Sample Essay On Factionalism In Chinese Politics

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Politics, China, Leadership, Faction, Power, Support, Party, Leader

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/12/06

Any effective analysis of Chinese politics requires a basic understanding of factionalism. Factionalism here refers to its common understanding, in the study of government, of a group of individuals who are tied together by a common political purpose. Indeed, factionalism is now perhaps one of the most common means to explain how the Chinese political elite “organize themselves to carry out conflict, mobilize resources for the struggle,” bestow rewards on the winners, and impose punishments on the losers (Nathan). Reliance on a factionalism analysis was not always the case, however. Prior to the outbreak of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in 1966, most China scholars held to a belief that Chinese politics was factionless and more accurately described as a single unified entity that seamlessly integrated ideology, leadership, organization (Nathan). The GPCR and the resulting societal upheaval and chaos, however, showed that Chinese politics and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were anything but unified. To be sure the GPCR tended to show that ideology and organization were inadequate in unifying leadership but more likely to be used as tools of one leader to target and suppress another leader. Accordingly, the GPCR affected a change in Chinese political analysis from one based on unity of the CCP to one based on conflict within and without the CCP (Nathan).
Whereas under a unity explanation, Chinese politics provided a straightforward and overarching account of Chinese leadership actions; a conflict explanation requires one to attempt to understand the dynamics of leadership relations, namely whose in power, what is their political strength in relation to other leaders, how did they come to power, what are the connections between those in power, what connection do those in power have to other political departments, companies, or military units. In short, how does conflict first determine who is in power; and secondly how does conflict affect what policy decisions are made by those in power. Consequently, after the GPCR, any analysis of Chinese politics needed to contemplate the existence of factions. For example, to understand the outbreak of the GPCR, one has to look at how Mao developed a deep loyalty over the Chinese army leadership over the years and the relations that those leaders, in turn, made amongst themselves. Those networks or factions later were to form the power base that Mao used to challenge the CCP and Chinese government until they capitulated to his demands (Tang).
While the study of factionalism is Chinese politics has developed into a disparate field of inquiry, two of the more important analyses are Andrew Nathan’s “A Factionalism Model for CCP Politics” and Tang Tsou’s response to Nathan’s article “Prolegomenon to the Study of Informal Groups in CCP Politics.” Of the two analyses, Nathan’s is perhaps the more influential because, in the words of Tang, “it performs for the profession the service of re-opening the question of the role and behavior of informal groups in the CCP” (Tang). To be sure, Nathan’s analysis systematically looks at the issues of factionalism and argues that Chinese elite politics is, in essence, can be explained as one continuous factional struggle. Under Nathan’s analysis, factions in elite Chinese politics are based on one top level leader who develops a number of patron-client relationships with a number of followers. Those followers in turn develop their own patron-client relationships with successively lower level of followers. A leader’s power depends on the size of the faction and therefore leaders are continuously trying to expand their faction’s base of support. The relations between leaders and followers are based on rewards flowing downwards for services flowing upwards. Accordingly, when a faction’s top leader senses an opportunity for political gain, he can muster the support and services of faction members to act on his behalf.
As long as he can supply the rewards, he generally can expect the loyalty of his followers. Nathan further argues that factionalism exists because there are no other objective conditions such as a powerful bureaucracy where powers flows can grow to rival the influences of factionalism. Moreover factionalism, which is only present in elite or national level politics, tends to create political gridlock (Nathan). Gridlock, Nathan theorizes, occurs because a number of key points. First factions are limited in the in the amount and kinds of power they can exercise. This makes them acutely fragile and incapable of acquiring absolute dominance. Second, because factions are both powerful and “immortal,” there is a system belief in the principle of “mutually assured destruction” which holds that no faction will seek the total elimination of another because doing so would lead to their elimination as well. Power, then, is just gained or lost at the margins. Lastly, the balance of power between factions creates an immobility of action that often results in small policy initiates except were all faction find agreement such as against a foreign enemy or outside force that threatens the existence of all factions. Nathan argues the GPCR was the result of consensus being reached that provincial and local forces posed a threat to the factional system of the central government.
Tang, on the other hand, argues that while factionalism is relevant to an analysis of Chinese politics, it is just one part of a more comprehensive whole. Tang argues that Nathan’s factionalism is an appropriate explanation for the politics of the GPCR but not much else. Tang disagrees with Nathan’s idea that Chinese factions tend to support the idea of coexisting with their rivals. According to Tang, the history of Communist China is filled with one faction aiming for the total annihilation of its rivals so that it can “achieve supremacy or hegemony in the CCP” (Tang). To be sure, according to Tang, once a faction gains superiority, it tends to formalize it power in a way that decreases or eliminates the informal tools that were needed to effectively control and run a faction. Tang theorizes that this occurs because the “winning” faction wants to “enhance the capability of the political system” (Tang).
Once a faction completes its transformation into an institutionalized formal organizational structure there is little need to use factions or informal politics unless the leadership is threatened with elimination or collapse. If this happens, then the need for factions would return and be useful until one faction is again, able to obtain supremacy. Under Tang’s analysis, factions were present in Chinese politics prior 1949 and during the GPCR. At al other times, factions have not played or played a very limited role in Chinese politics. Factionalism is, in short, a temporary period between chaos and totalitarian calm. Tang further argues that, there are a number of objective conditions, such as a power infrastructure built to support a strong central leadership that allowed one factions to gains supremacy over the rest.
While both Nathan’s and Tang’s analyses have provided a necessary starting point to an inquiry, the question remains which model best explains Chinese politics? Using the events leading up to, during, and immediately following June 4, 1989 as a test case, it would seem that Tang’s explanation is more accurate. In a speech to the Fourth Plenum a little more than a month after the crackdown, Premiere Li Peng lays out his, and presumably Deng Xiaoping’s approval, the case against Zhao Ziyang. Peng accuses Zhao of “splitting the party,” giving in to foreign influences, being “two-faced” and lying to improve his political position. For his “crimes” Peng demands that Zhao be removed from all his positions and stripped of party membership. If carried out, this in essence would “eliminate” Zhao politically. In other words, Peng’s actions support Tang’s theory that factionalism is only a part of the analysis of Chinese politics and especially important during a crisis in leadership.
Whether the protests represented an existential threat to the CCP is debatable but some segments of party leadership undoubtedly thought they did and that Zhao and his faction were position themselves to take over. Accordingly, as Tang theorizes, the Li faction moved to block and eliminate Zhao thereby restoring order and hegemony. Under a Nathan analysis, Li’s call for Zhao’s elimination would be an extreme measure that would threaten Li position as well. Under a Nathan China, Li and Zhao would not directly challenge one another but work together to stop the protests while at the same time using them to gain more influence with Deng Xiaoping.
Second, the fact that Li used the procedure of making a speech to the Fourth Plenum also tends to corroborate Tang’s theory that a formal, institutionalized process can eliminate factionalism. To be sure, rather than use backroom connection and informal politics, Li openly announced his case against Zhao, how he planned to rectify the situation and that he had the support of the supreme leaders. Accordingly, the rank-and-file membership or others that might have supported Zhao were put on notice to follow Li or be labeled as “splitting the party” and suffer the same consequences as Zhao.
Lastly, the existence of the Fourth Plenum as a venue to make a speech, the ability of the speech to be distributed via the media to the masses, and the ability for Li to mobilize party and government personnel to mount his case against Zhao further corroborates Tang’s point on the existence of “objective conditions, organizational-structural factors, cultural conditions and institutional elements” which allow one group or leader to achieve supremacy (Tang). Without these conditions, it may have been much more difficult or impossible to single out Zhao and target him for political elimination.

Works Cited

Nathan, Andrew J. “A Factionalism Model for CCP Politics.” The China Quarterly 53 (1973): 34-66. Web.
Li, Peng. “Speech to the Fourth Plenum.” Tung Fang Jih Pao. 16 Jul. 1989. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.
Tang, Tsou. “Prolegomenon to the Study of Informal Groups in CCP Politics.” The China Quarterly 65 (1976): 98-117. Web.

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