Rise of princelings in China

China will usher in major leadership changes at the 18th party congress this October.

Published: 11th January 2012 11:03 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:12 PM   |  A+A-

As Chinese prepare to usher in the New Year of the Dragon — regarded as a symbol of good fortune and sign of intense power — on January 23 this year, China will usher in major leadership changes at the 18th party congress this October. The leadership also confronts critical domestic issues that could threaten social stability. A postage stamp depicting a dragon issued earlier this month attracted objections that the picture was needlessly fierce.

Leadership transition is a sensitive phase for all governments, especially for dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. The ‘jasmine revolution’ has toppled some long-entrenched regimes, providing cold comfort for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The situation is accentuated by the magnitude of imminent changes. In the CCP’s three most powerful bodies, almost 60 per cent of the Central Committee will be replaced, 14 of 25 Politburo (PB) members will relinquish office and seven out of nine members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) will retire.

It is the domestic political landscape that presents the most challenges for the CCP. Over the past two years a degree of political ferment is discernible in the ideological straight-jacket that regulates China. The more extreme views, widely criticised domestically as reflecting Western thinking, remain on the ineffectual outer fringes of Chinese society, but other strains deviating from extant mainstream political thought are finding resonance. These are not discordant to the majority of Chinese who, having known only CCP rule, have a deep seated fear of dongluan (chaos). For them the CCP remains the guarantor of stability and, in recent decades, of economic prosperity.

The CCP itself has changed and drifted away from purist communist ideology. A middle and upper class comprising millionaires and billionaires has emerged and wealthy private businessmen are CCP members and deputies to the National People’s Congress (NPC).

Veteran cadres will gather this summer at Beidaihe to decide most top appointments, but the tradition of all PB and PBSC appointments being decided without being questioned has got diluted after ‘Long March’ veterans disappeared from the scene. Apparatchiks, who traditionally attracted notice of leaders either through work association, social interaction because of family connections, or during inspection visits, are impacted. They rarely take risks at work. Persons aspiring for elevation to top bodies now require support from the Party Central Committee. Some individuals have consequently begun exploring new methods of promoting themselves. Most interesting is that the extremely publicity-shy and immensely influential children of high-ranking and veteran cadres, known as ‘princelings’, have become politically active.

There has also been a revival of Neo-Maoist sentiment. Called ‘Red Revival’, it has gained strength in recent years and elicited the tacit support of many ‘princelings’. Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech at the party’s 90th founding anniversary hinted at the strength of these sentiments and influence of the over 30 million members who joined the party during the Cultural Revolution and those born between 1960-70. The sentiment has been fostered by a strong sense that the CCP ‘has lost its way’ and been weakened.

Bo Xilai, a ‘princeling’ and party secretary of Chongqing Municipality, has positioned himself in the forefront of this ‘Red’ movement by initiating campaigns to popularise Mao-era revolutionary songs. He reinforced his credentials through successful campaigns to eliminate triads and cleanse the municipality and has secured the support of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is tipped to succeed Hu Jintao at the party congress in 2012, and many senior leaders.

Another method for attracting favourable attention was adopted by Guangdong province party secretary Wang Yang. The ‘peaceful resolution’ of a four month-long stand-off between authorities and peasants in Wukan village this December netted him a lot of praise, including from Hu Deping, son of a popular general secretary of the CCP and a ‘princeling’. It was lauded as an ‘act of political courage in a tense situation’ by the authoritative party paper People’s Daily. Critics, however, claim the authorities were ‘gentle’ because foreign journalists were present. If Wang Yang’s conciliatory approach fails, though, he could be blamed for endangering the party’s grip on power.

Liu Yunshan, director of the CCP CC’s powerful propaganda department and politburo member, attracted notice because of initiatives at work. Liu Yunshan dramatically rejuvenated the party’s propaganda from one of weakening control to an energetic policy aimed at shaping public discourse. He pro-actively managed the propaganda apparatus during the 2008 riots in Lhasa, successfully driving a wedge between the majority Han population and Tibetans. Culture and propaganda becoming the sole agenda item for the CCP CC’s sixth plenum in October was a singular success for him. It demonstrated that he is supported by the party’s top leadership.

General Liu Yuan, political commissar of the PLA’s general logistics department espoused another sentiment. Liu Yuan, appointed full general in 2009, is the son of former president Liu Shaoqi and a ‘princeling’. He is tipped for elevation to the Central Military Commission this October and is close to Xi Jinping. His essay in a book launched last May, asserted: ‘the party has been repeatedly betrayed by general secretaries, both in and outside the country, recently and in the past.’ The book advocated a ‘New Left’ to save China.

Very significant is the initiative taken by a group of ‘princelings’ of impeccable revolutionary pedigree and immense influence who gathered in Beijing in October 2011. They expressed concern that the “party had lost its way” and lamented that “in today’s China we are facing tremendous challenges that range from the rapid decline of moral standards…. to rampant official corruption”. One regretted that party and government officials spent a third of all government revenue on their own luxury “and yet we still call it the communist party and socialism.” They, however, opposed use of “methods from the Cultural Revolution to solve the problems of contemporary China’’ adding “they need another force to fight back and balance (those) voices’’. All these ‘princelings’ have close ties to Xi Jinping.

A sizeable number of ‘princelings’ are expected to enter the PB and PBSC when these sentiments will probably find expression in official policy. In that case the new leadership is likely to be more uncompromising on matters relating to party discipline and political education, the party’s grip over the PLA and minority nationalities issues. They will also be less flexible on issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

(Views expressed in the column are the author’s own)

Jayadeva Ranade is a  former additional secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India

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