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China Missed the Industrial Revolution, But It Won’t Miss the Digital One

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In 2016, artificial intelligence defeated a professional player at Go for the first time. The AlphaGo program, developed by DeepMind, first beat three-time European Champion Fan Hui, and a short while later bested Korean Lee Sedol, considered to be one of the best Go players in the world. Many believe that it was artificial intelligence’s conquest of the ancient Chinese game that convinced Chinese authorities to think seriously about including the development of artificial intelligence among its strategic goals. However, the importance of artificial intelligence is not a new idea. Although the foundational Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan came out in June 2017 a year after the triumph of AlphaGo, the field had already been earmarked as a priority in many earlier documents.

21st Century Electricity

Back in 2006, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China published its National Medium- and Long-Term Program for Science and Technology Development for the period up to 2020. It names smart sensors, intelligent robots, and technologies of augmented reality as areas of priority. The Made in China 2025 plan was released in 2015. It includes a USD 300 billion fund for the development of high technology and industrial manufacturing. The plan involves intensifying work in R&D, new materials, artificial intelligence, the creation of fifth generation telecommunications networks, and the manufacturing of robots. In 2016, the State Council published its Guiding Opinions on Actively Promoting the Internet Plus Action Plan. The document prioritizes artificial intelligence, along with big data, blockchain, and machine learning, for a state strategy aimed at accelerating the use of information and communication technologies for the development of the smart industry.

Why has China become so serious about developing artificial intelligence? Artificial intelligence has been called the electricity of the 21st century. It is a technology capable of spanning numerous sectors and giving rise to a new industrial revolution, which is exactly what China needs now. For some time, the country has functioned as the world’s factory; by employing cheap labour and copying foreign technology, China has supplied the entire world with inexpensive (and not always high-quality) manufactured goods. It is a model that has facilitated several decades of double-digit economic growth rates.

However, China has now fallen into the trap of average income. The population’s living standards have grown, reducing the country’s main competitive advantage – cheap labour – to naught. As a result, the only solution is to compete with developed economies and with their qualified personnel and innovations. To do so, the country needs a technological breakthrough. Artificial intelligence could play just such a part.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has noted that the leader of artificial intelligence will be the ruler of the world. Chinese authorities understand this. In June 2017, the Chinese State Council released its Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, which states that artificial intelligence has become a new arena for international competition. It is a strategic technology that will set the stage for future development and determine a country’s international competitiveness, national security, and influence in the world. Consequently, the Chinese authorities hope artificial intelligence will help transform their economic growth model and expand geopolitical influence, as well as modernize the army and strengthen the country’s defence capabilities. Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeated on more than one occasion the importance of civil-military integration and the need to remove barriers between the commercial economy and the military-industrial base. In other words, artificial intelligence is seen as a dual-use industry. It seems that the development of military and civilian uses for these technologies will occur simultaneously.

Strategic Goals

The Chinese Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan sets three strategic goals. The first is for Chinese AI to match pace with corresponding sectors in key developed countries by 2020, with the foundational branch of AI collecting USD 22.5 billion and related industries exceeding USD 150 billion. The second goal is for China to take the lead in some areas of AI by 2025, with the foundational branch collecting USD 60 billion and those related attaining USD 745 billion. Finally, by 2030, China should become the world’s main centre for innovation in the field of AI, with the foundational branch collecting USD 150 billion and related branches reaching USD 1.5 trillion.

The programme does not explain exactly how to achieve these strategic goals, although it does officially have a section devoted to the topic, titled “objective tasks.” It is essentially a list of industries amenable to the introduction and development of artificial intelligence. These include smart cities, AI in medicine, swarm intelligence and deep semantic analysis, computer vision, and the use of AI in the defence industry and social management. It seems that the programme is not so much a practical guide to action as a general reference point for central and local authorities. Officials can select the area of the programme best suited to their particular region and develop it by adding their own initiatives. For example, authorities in the historically poor province of Guizhou chose to make it China’s data centre, enabled by the favourable cold climate and mountainous terrain. Chinese technology giant Tencent is already building a giant 30 sq. km underground data storage in the mountains of Guizhou. A similar data centre is being built in Guizhou for Apple’s iCloud. Construction is to be completed by 2020, and the centre will occupy an area of 67 hectares. Investments in the IT sector in Guizhou have grown by 378 percent. USD 2.8 billion was invested in Guizhou last year in services related to the transfer, storage, and processing of data. What was once the poorest province has become one of the few in the first quarter of 2018 with double-digit GDP growth rates of 10.1%.

The Next Generation AI Three-Year Development Plan released by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of the People’s Republic of China in December 2017 is more specific about how to develop artificial intelligence and covers a period extending up to 2020. It has set several tasks. The first is to stimulate the development of smart products. This includes, in particular, cars connected to the Internet, smart robots and drones, voice and facial recognition, and machine analysis of medical images. It also calls for a breakthrough in key fundamental technologies like the development of chips and neural networks and open source platforms. In addition, the plan provides for the development of industries using key technologies from artificial intelligence.

The three-year plan coincides with another document issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China listing 13 technology projects with priority over large-scale public investment. These projects are to be implemented before 2021. The most notable among them calls for the creation of an artificial intelligence chip that promises to be 20 times more productive and energy efficient than the American-produced NVIDIA Tesla M40 – one of the most widely used artificial intelligence chips at the moment.

Where Can I Get Five Million Scientists?

It’s no wonder that the Chinese authorities are focusing on chips in the development of artificial intelligence. They pose the greatest problem at present. The development of microchips is an extremely knowledge-intensive and capital-intensive process, and the results are not always manifest. China is extremely dependent on imports of foreign microchips, mainly American ones, with only 16% of its chips produced in China itself. Annual imports amount to USD 200 billion, which exceeds Chinese oil imports. China’s share in the world market is even smaller: in 2015, China accounted for only 4% of world chip production, while the USA accounted for 50%. Naturally, the Chinese authorities support local AI manufacturers and developers in every way possible, granting them tax breaks, administrative preferences, and direct financing. For example, the China Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund collected USD 31.5 billion. This is not, however, such a large amount in the industry. Intel alone spent USD 12.7 billion on research and development in 2016.

China is also experiencing an acute shortage of qualified personnel. According to estimates from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of China, about 5 million specialists will be needed to implement the tasks that have been set. At the present time, there are 1.9 million professionals specializing in the field, 850,000 of which are in the USA, with only 50,000 in China. More than 43% of those in China came from the USA. Approximately 2,500 companies worldwide are engaged in the research, development, and practical application of artificial intelligence. The Tencent Research Institute has acknowledged that US companies occupy the lion’s share of the market and outstrip China in all aspects of AI research and development. Thirty-three American and fourteen Chinese companies are occupied with the development of processors and chips. Of the companies involved in natural language processing, computer vision, and image recognition, 586 are American and 273 are Chinese. And finally, 488 American and 304 Chinese companies are working on machine learning, smart drones and robots, and self-guided cars.

The only area in which China enjoys an undeniable competitive advantage is in the colossal amount of data it possesses. The population of China is considerable, and more than half of it – 752 million people (twice the population of the United States) – uses mobile Internet. Eighty-four percent regularly make use of mobile payments. These people leave “digital footprints” behind them in their everyday lives. This is precisely the kind of big data that is so important for machine learning.

The Rest of the World Will Help

In all other areas, China relies on foreign technology and personnel. The Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan and the Three-Year Action Plan discuss the need to encourage Chinese companies to carry out mergers and acquisitions of foreign partners. This policy has been successful. A few years ago, Chinese tech company Baidu opened its Silicon Valley Artificial Intelligence Lab, and in 2017, the company opened a second centre there for research and development of self-guided cars as part of the Apollo project. Soon after that, the company’s third centre in the US, the Business Intelligence Lab, opened for research and development of big data. The other tech giant, Tencent, opened its artificial intelligence research centre in Seattle.

Foreign companies are happy to open research laboratories in China itself. Google is hiring employees for its research centre in Beijing, even though the company’s main products, the Google search engine and Gmail, are blocked in China. On the other hand, Chinese authorities are trying to create favourable conditions for the work of foreign experts. Scientists and developers in the field of high technology can obtain a Chinese visa for a period of 5 to 10 years with the ability to enter the country an unlimited number of times. Moreover, Chinese companies spare no expense to attract specialists from foreign companies and competitors: a high-level scientist in China can receive up to a million dollars a year.

The US is concerned that China will borrow American high technology and attract US scientists to work in China, which will eventually lead to Chinese supremacy in the field of AI. In the US, the development of artificial intelligence is carried out mainly by private companies, and these companies often do not agree on how to develop dual-purpose solutions and products. For example, when Google took over DeepMind, the latter forbade the use of their products in the military or to monitor citizens of the country. Moreover, when Google acquired the robot developer SCHAFT, the company declared that it would not work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The situation in China is completely different from that of the US. Despite the fact that a third of the world’s tech startups with capital exceeding USD 1 billion are present in China, three technological giants dominate all the rest: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT). In most of the start-ups, direct or indirect investments have come from BAT. China’s Ministry of Science and Technology formed the first working group for the development of next-generation artificial intelligence by these companies. In the group, Baidu will be responsible for self-guiding cars, Alibaba for smart cities and city think tanks, and Tencent for computer vision. What’s more, BAT has made no bones about sharing big data with the state if necessary and opening party committees within the company itself. The possibility of formalizing these relations by means of the government’s acquisition of a 1% stake in the companies has also been discussed. When Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks about the need for civil-military integration, it can be assumed that all the achievements of Chinese (and foreign) scientists and companies in the field of artificial intelligence will become available to the military.

The Race for Artificial Intelligence

There are no programmes directly involved in developing artificial intelligence in the Chinese military. However, according to Elsa B. Kania, an Adjunct Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, the Chinese military understands the need for “intelligentization” of the military-industrial complex. Future military actions are likely to be impersonal, intangible, and inaudible. It is her opinion that China is actively developing UAVs, underwater drones, and self-guided combat vehicles.

This has the USA on edge. If the second half of the 20th century saw two superpowers, the USSR and the USA, racing after nuclear supremacy, then the 21st century will see two superpowers, this time the USA and China, racing after artificial intelligence. The US is trying to resist: President Trump has initiated an investigation into violations of intellectual property rights by China under article 301 of the 1974 US Merchant Act. This investigation has shown that China infringed on four main aspects of American intellectual property rights: compulsory transfer of technology, discriminatory licensing rules, cross-border takeovers, and theft of intellectual property. In regards to the “301 investigation”, US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said: “These are things that China listed and said we’re going to take technology, spend a couple hundred billion dollars and dominate the world. These are things that if China dominates the world, it’s bad for America.” As a result, Trump announced the possibility of introducing tariffs on goods from China to the tune of USD 150 billion in order to contain the development of the Made in China 2025 programme.

It is true that China has little difficulty parrying these attacks, promising in return to limit imports of American-produced soybeans and sorghum, more than half of which is exported to China. This would seriously impact the American farmers who made up a significant part of the electorate Trump relied on in his election campaign. This has made American attempts at containment thus far unsuccessful. Following the latest round of trade negotiations between the Chinese delegation headed by Vice Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China Liu He, President Trump announced that the introduction of tariffs on Chinese goods has been postponed, as China agreed to lift restrictions on imports of American agricultural products.

China has publicly stated from the very beginning that if it is still possible to work on reducing the American trade balance deficit, then industrial and technological policy and development are an internal Chinese matter not up for discussion. In the eyes of the world community, President Trump has not appeared to be a crusader for justice, but rather an aggressor, encroaching on the basic principles of free trade and the international division of labour. If American companies willingly accept mergers and acquisitions from Chinese partners, then it must be economically profitable for them to do so.

Perhaps in the race for artificial intelligence it would be better to change tactics and move from deterrence to competition? The Obama administration developed an artificial intelligence programme and, as Western media outlets have noted, the Chinese programme for the development of next-generation artificial intelligence, established just a year after the American programme, appeared in many respects to copy it. In particular, the American programme suggested an increase in public funding for research and development in artificial intelligence. However, the Trump administration has decided to reduce the National Science Foundation’s already trifling budget for research on so-called intelligent systems by 10% to 175 million dollars. Instead of increasing their own spending on research, the US is trying to limit China’s development, but China is unlikely to make concessions. One recent article in a leading Chinese newspaper, the Guangming Daily, urged others not to miss the opportunities of a new technological revolution. It noted that China had been a strong agrarian country but had missed the opportunities provided by the industrial revolution and as a result had become passive and subject to infringements on the world stage. Thanks to the efforts of the last several generations, according to the newspaper, China has come closer than ever to bringing about the rebirth of the great Chinese nation and has never been as sure of itself as it is now. It would appear that the country’s leadership is trying to heed the lessons of the past so as not to miss the historic chance of leading the digital revolution.

First published in our partner RIAC

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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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