, who is slated to succeed Hu as CCP General Secretary at the 18th Party Congress and state president soon afterward, indicated that “the anti-triad campaign is well done because it has won popular support and brought relief and happiness to the masses”…Eyebrows were raised last month when NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo and Politburo member in charge of organization Li Yuanchao also paid their pilgrimages to Chongqing…
Indeed, a firm consensus seems to have emerged among major factions such as the CYL, the Shanghai Faction and the Gang of Princelings that the CCP’s “perennial ruling party” will be jeopardized unless Beijing is able to stamp out dissent with ruthless efficiency. There was nary a sign of discord within the National People’s Congress when the CCP-dominated parliament approved earlier this year a budget of 624.4 billion yuan ($95 billion) for the purpose of weiwen or “upholding socio-political stability.” For the first time in CCP history, weiwen expenditures have exceeded funds earmarked for the People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, party-and-state organs in charge of ideology, propaganda and organization have pulled out all the stops to foster harmonious and patriotic norms, many of which have clear-cut Maoist roots. [For a discussion of the probable effects from the Mideast uprisings see this Sinocism post from February 2011-Will Unrest In Egypt Strengthen The Chinese Government?]
Lam thinks that the “death” of factionalism carries risks for both the Party and China:
On the surface, the falloff in factional bickering could render the CCP more united and better placed to tackle the tough challenges of the 21st century. Yet, the death of the cliquish in-fighting—at least as far as key ideological and political issues are concerned—carries inherent risks for China’s political future. Particularly, given the indefinite moratorium imposed on political liberalization, the diminution of checks and balances within the party’s top echelons could result in the authoritarian regime becoming even more isolated from the aspirations of the masses. So far, the most tangible result of the consensus within the Hu-led Politburo is the no-holds-barred suppression of “disharmonious” voices in the community. Partly due to the uniformity of thinking at the very top, decision-makers as well as mid-ranking executioners of policy may become less sensitive to whatever mistakes overzealous law-enforcement departments have committed in their scorched-earth policy against dissidents and other alleged sympathizers of the West. A highly unified leadership—especially one that is reviving Maoist and nationalistic values—may also make it less predisposed to listening to the advice let alone the criticism of Western countries.
As China gets ready to take its seat at the head table of the international community, it may discover that its Leninist political structure, which has been reinforced by the curtailment of factional give-and-take, will render the country increasingly at odds with those universal values on which the global architecture is anchored.
You can read the entire article here.
It is noteworthy that Willy Lam, who has made a career analyzing (not always correctly) the shifting sands of elite Chinese politics, now believes there is no “reformist” clique near the top levels of the Party.