Chinese president Xi Jinping's alliances owe more to his provincial roots than to his status as a Chinese "princeling" from the wealthy eastern seaboard.
Xi: a princeling who remembers his yellow earth roots
If you want to get close to the centre of power in China now, it helps to have lived in a cave – or at least to have some yellow earth on your boots.
That is the assessment on the men whose rise to power has been facilitated by their links to current President Xi Jinping.
Writing in Stanford University’s China Leadership Monitor, veteran China watcher Professor Cheng Li noted that many of Mr Xi’s close associates served in various official posts in the famously poverty-stricken north-western province of Shaanxi, or have strong family ties there.
The “Shaanxi gang” includes fellow Politburo Standing Committee members Wang Qishan and Yu Zhengsheng and four general Politburo members including Zhao Leji, who controls party and government appointments as head of the Organisation Department. In addition, the gang includes the Minister of Defence and four PLA generals, three of whom sit on the powerful Central Military Commission.
Overall, writes Prof Li, “the gang constitutes three out of seven seats on the PSC, eight out of 25 members in the Politburo, and four out of 11 members on the CMC”.
Mr Xi’s own ties to Shaanxi are particularly strong. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was born there and Mr Xi was posted to the province as a “sent down youth” to “learn from the peasants” during the Cultural Revolution. He spent seven formative years as a farmer in a village in Yanchuan county before starting his career as a village Communist Party secretary. The elder Xi was at one stage a target of Mao and the Red Guards and, according to Prof Li, the Xi family seem to have regarded the province as a haven during this period. Mr Xi himself has frequently talked of his “yellow earth attachment”, referring to the semi-arid loess from which generations of Shaanxi farmers have scratched a living.
In wider Chinese history, this region was the original power base of the first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, and from which his armies left to end the Warring States period, unifying China by force. In CPC lore, the province plays a storied role as a revolutionary heartland. As the location of Yan’an, the terminal of the Long March, it was the base from which Mao and his confreres plotted their way to power from caves in the local mountains.
What does this tell us, other than that there’s a new gang in town? It indicates a certain sensibility: a Shaanxi connection evokes both China’s red aristocracy and a commitment to be closer to the people. Whereas former president Hu Jintao was a desk warrior and didn’t mind who knew it, Mr Xi takes care to be seen out among the public. Perhaps it’s the “yellow earth attachment” coming through, at least at the level of public relations.
For China watchers, the emergence of the Shaanxi gang provides a useful framework to analyse the Xi administration. Indeed, as China has progressed from tyranny under Mao to oligarchy under what is officially termed “collective leadership”, identifying factions has become a way to reveal form and structure in seemingly opaque political rivalries.
Factions in Chinese politics tend not to emerge around shared political or economic beliefs. They may have a geographical basis, like Mr Xi’s Shaanxi gang or the “Shanghai gang” of former president Jiang Zemin. Some are based around institutions. Outgoing president Hu Jintao owed his rise in part to the direct patronage of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and also to his mastery of the Tuanpai, the faction based around the Communist Youth League (CYL). The league displaced the Shanghai gang and has now been displaced in turn by the Shaanxi gang under Mr Xi: only two Tuanpai men now sit on the seven man Politburo Standing Committee.
Members of the Tuanpai faction tend to have fairly humble backgrounds and to have made their way up the party through service in poorer outlying provinces, minority areas and other hardship postings. Their emergence led to a theory that contemporary Chinese politics was beginning to coalesce around two grand factional coalitions: a populist grouping based around the CYL, with a preference for state intervention and a mildly redistributive economic agenda, and an elitist group based in the richer provinces of the eastern seaboard, which tend to be more pro-market and in which so-called “princelings” – children of high officials – play a leading role.
The problem with this analysis was that the princelings never really cohered into a faction. Often, all they have in common is their lineage. And while Mr Xi is himself a princeling, he is very careful to seem anything but elitist, at least publicly. A Chinese description of his economic agenda is “capitalism with an emperor above it”.
Even so, this may give us a clue to Mr Xi’s motivations and especially his anti-corruption push. For all that he makes much of his Shaanxi origins, he spent most of his career in the wealthy eastern provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. He was appointed governor of Fujian as the Lai Changxing affair broke, a major scandal in which a peasant entrepreneur managed to bribe the entire party apparatus in the city of Xiamen. A few years later, Mr Xi was briefly party secretary of Shanghai after the city’s former boss was ousted for converting an investment programme into a giant slush fund.
This possibly helps explain Mr Xi’s emphasis on the party’s revolutionary heartland. At least symbolically, the Shaanxi gang’s emergence sends a clear message: the men from the western provinces are here, ready to clean house.
Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world