The flaw in CPC Collective Leadership System: Insufficient authority and Internal Split

The flaw in the Collective Leadership System of the CPC: Insufficient authority and Internal Split
By He Qinglian on May 7, 2012

The Collective Leadership System, which the Communist Party of China (CPC) uses to disperse the highest authority, is now facing grave crisis.

The CPC, the Party which has always emphasized its entire membership to be “in close solidarity with the Party Central that centers on comrades so-and-so”, has shown the world clearly its severe inner-split through the “Ouster of Bo Xilai” and the Chen Guangcheng incident.

From the handling of the Chen Guangcheng incident, the outside world could at least see two “CPC Centrals” at loggerheads with each other. “Party Central A” would be used below to indicate the openly visible Central Committee; “Party Central B” would be used to refer to the faction of top CPC members that is playing a role in the hiding and people could only who the main figures are.

China and the United States signed an agreement based on the wishes of Chen Guangcheng. Party Central A guaranteed Chen’s freedom and safety; it agreed that he could leave Linyi and choose a city inside the country to live in with his family, to study and would protect his basic living. Party Central B, however, threatened Chen with the safety of his family, forcing Chen to change his mind after he stepped out of the U.S. embassy, which triggered a brief public relations crisis for the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. and the Chinese government then reached a new agreement, Party Central A agreed that Chen could take his wife and children to America; he could go to New York University as a visiting scholar. The U.S. has made every preparation to receive him, as soon as his foot injury is cured. Party Central A has also sent an official to bring flowers to visit Chen, and promised to look into the dark veil of Linyi's ultra-powerful stability maintenance measures that targeted Chen, and have Chen's passport ready as quickly as possible.

But on May Fourth, Beijing Daily, Beijing Times, Beijing News, and Beijing Youth Daily, the four leading media in Beijing published four commentaries on Chen's entering the U.S. embassy in China, producing a symphonic ensemble of “Opposing the U.S. and criticizing Chen”. Given that all these four newspapers are managed by Beijing Municipal government, people have come to ponder the possibility of Beijing city being a stronghold of Party Central B.

There is another detail that I have to mention: so far the whole process of Chen fleeing surveillance and entering the U.S. embassy, only the part after his arrival in Beijing is clear and trustworthy. The New York Times ran an article on May 2, which mentioned that when the Chen was passed to the U.S. embassy official, the car of the rescuers and that of the U.S. embassy was tailed by a state security vehicle respectively. The U.S. only informed China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs after they settled Chen in the U.S. marine dormitory. This means Chen entered the U.S. embassy under the watchful eyes of Chinese state security agents, who did not make timely report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which should have been informed at the earliest time possible.

It could be assumed from this that Party Central B wanted incidents like Chen Guangcheng “making abnormal entry” to the U.S. embassy in China to happen, so as to use that to create trouble for Party Central A. The subsequent concerted criticism from the four Beijing newspapers appeared to be in line with this behavior.

What is interesting is that, after the occurrence of the Chen Guangcheng incident, Party Central A's actions of feeding information to the outside world and kite-flying through various channels to portray Bo Xilai and his wife as total villains has stopped. The eyeballs of international media have quite naturally been attracted to the Chen Guangcheng incident. The shift of attention between the two is blindly obvious to anyone; not necessarily everyone could guess the secrets behind it, though.

Modeled after the Post-Stalin Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the collective leadership system was initially designed to prevent personal dictatorship of the Party leader. Although this could help avert the potential harms of personal dictatorship like that of Mao Zedong, it leads to the decentralization of top level authority. With nine members, the Central Politburo Standing Committee now is up by two compared to the seven-member Standing Committee of the Jiang Zemin era. Such a system could at best make it harder for the top-level authority to reach unanimity; at worst, it would mean a greater likelihood of infighting and mutual constraints when it comes to divisive political issues that are of significance, such as successors, the formation of the next Politburo Standing Committee and so on.

At times when the economy is doing okay, this type of inner-party struggle is limited by the top-level wishes to maintain overall stability and would not erupt into life-and-death disputes that unfold in front of the public. A smooth transition of power would be more likely, as was the case when Jiang Zemin of the third generation of the CPC leadership smoothly transferred power to Hu Jintao of the fourth generation.

But when serious problems happen to the economy, the top level could split, and the successors chosen according to the wishes of the top leaders might not be able to have a smooth takeover, the incumbent party leader might also be unable to control the situation. This type of incident has happened in the history of the CPSU. For instance, when Nikata Khrushchev was in office, the economy of the Soviet Union gradually deteriorated; and senior CPSU members made a collective decision behind his back to replace the General Secretary.

After Deng Xiaoping, the Communist Party of China basically inherited the collective leadership system of the CPSU, and took it one step further: using age as the reason, new members are added to the top level of the Party every five years to replace the older ones. Seemingly a solution to ensuring a smooth transition, this would work only when the economy is doing okay. Once the economic and social conditions have deteriorated, the infighting would surely rise to the surface. 
And now, the allegations Party Central B makes against Party Central A serve as perfect evidence. However, the Party Central B does not have an upper hand in the institutional framework.

At the moment, senior CPC members headed by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have in their hands resources within the system, for example the supreme power in the Party, the government, and the military. Yet, their weaknesses are the extremely corrupt officials, the lack of noteworthy political achievements, the tension between the government and the public is on the verge of ignition. Except for Wen Jiabao the skilled pacifier, they have almost completely lost the hearts of the people.

If it is said that at the time when Hu and Wen succeeded Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, China had already had various hidden diseases—as I pointed out in my book, the Pitfalls of Modernization. However, those diseases were only at the initial stage back then, things looked good on the outside and the outsiders could hardly tell the impending ulceration.

Things in China today could in no way be comparable to the situation back when the transition between the third and fourth generation leadership took place. At that time, Zhu Rongji passed on a more reliable source of tax revenue for the central government by concentrating resources on the development of large enterprises, leaving the small and medium sized companies to fend for themselves, and re-establishing state-owned enterprises monopoly. Environmental resources at that time had not yet been depleted. 

In today's China, however, all that Hu and Wen would leave behind are a power structure and an enormous stability maintenance apparatus, apart from an environment and ecosystem that have holes all over, a central finance which revenue could not cover the expenses, and debt-laden local governments. That the political faction headed by Bo Xilai challenges Hu and Wen is based on this: the country our fathers fought and died for, you reduced it to this! We must save the Party. The ideology weapon they use is the founding father of the Red regime—Mao Zedong and his thoughts. Superficially, the faction does not have apparent representative except Bo Xilai; however, its presence could be felt everywhere in the capital. This time what the four leading newspapers of Beijing manifested is exactly this force. (Those articles did not necessarily reflect the attitude of the media practitioners; rather, they might have manifested the wishes of the people in control of those media.)

Because Wen Jiabao of Party Central A made verbal statements that universal values, democracy, human rights are respected, the faction enjoys some support from the intelligentsia; on the other hand, Party Central B seeks political legitimacy by worshiping Mao and fabricating [tales] of an equal society and the illusory leadership of the worker-peasant class during the time of Mao and manages to secure some popularity among some members of the 'Red second-generation' and the bottom of society.

Naturally, Western countries do not like the Cultural Revolution worship tendency that Bo manifested. Therefore, with the exception of a few foreigners who have been bribed, foreign media seldom rate Bo positively. What the foreign watchers failed to comprehend is that: no matter who come to power, they could not do anything to [solve] the economic, social, and environmental problems of China, nor could they change the existing system of benefits distribution. Wen may not genuinely lead China to the path of democracy; Bo and his supporters may not be able to implement the closed-door policy of the earlier years of the Mao Zedong era, either. In fact, Party Central B does not have any sound strategy to save the Party, all it could do is to keep making a fuss about ideology.

Throughout the history of Communist countries, this is for the first time two legitimate ideologies within the Party are being used by the two sides in a power struggle, neither could portray the rival as anti-Party. Even if this struggle ended with Party Central A emerged victorious for now, the split within the Party remains. 

The Communist Party has two choices in front of it: either it adheres to the one-party dictatorship, changes the system of high-level authority decentralization that is currently in place and strengthens the position of the Party leader—which does not necessarily help it avoid the downfall of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi; or it reforms the political system. The problem now is, there is not much resource left in China to support such a reform.