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The structure of the North Korean political and military issue

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North Korea’s military strength is the strength of its nuclear potential. As the North Korean Foreign Minister stated at the ASEAN Forum in early August 2017, the United States must be “blamed” for wanting to bring “the nuclear war into the Korean peninsula”. He also reaffirmed that North Korea would never discuss the issue of its missile and nuclear arsenal at the negotiating table with the United States and  its allies.

At the time China said that a critical point had been reached, but it could also be the beginning of new and more effective negotiations between North Korea, the United States, China and the Russian Federation.

It is therefore obvious that the two missiles launched by North Korea on July 4 and 28 last are certainly capable of reaching the US territory, but they were fired at such an angle as to avoid the impact on the ground.

It is further evident that North Korea launches missiles towards the United States because it wants to prevent it from permanently mobilizing for a regime change in North Korea.

On the other hand, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson maintains that -before sitting at the negotiating table – North Korea must not only put an end to the nuclear military tests, but even begin a genuine, stable and definitive denuclearization process.

Incidentally, although officially keeping NATO as a “nuclear alliance”, the US obsession with Europe’s denuclearization did not bring luck to the countries like Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey which  had been heavily denuclearized by the United States between the end of the Second World War and the establishment of the Atlantic Alliance.

The Atlantic Alliance which, according to Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, had “to keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down”.

It is not possible to figure out what would have happened if Italy had had a small, albeit credible nuclear military system, but certainly the Mediterranean situation would be better today.

Turkey’s nuclear threat to the USSR would have changed and limited its  Middle East policy. The nuclearized West Germany would have not experienced the penetration of the DDR intelligence services that later tormented it. The Netherlands would have had a role to play in the North Sea and Belgium would have had more stable and less factional governments.

Italy experienced all this, but that is another story.

Just to quote Henri Bergson, the philosopher who developed the concept of vital impulse (élan vital), the nuclear power is “the force that is not used.”

A force which, however, we must show to have and be able to use – not on the ground, because it is of no use, but in the decisive phases of foreign policy.

A country without nuclear power, however, is a country without a foreign policy and strategy.

Nevertheless, reverting to the ASEAN Forum held last July, all the Foreign Ministers present condemned the “missile tests and urged a complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea”.

At this juncture, without imposing an either-or deal, we could say that North Korea cannot accept to resume the Six Party Talks, which began in 2003 and ended in December 2008, without clarifying a single and central point: maintaining a nuclear armament share for North Korea, but fully verifiable by IAEA.

And also without further ascertaining that the new IAEA agreement applies to both Koreas at the same time, so as to later foster North Korea’s economic integration into the regional system – hence including Japan, Vietnam (an old friend of North Korea) and obviously South Korea and  India.

The economic and humanitarian instruments of the Six Party Talks were significant, also on the part of the United States: one million tons of heavy oil or oil equivalent – the expenses of which had to be shared among the six parties; support for North Korea’s energy spending and supplies; the US funding for the denuclearization costs; assistance to IAEA; 12.5 million tons of food – from 1995 to 2003 – with a view to alleviating the very harsh conditions of the North Korean population.

Hence support to North Korea is expensive, but it is better to help it now rather than triggering a military spiral that can only be solved by a limited and, ultimately, nuclear war, which is in no one’s interest.

Not to mention the damage that – hopefully in a very distant and even impossible future – the strategic wound between the United States, Russia and China could cause in Southeast Asia, as well as the block – also for the EU, the Asian region, India and the Gulf countries – of all the routes from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea.

It would be one of the deepest global destabilizations occurred in the modern era, even worse than the two World Wars which Asia has always seen as regional conflicts.    

Hence limiting the North Korean strategic pressure area and concurrently reducing the perception of strategic encirclement and impoverishment currently felt not only by the North Korean leaders, but also by the local population.

North Korea’s nuclear system, however, is needed: 1) to ensure the survival of the regime; 2) to support its military prestige and its weight, also at economic level; 3) to achieve an asymmetrical strategic superiority over South Korea.

South Korea has more and better trained armed forces, but it has a nuclear power system of which only the United States has the access keys.

Therefore it would be rational to shift from the rhetoric of North Korea’s total denuclearization – which is impossible to achieve and is strategically dangerous even for the United States – to a more rational “classic” negotiation for the strategic control of nuclear weapons, which we deem would be acceptable also for North Korea.

Since 2013 Kim Jong Un’s policy line has been to link economic development to nuclear projects, thus focusing all the North Korean Armed Forces’ efforts on the nuclear arsenal.

As all well-informed ruling classes do, the North Korean regime interprets  its own choices on the basis of the recent history of the world’s leading strategic actors. Kim Jong Un knows all too well what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar El Gaddafi, although the Iraqi dictator had accepted the US “advice” and weapons to begin his ten-year war against the Iranian ayatollahs.

Furthermore, the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine is regarded by North Korea as the final break with the 1994 OSCE Agreement of Budapest, which mainly regarded Belarus’, Ukraine’s and Kazakhstan’s accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The agreement reached in the Hungarian capital city was guaranteed by the United States, Russia and Great Britain, while China and France had provided less precise assurances in separate documents.

Hence, against this general background, what does it mean and what is the point of sending an Italian general and MP to negotiate with North Korea?

What could Italy say to the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, considering that Italy is a country blindly repeating the US and EU strategic mistakes?

Surely it could say something if it had some autonomous residual voice in the matter.

For example could it inform of the fact that – in a new context of resumption of the Six Party Talks for a policy designed to control North Korea’s nuclear potential – Italy would take the initiative (in the legal sense of the term) and the lead for North Korean economic development, jointly  with China, where Italy is operating well?

Do you believe that two – albeit titled – quisque de populo can convince both the United States and Kim Jong Un? Or that the funny TV comedian Razzi can be enough?

Italy could also ensure that an agreement with Russia, China and the United States is reached for the progressive reduction of North Korean nuclear potential – not to be destroyed, but to be used together with investments for a new Korean industrialization.

Do we really want to entrust Federica Mogherini or General Rossi, the Defence Junior Minister of former Renzi’s government, with the task of saying so?

Everything can be done, only to later maintain that North Korea’s missiles can reach the EU “ahead of time” – as French Defence Minister Florence Parly said. Furthermore the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has announced a new, unspecified “EU programme of sanctions against the Democratic People’s  Republic of Korea” – a programme which, indeed, has been existing since 2006, in line with and implementing the sanctions decided by the United Nations.

Let us simply look at data and statistics. In 2016 trade between the EU and Korea was worth 27 million euros.

The current share of European investment is very low.

The restrictive measures – namely those already taken between 2006 and 2016, without Mogherini obviously knowing anything about them – regard the sale of technologies somehow related to the nuclear system, as well as any kind of computer software, dual use techniques, luxury goods and financial assistance.

As always happens, sanctions favour two equally dangerous actions for those who impose them: the development of internal substitution economies – often with lower production costs than those already recorded on imported goods – and intensified trade with friendly countries, which are really glad to gain the new market shares abandoned by those who moralize at people’s expense.

In fact trade between North Korea and China increased by ten times between 2001 and 2015.

In April 2016, however, China temporarily stopped coal imports from North Korea, with the only exception of the amounts connected with the “people’s wellbeing”.

Formal prostration – namely a kowtow – to the sanctions decided by the UN and also approved by China.

China, however, supplies North Korea with much of its food and with 90% of its total trade.

Moreover, in the first half of 2017, bilateral trade between China and North Korea has been 37.4% higher than during the same period of 2016.

Since September 2015 both countries have opened a fast cargo and container line for Korean coal exports, while a high-speed rail line is already operational between the border towns of Dandong and Shenyan.

Dandong is the town through which 70% of China-North Korea’s trade transits.

Obviously, for China, the primary goal in the Korean peninsula is political and strategic stability.

China deems that if there were any clash between South Korea, the United States and North Korea, no one could be declared the winner and, above all, China would see a huge number of migrants coming from the North Korean border, which would destabilize its Southern region.

Who would take advantage of it?

Moreover, with its missile programme, North Korea wants to play for time in order to solve the issue of its geoeconomic equilibria. It must still dispel some reservations on the resumption of the Six Party Talks, with specific reference to South Korea’s denuclearization – as this is not the strategic equation between the two Koreas – but a genuine Peace Treaty between North Korea and the United States would be really welcome.

This is what Kim Jong Un really wants.

This would put an end to the armistice and would create the conditions for a new negotiation between the United States, North Korea, Russia and China.

South Korea would have a Protection and Military and Civilian Aid Pact on the part of the United States, also signed by the other four participants in the Six Party Talks.

After signing the future Treaty between the United States and North Korea, a further South Korean protection treaty, including nuclear protection, should remain in place. In a new geopolitical context it could become an autonomous Region of a peninsular State that would include some Northern Russian and Chinese areas.

Hence weaken, control and again weaken. A careful regional geopolitics knows how to operate on Korean tensions.

The mistakes made in the previous negotiations with North Korea are now evident: the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea was based on the fact that the Americans were asking North Korea to stop its nuclear programme – a request which, however, was met.

In 2002 it was discovered that North Korea has an uranium-enrichment programme.

At that juncture, Bob Gallucci – a still unparalleled expert of relations between North Korea and the United States – admitted that the US real aim was to stop the plutonium operations rather than the enriched uranium ones.

Two different things, two different strategic lines.

That was the solution.

Instead of hoping for an impossible collapse of the North Korean regime, it was better to let it have a share of operations – at the time even accepted by IAEA.

Obviously, after 1989, the collapse of Communist regimes in the world  and of their reference parties in the “capitalist” West created an understandable  tension in North Korea.

The regime had supported Yasser Arafat and North Vietnam. It had a very special relationship – also at nuclear technological level – with East Germany and actively supported Somalia and other “Socialist” African States. It loved the Soviet Union that helped it with nuclear power, which in fact began there in the 1950s. It also had good and unavoidable relations with China which, however, could not materially help North Korea at least until the 1970s.

Ceausescu was one of the family in Pyongyang, as many leaders of the “Mediterranean Eurocommunism” of the time.

Nothing is as it may seem.

North Korea’s Communism and Kim Il Sung’s, in particular, was a comprehensive and global platform for effective negotiations between the East and the West.

It is worth recalling that the Six Party Talks started in 2003 and ended on September 19, 2005.

The final text made reference to the procedures for North Korea’s denuclearization. North Korea clearly stated its desire to formally stabilize its relations with the United States and the other Western countries. Mention was also made of the creation of a peace organization for the whole Korean peninsula, which should be the first issue for a smart and brilliant Italian mission to North Korea. In 2005 North Korea accepted and implemented the Six Parties’ agreement.

Hence forget about the rhetoric of “human rights” – more or less accurately identified, which happens seldom – and the further vilain” rhetoric –  as Shakespeare’ vilain who embodies all evils and hence must be destroyed.

The issue lies in thinking about the strategy and carry out the rational operations it entails.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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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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