Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Moving beyond Factions: Using Social Network Analysis to Uncover Patronage Networks among Chinese Elites

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Moving beyond Factions: Using Social Network Analysis to Uncover Patronage Networks among Chinese Elites

Article excerpt


Informal connections play an important role in regimes all across the world, but among China's political elite, it is particularly factional affiliation that is said to structure contention over who will rule and who will fall victim to a purge. This article identifies two approaches to measuring factional ties in the literature: the exploratory approach traces alliance ties through qualitative assessment of insider sources, while the structured approach uses publicly available data to infer factions from shared characteristics. The article combines the two by arguing that informal politics is better conceptualized as a process of alliance formation shaped by an underlying social (network) structure. Among the structured approaches, coworker networks best capture the latter, but this can be further refined by noting the number of instances of working together, or by taking into account promotions that have occurred while the two individuals were coworkers.


social network analysis, China, elite politics, patronage, factions, Communist Party, power, informal institutions, central committee, network centrality


In recent three years, Chinese and western newspapers have increasingly used network visualizations of the complexity and interdependence of Chinese politics and economics. These illustrations usually show how a Chinese leader--President Xi Jinping, Premier Wen Jiabao or disgraced Zhou Yongkang--is connected to other elites or (shell) companies through coworker or kinship ties. (1) But even though the term "network" occurs quite often in the academic analysis of informal politics (Tsou 1995) and elite contention in China, scholars have not applied social network analysis (SNA) and its tools and methods to this topic. (2) As in political science more generally, the term "network" has been used as a metaphor (Ward et al. 2011) for a group of individuals directly or indirectly connected by often ill-defined ties.

In this article, I propose that scholars studying Chinese political elites have much to gain from adopting social network analysis, as it allows to expand the more nuanced view of informal politics found in qualitative analysis to the quantitative study of a large set of elites. I compare different ways of measuring informal elite networks, and conclude that coworker networks are most likely to structure informal politics among contemporary Chinese elites.

Informal politics in China is usually described in terms of factionalism (Nathan 1973; Li 2001)--the idea of a battle between informal groups of elites, connected to and supportive of each other or a common leader. Critics of this account (Tsou 1976; Dittmer 1995) usually do not contest the existence of different, conflicting interest within the Chinese regime, nor the role of informal relations in Chinese politics. Instead, they are dissatisfied with its conceptualization as a struggle between distinct, non-overlapping groups of elites for power, claiming that such factional affiliation often fails to predict the individual elite's political behavior (Miller 2015).

I suggest that we should conceive of informal politics as competing coalition formation along the ties of an underlying network. This conceptualization allows us to visualize this underlying social structure and the factions enabled by it (see Figures 2-6). More importantly, it provides an inherently more dynamic view of informal politics. The underlying ties may make it easier for certain elites to join a faction, but whether an individual activates this potential depends on more complex strategic considerations. Instead of imagining elite contention as clashes between clearly delineated stable groups, i.e. factions, it becomes a game of strategic alliance formation (Keller 2014) among individuals embedded in a restraining or enabling social structure.

The network approach also forces the researcher to be more specific about the meaning and measurement of these underlying connections and the factional ties formed. …

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