China and the Fights within Its Single Party

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Byline: Melinda Liu; With Marije Vlaskamp in Beijing and Nick Mackie in Chongqing

As China prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of communist rule this week, the one-party system looks more and more unlikely to last another 60. Questions about who will succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2012 are increasing because two coalitions of almost equal power are jockeying for position. On one side are populists like Hu himself and Premier Wen Jiabao, who want to improve China's social safety net, introduce greener policies, and balance development between the wealthy east coast and the poor western hinterlands. On the other side are the elitists, including the princeling children of high-ranking Chinese officials, who favor an increase in coastal development and place a far greater emphasis on economic growth and free trade.

The rise of these coalitions represents new fissures in Chinese politics. While factions have always existed within the party, they were largely personality-based. These new groupings, by contrast, are divided by geography and by real political and economic issues, raising the intriguing possibility that they could be the seeds for the emergence of a two- or multiparty system in China within a couple of decades, says Cheng Li, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., who refers to the populists as the "red team" and the elitists as the "blue team."

Until then, much is at stake. For the international community, the matter of who succeeds Hu, and why, could conceivably affect key issues such as the extent to which China continues to fund American debt, or how much carbon it emits. If the elitists take power, they are likely to focus on market and trade liberalization while letting environmental protection take a back seat. If the populists consolidate power, it could augur a more prickly economic relationship with the West and a more nationalistic China, but one that continues to show great interest in improving its environmental record. For ordinary Chinese, the populists promise increased social-welfare spending, while the elitists would likely continue to pursue China's export-driven economic model, which tends to favor the cities and its big factories at the expense of rural areas.

The jockeying for power reflects a marked increase in the amount of political competition within China's single party--something that Hu seems to have encouraged. At its recent Central Committee plenum, the party declared "intraparty democracy" to be its "lifeblood." Sinologist David Shambaugh of George Washington University says intraparty democracy "is one thing Hu Jintao wants to make his mark with," and already multiple candidates vie for slots in the party's Central Committee. Hundreds of urban neighborhoods have experimented with direct elections to determine grassroots party committees. In the party hierarchy, the powerful Organization Department has instituted a process through which people may submit confidential assessments of candidates for important posts. Some candidates are even dropped from the running if they get too many bad reviews. During the recent plenum, Hu held high-profile consultations with noncommunist officials and members of eight small "democratic" parties.

The most important front in this competition is the wrangling between the populists and the elitists, which is starting to burst out of the back room. This summer, Politburo up-and-comer Wang Yang, a populist party secretary in coastal Guangdong province, leveled a brutal critique of the growth-at-any-cost philosophy of the elitists. Without naming any names, he claimed in an unusually candid speech that economic figures had been "rigged" in the first half of 2009. Two of China's provinces had claimed a growth rate of 16 percent, he said, according to an account in the party mouthpiece People's Daily, in a period when the nation grew just 7 percent. More improbably, 24 of 31 provinces reported growth rates that were higher than the national average. …