Letters: China’s Team Players

Winberg Chai feels that Chinese Communist Party politics are not quite as simple as Cheng Li would have us believe.

Cheng Li ("China’s Team of Rivals," March/April 2009) has oversimplified reality in his analysis of China’s future leadership by dividing it into two camps: the "populists" and the "elitists." In fact, there are six equally important rival factions competing for the top two positions in the Chinese government.

These six factions developed within the six separate and equal political institutions that exist under the overall guidance of the Chinese Communist Party. They are: the Central Committee, the Discipline Commission, the People’s Government, the People’s Congress, the Political Consultative Conference, and the Central Military Commission. All of them recruit and cultivate their own followers. Each one has its own leaders, who are represented at the party’s Politburo.

These six groups’ leaders have their own complex mix of agendas, ties, worldviews, personalities, and priorities based on their own personal experiences and that of their political institutions.

Dividing Chinese political classes into a simple binary is just as misleading as lumping all of the United States’ myriad interest groups into "liberals" and "conservatives."

Let’s not be fearful of leadership changes in China in the years ahead. China is now a vital part of the world economy, and the world economy is a vital part of China. Despite their differences, the country’s many leaders all understand this fact. China will indeed continue on its path of engagement in the years to come.

–Winberg Chai
Professor of Political Science
University of Wyoming
Laramie, Wyo.

Cheng Li replies:

Winberg Chai’s argument that there are six equally important rival factions in the Chinese leadership is empirically groundless and conceptually misleading.

One of the defining political characteristics of the People’s Republic of China is the long-standing party-state system. By design, the leaders of the Communist Party have always held the most important official positions in the government, the legislative body, and the military. In fact, three of the six institutions that Chai mentions — the Central Committee, the government, and the Central Military Commission — are headed by the same person (currently, President Hu Jintao). These six institutions are neither "separate" nor "equal." Quite the contrary, the institutions of the party and the state are intimately intertwined, with the government implementing the decisions of the party. Two other institutions on Chai’s list, the People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Conference, are well-known symbolic "rubber stamps."

Bureaucratic interests exist in Chinese politics, but in terms of career advancement, a politician’s patron-client ties and factional identity are far more important than bureaucratic affiliation. In every key decision-making body there exist informal factional representations. Moreover, political rising stars are often rotated across these institutions, making the idea that each institution has its own distinct interests nebulous at best.

The binary of "liberals" and "conservatives" in American government may be a simplification, but it is nonetheless enormously useful for understanding contemporary political debates. The same can be said about the notion of "populists" and "elitists" in China, as it focuses attention on the emerging political competition and policy choices in the otherwise mysterious Middle Kingdom.

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