China's Elite Politics: Political Transition and Power Balancing

By Lam, Willy Wo-lap | The China Journal, January 2009 | Go to article overview

China's Elite Politics: Political Transition and Power Balancing


Lam, Willy Wo-lap, The China Journal


China's Elite Politics: Political Transition and Power Balancing, by Bo Zhiyue. Singapore: World Scientific, 2007. xvi + 449 pp. US$75 .00/£4 1.00 (hardcover).

While the recent Summer Olympics provided the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration with a good opportunity to showcase how far the nation has come in areas ranging from the economy to technology, high-level politics in the Middle Kingdom have remained as opaque as ever; the inner workings and factional dynamics of Zhongnanhai headquarters are wrapped in secrecy. Bo Zhiyue' s China's Elite Politics: Political Transition and Power Balancing provides a comprehensive and persuasive account of the main CCP factions, as well as their relative strengths and weaknesses. The book also drops hints as to which cliques and individuals will probably succeed the current Fourth-Generation leadership headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

A good part of the book is devoted to the fascinating power struggle between ex-president Jiang Zemin and his Shanghai Faction on the one hand and President Hu and his Communist Youth League (CYL) Faction on the other. Given that much of the skullduggery and infighting takes place within a black box, Bo has read between the lines of official reports and looked for such clues as the pecking order of top officials as they appear in the state media. While Jiang retired from the Politburo and the Central Committee at the 16th CCP Congress in late 2002, he unexpectedly held on to the post of Chairman of the Party's Central Military Commission (CMC). Bo notes that the unpopular Jiang tried to hang on to power by elevating protégés among the senior officers to full generals. The Shanghai Faction chief went so far as to ask former underling Hu to announce the promotions, thus "reducing the role of the president of the PRC to the role of an announcer" (p. 314). In late 2004, Hu fought back by forcing the 78-year-old Jiang to retire from the CMC slot. Jiang's fall, Bo points out, is due to his imperial overreach, which alienated the majority of the Party. Writes Bo: "he [Jiang] had his name placed in front of Hu' s name in news reports on military affairs; he walked in front of Hu Jintao in violation of the protocol of Chinese politics . . . and he had his outdated stories published in the People 's Daily against the relevant rules of the Party" (p. 347).

Given that politics - particularly that with Chinese characteristics - is hardly an exact science, even the best analysts have faltered in the art of tea-leaf-reading. Bo has failed to attach sufficient importance to yet another major Party clique, the Gang of Princelings, a reference to the offspring of senior cadres. The author also doesn't think much of former Zhejiang and Shanghai Party secretary Xi Jinping, the acknowledged leader of the Gang of Princelings.

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