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China’s new strategy in South China Sea

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Clearly, Obama’s pivot to Asia to contain China (as well as Russia) came as a timely warning to Beijing to take precautionary measures against US mischief in the South China Sea.

China is determined to block American that might obstruct the Chinese navigation of trade vessels to Middle East and Central Asia in the South China Sea (SCS). The South China Sea is an open ocean and doesn’t appear at first glance to be a geographical bottleneck. Washington said China can, however, effectively create a strait by locating sufficient military assets on two sets of land it controls. Beijing is busy making a new strategic strait in the region.

The South China Sea, several hundred nautical miles wide, doesn’t appear at first glance to be a geographical bottleneck. China can, however, effectively create a strait by locating sufficient military assets on two sets of land it controls: the Paracel Islands in the north and the Spratly Islands in the south. Rapp-Hooper said she did not think the situation in the South China Sea was close to reaching the level of a strategic strait. China’s current outposts could “greatly complicate US operational planning in the region, but it is hard to see” the country locking down the region with the island bases it now operates.

There are few circumstances where China would want to restrict commercial movement in the area, but the real problem is that Beijing could readily exercise that capacity in times of crisis or conflict. And that’s where the United States comes into play: The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates the USA exported $79 billion in goods to the countries around the South China Sea in 2013, and imported $127 billion from them during that period. The region accounted in 2011 for $5.3 trillion in bilateral annual trade — $1.2 trillion of which is tied to the USA. Free access for commercial trade is a vital interest of the United States, so when one country has the capability to shut other countries off” when it chooses. Such a Chinese “strategic strait” to the Strait of Hormuz — a critical choke point for global trade. A full 90 percent of East Asian energy imports travel through the South China Sea.

China has already constructed artificial islands for missile launch on the South China Sea. Construction of Fiery Cross Reef located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group in the South China Sea has been completed. That decision is important for a number of reasons, but among them is that China’s island-grabbing campaign may be designed to give Beijing a strategic headlock on one of the planet’s most critical waterways.

China may have basically calculated that it will take some near-term, rather assertive actions in the South China Sea, and pay short-term reputation costs in exchange for what it believes to be longer-term strategic gains.

Beijing’s real rationale for risking its global reputation over a handful of tiny islands remains open for debate. Most agree that China truly believes it has a historic right to the region — but the South China Sea’s relatively paltry energy resources- especially with oil now so cheap – hardly justify such an assertive grab on a realpolitik basis.

Rather, many point to the geostrategic value of the South China Sea. “The logical conclusion drawn from China’s adding islands in the southern part of the South China Sea with military-sized runways, substantial port facilities, radar platforms and space to accommodate military forces is that China’s objective is to dominate the waters of the South China Sea at will. Building the islands is therefore a significant strategic event and they leave the potential for the South China Sea to become a Chinese strait, rather than an open component of the global maritime commons.

Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to the waters in the South China Sea. Within the next three months, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to rule on China’s expansive and somewhat ambiguous territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the Philippines contends are invalid under international law.

A major test for the future of Asia is on the horizon, and it’s centered on the South China Sea. Nations in the region are feeling the pressure from both China and the USA over South China Sea. The USA has been pressuring Asean members over the disputes.

China is intensifying its global diplomatic campaign to win ¬support ahead of an imminent international court ruling over the South China Sea disputes. Beyond the geographical claims themselves, the tribunal is also looking into whether Beijing is overstating the types of territory it controls — the air and maritime rights associated with rocks are different than those of reefs or islands — and the legality of other Chinese actions near the Philippines.

The State Oceanic Administration said Beijing was working on a five-year cooperation plan in the disputed waters between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The defense ministry said China would send missile ¬destroyer Lanzhou and Special Forces for a maritime security and anti-terror exercise next month with the bloc in waters between Singapore and Brunei.

The development came as ¬Beijing vowed greater cooperation and to proceed with multinational military exercises with Southeast Asian nations, but also called on countries to back its stance on the territorial disputes – putting many in a dilemma as they have to side with either China or the USA.

Beijing is also keen to ¬approach nations in Europe and Africa to consolidate its diplomatic base ahead of the ruling by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, in a case launched by the Philippines. China says the court has no jurisdiction in the matter. Beijing says it has agreed with Cambodia, Laos and Brunei that the disputes would not affect Sino-Asean ties. But Cambodian government said his country had reached no new agreement with China over the dispute. Mainland media reported that more than 10 nations were on China’s side, and that a statement issued by China, Russia and India said the dispute should be resolved through negotiation.

Recently Chinese President Xi Jinping told a group of foreign ministers from Asia and the Middle East that the regional disputes should be resolved peacefully through negotiations among the countries directly involved. Beijing also said it had reached a consensus with Belarus and Pakistan – which are not claimant states – that said they respected China’s stance on the issue, after separate meetings with the two nations’ foreign ministers on the sidelines of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia.

The Chinese diplomatic move has sparked concern over whether Beijing is taking the dispute to the international stage – in contrast to its stance that the matter is a bilateral issue – and may backfire. Countries in the region want to be able to cooperate with China and have good relations with Beijing; they don’t want to face coercion or intimidation on matters of security or economic policy. “Claimants would much prefer a peaceful resolution of disputes,” Paul Haenle, director of the ¬Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre, said. Beijing has “no choice” as the USA was also doing the same, referring to an earlier statement made by G7 foreign ministers that expressed opposition to Chinas “provocative unilateral actions” in disputed waters.

Experts say that China will likely lose some elements of the Hague case, “Philippines v. China.” The world’s most populous nation has already denounced the process, and opted not to participate, but the tribunal’s decision will technically still be binding under international law. Experts who closely watch developments in the South China Sea sayl that they expect China to lose at least some of the elements of the case, but the real test will come in how Beijing reacts to a ruling. It’s possible that China will back off from its broadest claims, but it may also demonstrate a willingness to buck the international legal system.

It is argued that a part of the Chinese buildup in the area may come from Beijing’s own fears that other powers may attempt to shut down commerce in the South China Sea. But whatever the rationale for China’s island-building, the tribunal’s coming ruling is a real trigger for the future of the region and it may be causing China to build up its capabilities in the region faster. China realizes the pickle that they’re in, so they’re taking actions at sea to emphasize their physical control. It’s operational coercion to change the power dynamics in their favor — in response to a peaceful dispute resolution process.

China and Russia have been coordinating their security action to counter the US pivot in Asia. Both are ramping up their advanced hypersonic glide vehicle programs to counter a US plan to deploy an anti-missile system in South Korea and its push towards a leaner but tougher military. China’s latest hypersonic vehicle test seen as ‘nuclear deterrent’ amid US interference The hypersonic tests by China and Russia are aimed at causing a threat to the USA, which plans to set up a missile defence system in South Korea, known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), which the US says is needed to protect its regional allies from North Korea. Beijing views the deployment as a threat to its military. Beijing carried out the seventh successful test-flight of its DF-ZF glider last week. The Pentagon sources said that the glider was mounted on a ballistic missile fired from the Wuzhai launch centre in Shanxi province, it said. Three days earlier, a US report says, Russia carried out the second test of its 3M22 Zircon glider, according to the Beacon. China mounts third hypersonic ‘Wu-14’ missile test. Last week, Beijing tested its newest intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41 which has a range of at least 12,000km – on April 12.

USA, China and Russia – all veto members and top possessors of nukes have indeed kicked off a new arms race. China and Russia were also concerned about the US’ shift towards the “Third Offset” strategy. The approach calls for the Pentagon to do more with less, as its traditional military advantages – such as a larger army and navy, as well as technological superiority – are steadily eroded.

The key areas where the Pentagon will focus its budget under this strategy are anti-access and area-denial, guided munitions; undersea warfare; cyber and electronic warfare; and new operating concepts. The USA hopes this will provide ways to neutralise threats from China and Russia’s militaries, which are growing increasingly sophisticated but continue to rely heavily on conventional weapons.

The Third Offset strategy and glide vehicle tests by China and Russia were signs that the three countries have kicked off a new arms race”, He said. China said in its annual defence white paper last year it would not engage in an arms race in outer space or with nuclear weapons. Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said China was trying to use the DF-ZF test to warn the US that the PLA had another powerful weapon capable of countering the THAAD system.

China’s second hypersonic glider test fails as PLA trials nuclear weapons delivery system. “China has no other choice, especially as the US has taken a series of provocative moves to get involved in China’s territorial disputes with other Asian countries in the South China Sea,” Li said. He pointed to the US deployment of six powerful A-10 Thunderbolt fighter jets to conduct a drill near the Scarborough Shoal, which China occupies but Manila also claims. “The DF-ZF is so far one of the offset weapons owned by China that could break the THAAD system,” Li said. The glider can travel up to 11,300km/h, said the Beacon, citing Pentagon officials familiar with details of the test.

China hails first test of hypersonic nuclear missile carrier

The Pentagon has kept a close eye on the development of the DF-ZF since it was first tested in January 2014. The programme was progressing rapidly and could be ready for deployment by 2020, according to the latest annual report submitted to congress by the Sino-US Economic and Security Review Commission. A more powerful version was also in development and could be fielded by 2025, it said. Russia’s 3M22 vehicle was expected to enter into production in 2018, according to the US diplomatic and defence magazine

On 15 January, 2014 China flight-tested a hypersonic missile delivery vehicle capable of penetrating any existing defence system with nuclear warheads, the Pentagon confirmed it.

In fact, the hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), dubbed the “Wu-14” by the United States, was detected flying at 10 times the speed of sound during a test flight over China last week. A Pentagon spokesman later confirmed the report but declined to provide details. “We routinely monitor foreign defence activities and we are aware of the test,” Marine Corpsc spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jeffery Pool told the Beacon.

Chinese military experts hailed the test as a breakthrough. It makes China the second country after the USA to have successfully tested a hypersonic delivery vehicle capable of carrying nuclear warheads at a speed above Mach 10.

Such a weapon has long been seen as a game-changer by security experts as it can hit a target before any of the existing missile defence systems can react. Once deployed, it could significantly boost China’s strategic and conventional missile force. It is designed to be carried by an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once it reaches an undisclosed sub-orbital altitude, the vehicle jettisons from the rocket and nose-dives towards the target at a speed of Mach 10, or 12,359km/h. In 2010, the US tested the Lockheed HTV-2 – a similar delivery vehicle capable of reaching speeds of up to Mach 20. Russia and India are also known to be working on such a weapon.

Last week’s test shows that China has managed to close the gaps with the US. Chinese scientists said China had put “enormous investment” into the project. More than 100 teams from leading research institutes and universities have been involved in the project.

Purpose-built facilities test various parts of the weapons system. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, for instance, has recently built one of the world’s largest and most advanced hypersonic wind tunnels to simulate flights at up to Mach 15 at the Institute of Mechanics in Beijing.

Researchers on hypersonic flight control at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics said they were not surprised by the test last week because China was technologically ready. The objective of hypersonic vehicles was to outmaneuver and penetrate a missile defence system. “With a speed of Mach 10 or higher, it cannot be caught or tracked because defence systems don’t have enough time to respond,” one researcher Wang said. She said the US remained the indisputable leader in the field but no country was ready to deploy the first practical hypersonic missile as many technological challenges remained. One outstanding issue was how to achieve precise flight control at such high speeds.

Scientists are also trying to develop a better “super material” that can withstand the high temperatures during hypersonic flights. “I am sure many tests will be carried out after last week’s flight to solve the problems,” Wang said. “It’s just the beginning.” Li Jie , a Beijing-based naval expert, said hypersonic weapons were of strategic and tactical importance to China. “Many technical issues have not been solved and no country has made it ready for use in the field,” he said. “But it is a challenge we must surmount, and we are throwing everything we have at it.” Ni Lexiong , a Shanghai-based naval expert, said China might still need some time to catch up with the US but the day could arrive sooner than many expect. “Missiles will play a dominant role in warfare and China has a very clear idea of what is important.”

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Russia and the end of North Korea’s Tong-mi bong-nam strategy

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North Korea’s decades old strategy of ‘Tong-mi bong-nam’ (Engage the United States, Block South Korea) and its rare variant ( ‘Tong-nam bong-mi’ or Engage South Korea, Block the US) of breaking the Washington-Seoul axis by alternatively cooperating with one in order to isolate the other so as to manoeuvre its way through it has seen a shift recently as Pyongyang moves closer to Russia.

Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since the election of the conservative President Yoon Seok-youl, who has adopted a “Kill Chain” strategy to preemptively target the Kim regime in the face of an imminent nuclear threat. Cooperation has been restricted to calls for reunion of families across the border along with disarmament linked “audacious”  economic aid in order to denuclearise Pyongyang, which stands at the cusp of its worst economic crisis post the pandemic. However, surprisingly, North Korea has not only rejected the offer but has declared itself a nuclear state by adopting a law which rules out the possibility of denuclearisation by allowing Pyongyang to conduct preemptive strikes to protect itself. With a possible nuclear test on the cards, the Russian hand behind such bold moves cannot be overlooked.

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has emboldened North Korea in more ways than one: it has not only challenged the invincibility of the Western powers whom Pyongyang defines as “hostile” but has also created demands for North Korean weaponry for a sanction pressed Russia to continue the war, promising to fill Pyongyang’s coffers with much needed foreign reserves. While North Korea has denied these claims, its increased proximity with Moscow is too conspicuous to gloss over. The most significant consequence however has been a change in North Korea’s policy towards Seoul and Washington.

Efficiently using it to challenge Seoul’s participation in any peace negotiations since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953, the strategy of Tong-mi bong-nam was employed again in 1994 when faced with recurrent famines and massive food shortages, Pyongyang agreed to denuclearise under the Agreed Framework and eventually normalise its relationship with the US. The idea was to extract economic aid while isolating Seoul after tensions soared over the latter not sending official condolences on Kim il-Sung’s death. 

The strategy was reversed in South’s favour  when relations with Washington soured after it imposed a fresh series of sanctions against Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation programme in April 1998 and North Korea positively responded to Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy which resulted in the historic June 15 summit of 2000, where the  the leaders of the two Koreas met for the first time post the division in 1945. President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” comment further worsened US-North Korean ties which led Pyongyang to not only break off contacts with both the US and South Korea but also withdraw from the NPT in January 2003. Although South Korean efforts and North Korea’s mounting economic crisis  succeeded in bringing Pyongyang to the Six Party Talks where Seoul argued that North’s security concerns be taken into account before pushing for denuclearisation, Washington’s rigid stance that North Korea denuclearises first  resulted in a stalemate. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 inviting more stringent sanctions and eventually withdrew from the Six Party talks in 2009. After successive conservative governments which favoured a hard stance towards North Korea virtually stalled negotiations, President Moon Jae-in’s friendly approach resulted in a major breakthrough in Inter-Korean relations in the form of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration which called for phased disarmament, at a time when Pyongyang’s economy was at its lowest in the past two decades and tensions with the Trump administration soared high. The breakdown of the 2019 Hanoi Summit between North Korea and the US finally ended cooperation.

The above cases illustrate how efficiently North Korea has used Tong-mi bong-nam as a manoeuvring tool where negotiations were undertaken only during times of economic crisis while nuclear proliferation continued to remain a priority to achieve  reunification of the peninsula in a way favourable to Pyongyang. Moreover, Kim Jong-un has learnt from the case of Gadaffi’s Libya that engaging the West in denuclearisation would only provide limited respite while possession of nuclear weapons not only creates a strong deterrence against attacks by much powerful adversaries but also fuels nuclear nationalism thus reproducing regime legitimacy even at its weakest moments. Hence, he has nipped all chances of achieving complete denuclearisation in the bud. While China has so far played a major role in moderating Pyongyang’s aggression by prioritising regional stability considering its own geopolitical and economic interests over countering the US; Russia’s bold violation of UNSC sanctions by not only trading with Pyongyang but also demonstrating active interest in  employing North Korean workers and labelling the bilateral relationship as being of “mutual interest” speaks volumes about the greater latitude it is willing to provide its anti-American ally in pressing forward with its agenda.

Though Tong-mi bong-nam has served North Korea’s interests by aiding it in extracting economic benefits while dodging commitments over complete denuclearisation, it has simultaneously acted as the only window for Seoul and Washington to negotiate with Pyongyang. As its raison d’être, namely North’s economic and diplomatic isolation, wanes with Moscow’s support; the hope for denuclearisation might be lost forever specifically as the US and South Korea continue to  seek “overwhelming” military response to resolve the crisis which might lead to unimaginably dangerous consequences. The need of the hour is to multilaterally engage with both Russia and North Korea on disarmament and lift sanctions in a phased manner while ensuring that the two abide by their commitments.

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The SCO seeks for a new role in the post-Ukrainian crisis world

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During the Samarkand summit which was held during September 15-16, the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) signed the landmark Samarkand Declaration, advanced Iran’s accession, start the process for Belarus to become a full member, while approving Bahrain, Maldives, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Myanmar as dialogue partners. Additionally, the SCO issued groundbreaking statements and documents, marking the first time that member states have jointly spoken out on emerging issues, such as climate change, supply chain security and international energy security. All of these progresses verify that the SCO has come of the age over the past two decades. There is no question that the SCO is now the largest regional cooperation organization in the world. Over half of the world’s population lives in its member states, accounting for about 25% of the global GDP—and those states have a powerful intellectual and technological potential and a considerable part of the global natural resources.

As one of the two leading drivers of the SCO, Russia has played the tremendous role in its development and solidarity of all member states in principle and in reality as well. This year, despite the Ukrainian war drags on for over 200 days, Russia still acted influentially to promote Iran’s “earliest possible accession” to the SCO legally and Belarus’s beginning the accession process. As President Putin said during the summit, “There are many more countries that seek membership in or association with the SCO. All are welcomed because the SCO is a “non-bloc association and rather working with the whole world.” It is also true that in a very complicated international situation, the SCO is not “marking time,” but rather continuing to develop and build its role in addressing international and regional issues—maintaining peace and stability “throughout the vast Eurasian space.”

Echoing the coming changes in global politics and the economy which are about to undergo fundamental and irreversible changes, it is obvious that there are new “centers of power” emerging, and the interaction among them is inclusively based on universally recognized principles of the rule of international law and the UN Charter, namely, equal and indivisible security and respect for each other’s sovereignty, national values and interests. Given this, this article aims to argue what role the SCO would be able to play in the next twenty years?

The SCO holds tremendous potential for the future of international community and particularly in the fields of ensuring energy security and food security. Accordingly, the latest joint statement proposes to avoid excessive fluctuations in the prices of international bulk commodities in the energy sector, ensure the safety and stability of international food and energy resources’ transportation channels, and to smooth the international production and supply chain. To insure these ends, the statement also underlines adherence to the principle of technology neutrality as it is the key to encourage the research and application of various clean and low-carbon energy technologies. Given this, the Samarkand summit is a milestone both in the development of the SCO and building of a SCO community with shared future. Accordingly, the SCO will adhere to the principle of not targeting third parties as the Final Declaration states that the SCO seeks to ensure peace, security and stability. In reality, SCO members intend to jointly further develop cooperation in politics and security, trade, economy, finance and investments, cultural and humanitarian relations “in order to build a peaceful, safe, prosperous and environmentally friendly planet Earth.”

In the overall terms, China has played the significant role in joint promoting of the SCO as Russia admitted that in unison with the Chinese side, the existence of a unipolar world is impossible. Moscow and Beijing have agreed that it’s an impossible situation when the wealthy West is claiming the right to invent rules in economy, in politics and the right to impose its will on other countries. The foundation of the unipolar system has started to seriously creak and wobble. A new reality is emerging. Now it is more apparent that the obsolete unipolar model is being superseded by a new world order based on the fundamental principles of justice, equality, and the recognition of the right of each nation and state to its sovereign path of development. Put it more precisely, strong political and economic centers acting as a driving force of this irreversible process are being shaped in the Asia Pacific region.

Echoing the consensus among the SCO member states and their partners in the Eurasian domain, President Xi spoke at the summit that the successful experience of the SCO has been based on political trust, win-win cooperation, equality between nations, openness and inclusiveness, and equity and justice. They are not only the source of strength for the development of the SCO but also the fundamental guide that must be followed strictly in the years to come. Given that under the volatile world, the SCO, as an important constructive force in international and regional affairs, should keep itself well-positioned in the face of changing international dynamics, constantly enhance strategic independence, consolidate and deepen solidarity and cooperation, and build a closer SCO community with a shared future.

More specifically, China has not only presented the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative, but also carried out the initiatives with real actions. In addition, the SCO greets the new round of the largest expansion of the SCO membership has consolidated its status and influence as the most populous regional cooperation organization with the vastest territory in the world. The expansion fully demonstrates that the SCO is not a closed and exclusive “small clique” but an open, inclusive “big family”. As a new type of international organization comprising 26 countries, the SCO is increasingly showing strong vitality and bright prospects for development including that it will inject new impetus into peace and prosperity in Eurasia and beyond and play an exemplary role in building a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind.

In sum, the SCO has gained greater significance with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, where an economically weaker Russia is turning to East in general and China in particular as Beijing and Moscow vow to be a partner with no limits and leading coordination over the SCO. In addition, the comprehensive strategic partnership of China and Russia covers a bilateral agenda, multilateral trade and economic cooperation and shared security concerns of all concerned. In the face of outrageous Western sanctions, the SCO demonstrates stability, continues to develop progressively, and gains momentum. China is sure to play the constructive role of promoting their business to the global level, including strengthening the basis of economic cooperation among SCO member states, allowing the launch of free economic zones, and implementing large-scale infrastructure projects globally.

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Factionalism in the Chinese Communist Party: From Mao to Now

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With the crucial 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set to commence on October 16, here’s a look at the different factions that have historically existed within the Party, otherwise considered a highly centralised and monolithic organisation.

Democratic Centralism

Described by Lenin as “freedom of discussion, unity of action”, Democratic Centralism is a Marxist-Leninist theoretical concept which attempts to strike a balance between inner Party democracy and organisational unity as an assurance that decisions could be efficiently made without stifling ideological struggles within the Party which emerge in the form of dissent. It was first specifically adopted as the organising principle of a Marxist party in the Soviet Union by both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP)  at their separate conferences in 1905 and was unanimously adopted at the Party Unity Congress in 1906. Initially seen to be compatible with the existence of factions, a more rigid idea of Democratic Centralism was adopted at the 10th Party Congress in 1921 when all factions were outlawed in the name of Party unity. While the intention was not to wipe out the democratic discourse altogether, ‘monolithic unity’ vertically imposed by the late 1920s supplanted all free debate.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) at its 17th Congress in 1934  defined the four cardinal points of Democratic Centralism as follows:

election of all leading bodies of the Party; their periodic accountability to their respective organisations; strict party discipline &  the subordination of the minority to the majority and decisions of higher bodies to be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on party members.

 In other words, free debate and discussion would be allowed to exist within the ranks of the Party till a decision is taken by the higher body after which it must be faithfully followed and implemented by all lower ranks in the name of Party discipline  without any collective attempts to block the decision. Factionalism thus, came to be seen as a serious offense of sabotaging Party unity. The Third Communist International (1919-43) called for  Democratic Centralism to be strictly implemented by all fellow Communist parties across the world which continued even after its dissolution in 1943.

The Chinese Communist Party, through the  slogan ‘Centralism based on Democracy and Democracy Under Centralist Guidance’ (《民主基础上的集中,集中知道下的民主》), describes its role as focused on the inclusion of popular opinion which is considered  extremely important not just for the successful implementation of its policies but also as the raison d’être of its rule however concurrently, it considers them too vague to be implemented as they exist. The CCP thus sees itself as the central sieve through which mass opinions would be filtered off their vagueness and effective policies could be formulated as it is considered to be in best possession of both the knowledge of Marxism-Leninism and interests of the masses. Party cadres would go to the masses and raise their demands at the Party meetings followed by a debate, also known as the Mass Line approach. Once the decision is taken, there would be no further discussion and the cadres would faithfully implement the policies among the populace with iron discipline.

After a brief period of decentralisation post the 1978 Reform and Opening up, Centralism was reintroduced following the Tiananmen Square Movement of 1989 and more so after the fall of the USSR in 1991 in order to avert a possible legitimacy crisis. Since then streams of Centralism and Democracy have alternatively dominated leadership views. In his speech at the 17th Party Congress, Hu Jintao emphasised on the need to strengthen intra Party democracy as a part of Democratic Centralism. In contrast, Xi Jinping in 2016 emphasised on the need to integrate centralisation on a democratic basis while urging the members to display “pure and utmost” loyalty to the Party.

Guanxi (关系)

Though Articles 3(5) and  10 of the CCP Constitution  prohibit factionalism within the Party in the name of Democratic Centralism, interest groups nevertheless exist through informal networks based on  personal ties called Guanxi (关系). Guanxi has its roots in the Confucian tradition which emphasises on the feeling of belongingness among members of a family or an organisation. Such a  nexus functions in a reciprocal way where the followers look for career security and advancement under the protection of a senior leader who ensures their interests are served in the upper rungs in exchange for their support, for instance, Hu Jintao was known to have led a group of his comrades from his Communist Youth League (CYL) days  called Tuanpai (团派) in his entourage. While in itself testifying the presence of factionalism, this relationship often results in emergence of factions due to its unstable nature. All chosen successors to the General Secretary in the Party’s history have been purged by their own patrons (Mao and Deng) with the sole exception of Deng Xiaoping’s protégé, Jiang Zemin. Inconsistent leadership decision making, with opinions swinging between “Left adventurism” and “Right opportunism” under Mao and “Emancipation of Mind” and “Socialist Spiritual Civilisation” under Deng too has given rise to interest groups within the Party.

Other features of China’s political system which give rise to factionalism include  power entrusted to individual leaders in a hierarchical context; the monopoly of the Communist Party over all legal channels of expression of diverse interests; absence of a formal structure of decision making and interference of the military in politics.

Factions at a glance

The origins of Guanxi networks can be traced back to Shantou (山头)or “mountain top” alliances which date back to the Party’s early days. Facing a hostile Nationalist Party (国民党) and Japanese forces, the CCP was nurtured in independent and isolated rural basecamps which were often located in rugged hilly terrain. Thus, each Shantou became a locus of its leader’s power.  The hostile and dangerous conditions necessitated a close bond between leaders and their followers which fragmented member’s loyalty towards the CCP as a Party as the primary allegiance was paid to the leader and not to the organisation.

Though Mao in his On Contradiction (1937) defined intra Party differences and discussions as a symbol of its vitality and liveliness, he was very strict about expression of dissent outside the Party apparatus which was seen as an attempt to break away from the Party and resulted almost always in purges. Even as Mao successfully established his line of thought as the single ideological core of the Party during the Yenan Rectification Campaign of 1942, ground realities built conditions for the existence of factions which continued as external channels of communication among political associates, outlets of their diverse interests and command system of their forces. Informal Factionalism continued to drive the Party’s inner politics even after the victory in the Civil War in 1949. While Mao could establish himself as the Chairman, his sole legitimacy to rule still faced challenges since all his associates had comparable experience and contribution to enlist. As a result, though working under Mao, leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Peng Dehuai continued to remain influential in a system where they were not expected to do so. Cautious of not upsetting Mao,these leaders often collaborated amongst themselves to weather any crisis which Mao read as a threat to his own power and hence, he launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as an anti-organisation movement so as to tie all strands of loyalty to himself and not the Party where other leaders still exercised influence.

Interestingly, a penchant for a similar policy did not always translate into unity among members, the classic example being the fallout between Liu Shaoqi and Mao Zedong who did not just share policy preferences on most issues but had also joined the Party at the same time and worked together. Similarly, both Lin Biao and the Gang of Four (四人帮) were on the same page in the trajectory of the revolution but it was the power struggle amongst them which ultimately led to Lin’s fall. During Deng’s regime, Chen Yun and Peng Zhen’s shared conservativeness did not prevent Chen from blocking Peng’s path to the Politburo Standing Committee. Both Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were reform minded but Zhao held his silence when Hu was ousted. Similarly, it was on the basis of personal networks that Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun remained the most powerful leaders throughout their lives without holding any official position. 

The economic reforms of the post Mao period further split internal unity into those who continued to stick with the Maoist line, demanding strict obedience to the socialist model of development and those who believed in inching closer to an open, market oriented economy. Economic interests thus play a major role in guiding factionalism, with the emergence of a ‘Petroleum faction’ within the CCP of those associated with the crude oil industry being a noticeable example.

Common political origins have also formed a ground for development of factions. Like Hu’s Tuanpai, Jiang Zemin was known to promote those who had worked for him previously in the Shanghai administration which led to the rise of a “Shanghai Clique” when he ascended the top position. Xi is similarly known to be leading a  “Fujian Clique” as his ascension to power was soon followed by the promotion of his former associates Wang Xiaohong and Deng Weiping to senior positions. He has also promoted his protégés from his home province of Shaanxi. Xi is not only known to secure the interests of “Princelings” (太子党 or children of high ranking Communist leaders as himself) but to also further promote a “Tsinghua Faction” of his alma mater which is known to have existed since 2008 when 1 of the 7 members of the Politburo Standing Committee and 3 of the 25 members of the Politburo were alumni of the prestigious Tsinghua University. Xi Jinping has also actively promoted leaders such as Ma Xingrui and Zhang Qingwei from the Defense-Aerospace industry (军工航天系) to top civilian positions. Perhaps the starkest episode of factionalism within the CCP was the fall of Bo Xilai, Xi’s contender to the position of the General Secretary in 2012, which not just revealed the fault lines within the Party but also brought into question the fragmented loyalty of the military as many senior PLA officers closely associated with Bo such as Zhou Yongkang were found to have actively aided him in securing the most coveted position and were later tried and arrested for charges of corruption and abuse of power.

With speculations high that Xi is likely to evade the “seven up, eight down” (七上,八下) rule which restricts reappointments of senior leaders above the age of 68 and  the retirement of Li Keqiang as the Premier, groups such as the CYL faction are likely to be further marginalised while the prominence of those close to Xi Jinping is bound to prevail at the upcoming Party Congress which might result in the likely promotion of leaders like Chen Min’er and Ding Xuexiang. 

Factionalism within the CCP does not just stand as the testimony of the dynamics in Chinese politics but also provides a window into the otherwise opaque world of its functioning.

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