Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Political rivalry reflects a split within China's Communist Party

On the conservative ‘new left’ of Chinese politics, is Bo Xilai (left), the boss of Chongqing, who’s become famous for crackdowns on crime and nostalgic celebrations of Chairman Mao. At right is his rival,  Guangdong chief Wang Yang, the liberal governor of China’s freest state.

On the 90th anniversary of the founding of China's ruling Communist Party, the boss of the sweltering Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing gathered 100,000 people in a soccer stadium and led them in a birthday singalong for the ages. They belted out, Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China, among other standards of decades past.

A 90-minute flight away, in the coastal manufacturing hub of Guangzhou, the anniversary was also celebrated July 1, but the master of ceremonies gave the day a somewhat more subdued tenor. "For a mature ruling political party, it's more important to study and review its history and strengthen a sense of anxiety than just to sing the praises of its brilliance," Guangdong's Party chief, Wang Yang said in remarks that were published in the official People's Daily newspaper.

By Western standards, that was a very subtle poke at Bo Xilai, the singing boss of Chongqing. But in the murky world of Chinese leadership politics, Mr. Wang's jab was rare for its directness. Here was one top Party official taking public aim at another's leadership style, on a day that was supposed to be set aside for celebrating the Party's successes.

Story continues below advertisement

The remark drew back the curtain a hair's breadth on a behind-the-scenes rivalry that could shape the direction the world's rising superpower will take in the coming decade.

Mr. Bo and Mr. Wang are not only provincial Party bosses, but rivals for coveted spots on the nine-man Standing Committee of the Politburo – the top of China's power pyramid – during the once-in-a-decade leadership shuffle set to take place over the next year. And the regions they now govern offer starkly differing models for the direction China should head next.

The rivalry between the two men reflects a split within the Chinese Communist Party that, no matter how good the Party is at presenting a united front to the world, some see as a struggle for China's very soul.

On one side, there is Mr. Bo's Chongqing model, the favourite of a powerful faction of hard leftists who are prone to harkening back wistfully to the era of Chairman Mao, and want to see the country's pursuit of growth balanced with a renewed focus on social stability, including more equitable distribution of China's new-found wealth.

On the other is Mr. Wang's more open Guangdong model, the choice of a smaller clutch of free-market liberals, who argue that now is not the time to pause the country's economic and political reforms.

Since Mr. Bo took over as Party Secretary in Chongqing four years ago, he has won wide praise for smashing the region's crime syndicates. But he is even more notorious for his nostalgic embrace of "Red culture" – which includes not only revolutionary songs but bureaucrats being sent to the countryside to work alongside farmers, and Mao quotations being sent to millions of mobile phones by Mr. Bo himself.

Mr. Bo's campaigns have made him a hero of the country's "new left" but also unnerved some prominent intellectuals, who hear unsettling echoes of the Cultural Revolution, when tens of millions were violently purged in the name of ideological purity.

Story continues below advertisement

Meanwhile, Mr. Wang – who preceded Mr. Bo as Chongqing party boss before moving east to Guangdong – has recently emerged as the new hope of the country's liberals.

Guangdong, particularly the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, famously gave birth to China's economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s. Now the region is home to the country's freest media and has become an incubator for civil society. But a wave of strikes and protests in the province in recent years has unsettled other top party officials, who make no secret of their preference for stability over freedom.

"Bo's approach is a populist approach based on appealing to the masses with historical nostalgia," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst of Chinese politics. "Wang's efforts are no less populist, but they rest upon the notion that the Party's legitimacy will have to rest on more than simply economic growth."

Some Chinese see the coming battle as critical to whether their country continues its lurching reform, or takes a dangerous step backward. "Chongqing is on the way to becoming North Korea. Guangdong is on the way to becoming Singapore," said Yu Chen, an investigative journalist at the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, widely considered one of the country's most independent newspapers.

It's unfair, though, to lay that unflattering comparison purely at the feet of Mr. Bo. Chongqing and Guangdong are as different culturally and politically as Newfoundland and Alberta; no politician could hope to lead in either place without adapting to the local realities (as evidenced by Mr. Wang's career – he only emerged as a leading "liberal" after arriving in Guangdong) and local bureaucracies.

But with as many as seven of the current nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo set to retire in the next 12 months, both men are accentuating their differences, in an apparent effort to win support from the rival wings of the Communist Party.

Story continues below advertisement


When Bo Xilai arrived here four years ago, this region was sometimes referred to as "Detroit on the Yangtze." It wasn't meant to be a flattering comparison.

Chongqing was then known in the rest of China for two things, besides its spicy food – as one of the centres of the country's automotive industry, and as a hub of organized crime.

Now it's known primarily as Mr. Bo's political laboratory.

Initially, many saw Mr. Bo's assignment to this sweaty megapolis (which, including the surroun- ding countryside, is home to 29 million people) as something akin to banishment from Beijing.

He'd been seen as a lock for the 2007 Standing Committee of the Politburo lineup – and perhaps later for one of the country's highest offices. But he was left out when President Hu Jintao strode onto the red carpet at the Great Hall of the People, surrounded by the other eight most powerful people in China, the members of the new Politburo.

The two factions sometimes portrayed as battling within the Communist Party are one associated with Mr. Hu, who has his roots in the Communist Youth League, and another linked with his predecessor Jiang Zemin, with its power base in Shanghai and the party's influential "princelings" – the sons of famous revolutionaries.

While the Youth League and Princeling factions are each internally divided in the current left-right schism, many princelings have ties with the more hard-line, old-fashioned elements, and prominent Youth League figures are associated with the reform push.

Mr. Bo, as the son of Bo Yibo (a colleague of Mao's and one of the "eight immortals" of the Communist Party), was a princeling.

He had showed his populist touch as the mayor of the port city of Dalian, and earned sound economic credentials during three years as the country's Minister of Commerce.

Then 58, he had the right look, the right background and the right family connections. Many outside observers were convinced that the slick Mr. Bo's ascension was inevitable.

But then, in what looked like a carefully crafted compromise, the 2007 Politburo lineup contained only one rising star from each faction. The Youth League faction advanced Li Keqiang, the man now set to take over from Wen Jiabao as Premier in a year's time. The Princelings put forward Xi Jinping, the man expected to become China's next president and paramount leader.

Why Mr. Xi was chosen over Mr. Bo has never been revealed, but the snubbed princeling responded to his new role by making himself impossible to ignore.

Soon after arriving in Chongqing, he launched a crackdown on the city's powerful crime triads, turning loose the police in a sustained campaign that saw more than 2,000 arrests, including the spectacular trial and conviction of Xie Caiping, the "Godmother" of Chongqing's underworld.

Corrupt local officials were targeted as well; the former head of the city's justice department (Ms. Xie's brother-in-law) was executed in 2010 after being convicted of rape and bribe-taking.

"Strike the black," as the campaign was known, was a resounding public-relations success. Many Chinese Internet users expressed a wish that Mr. Bo would be "banished" to their own corrupt regions next.

But some academics and human-rights activists were unsettled by the lack of due process and allegations that torture had been used to extract confessions. The lawyer who took on the daunting task of trying to defend the mafia suspects found himself behind bars for perjury.

"So many things have happened in this city … things that cause one to feel that time has been dialled back, that the Cultural Revolution is being replayed and that the ideal of the rule of law is right now being lost," He Weifang, a prominent law professor at Beijing University, wrote in what he called an open letter to his colleagues in Chongqing.

Chongqing is indeed a place that can feel a decade or more behind the fast-changing cities of China's east coast. Though Mr. Wang and Mr. Bo both worked to reverse the trend, one of Chongqing's chief exports remains labourers willing to work for low wages elsewhere in China.

The city's media is among the least critical anywhere in the country, sticking strictly to the line of the official Xinhua News Agency when not extolling the virtues of Mr. Bo and Red culture.

It's one of the hardest places in China to have a political discussion, since most Chongqing residents make clear their preference of avoiding a topic that can only cause them trouble.

But concerns over Mr. Bo's direction deepened when he followed "Strike the Black" with "Sing the Red." In this campaign, residents are encouraged to relearn songs associated with the Cultural Revolution (or, in the case of many young Chinese, learn them).

On weekend afternoons Chongqing parks are filled with groups warbling away about the glories of Mao's revolution.

In another throwback to the 1960s and 1970s, local government officials were dispatched to the countryside for stints working and living alongside rural villagers.

This was particularly disconcerting from a man whose family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (his father, a veteran of the Long March and a key planner of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, was jailed and tortured for 15 years after being named as a counter-revolutionary by Mao's wife). But Mr. Bo's back-to-the-future style of governing has found a following in Chongqing and beyond.

When Mr. Xi, the president-to-be, travelled to Mr. Bo's Chongqing last year, he applauded both Strike the Black and Sing the Red.

"These activities have gone deeply into the hearts of the people and are worthy of praise," Mr. Xi said, calling the campaigns "a good vehicle for educating the broad masses of party members and cadres about [politically correct]precepts and beliefs."

Then again, some would say Mr. Bo – and Mr. Xi on his visit – are less true believers in rolling back the clock than politicians trying to appeal to hard-line factions in the Party's upper echelons.

"There's a perception that there has been a strong turn towards a more nationalist, assertive, stability-loving authoritarian system in China, and a turn away from things like the rule of law and cosmopolitanism," said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human-rights researcher.

"There's no way to know whether what Bo's been doing in Chongqing reflects his conception for what the criminal-justice system should be doing in all of China, or whether it's just part of his campaign to make it onto the Politburo Standing Committee."


It may not be exactly Swinging Guangdong, but for years this province has been the place where the Communist Party has experimented with a more open China than the one it allows in the rest of the country.

Because of its proximity to Hong Kong and the coast, the province was chosen by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s as the testing ground for economic reforms, changes that took hold more deeply here than anywhere else.

Today, Guangdong is China's shop window to the rest of the world, the heart of its manufacturing and export industries. Many here believe the rest of the country should be looking to it again as a model, this time as it tries out greater media freedom and limited civil society.

Residents say their province is the way it is because they themselves are fundamentally different from those who live in China's north and interior. The heartland of Cantonese language and culture, Guangdong maintained contact with foreigners and the outside world even during the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution.

Many in Guangdong today profess that what happens in Beijing doesn't matter to them, as long as Beijing leaves them alone.

(Beijing seems to concur that the region is different, maintaining an informal policy of never allowing a Guangdong native to become the provincial governor, to keep a lid on the region's independent streak.)

Dubbed a liberal by a faction looking for someone to rally around, Wang Yang, the province's current party boss, gets credit in Guangdong mainly for being a little more hands-off than your average Communist Party Secretary. The more open media scene that buoys Southern Metropolis Daily and other authority-challenging publications, for example, preceded the 56-year-old Mr. Wang's arrival.

Again, that is credited to the influence of Hong Kong, where a free press tradition introduced by the British today continues under China's "one country, two systems" administration.

But Mr. Wang gets credit for not interfering. "I would call Wang Yang a smart leader, because he understands the kind of place he is governing," said Tang Hao, deputy professor of political science at South China Normal University in the regional capital of Guangzhou. "He understands how to deal with social problems in this province. He understands that non-governmental power is not anti-government power."

On paper, Mr. Wang is a classic Communist Party boss, someone who rose up through the ranks quietly, aided by patrons in the higher echelons.

His timing was almost perfect: Born in rural Anhui province, he was 24 years old when he arrived in Beijing to study political economics in 1979, just as Deng Xiaoping was moving the country away from its ruinous experiments with hard-core commu- nism. Shortly afterward he joined the Communist Youth League, arriving as a rising star named Hu Jintao, also once seen as a reformer, was inheriting the organization's helm.

As Mr. Hu rose through the ranks, so did Mr. Wang. In 2003, shortly after Mr. Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao assumed power, Mr. Wang was made deputy secretary general of the State Council, Mr. Wen's cabinet, which then included rival Bo Xilai as Commerce Minister.

Two years later, Mr. Wang was transferred to Chongqing. And in 2007, after the new Politburo was unveiled in Beijing, he moved to Guangdong.

Though Mr. Wang lacks Mr. Bo's populist touch, he has nonetheless managed to portray himself as a leader who listens. Like Mr. Wen, another top Communist who's cultivated the image of the caring liberal, he daringly lets the grey hair at his temples show, a choice that distinguishes both men in a party otherwise dominated by improbably black-haired septuagenarians.

He may well come to be seen as the Party boss who finally allow- ed civil society to flourish in Guangdong and beyond. Starting in late 2010, the province began easing restrictions on the registration of non-governmental organizations, a concept previously anathema to the Party.

While the rest of China makes it incredibly difficult for NGOs to achieve legal status – they're required to find an official organization willing to sponsor them, which rarely happens – Guangdong now allows domestic NGOs to set up shop with far less paperwork and red tape. The new atmosphere has drawn well-established groups such as action- movie star Jet Li's One Foundation to open offices in Shenzhen and Guangzhou after years of working in legal grey areas elsewhere in the country.

"We could see the openness here," said Zhan Min, office manager of the Maitian Project, an independent charity that offers support to poor schools in rural China and is in the process of opening a Guangzhou office after years of working without legal status in Shanghai. "The local leaders in Guangdong are bolder and braver than leaders inland, who are more concerned about the risks."

But Guangdong under Mr. Wang is only "open" in the context of China's authoritarianism. Journalists and editors can report on topics forbidden to their colleagues in other parts of the country, but they know better than to criticize the country's top rulers, or Mr. Wang himself. And the NGOs being allowed to register in Shenzhen are only of the most apolitical sort – do-gooder charities are being legalized, but nothing tied to religion or having any kind of human-rights agenda is expected to be welcomed any time soon.

There are those within the stability-obsessed Communist Party who would argue that Mr. Wang already has gone too far. Guangdong was the centre of a wave of labour unrest last year that spread through much of the country's manufacturing belt, forcing employers and governments to raise wages.

More violent incidents – such as a riot last month that saw villagers sack a local police station and set police cars on fire after the local government seized farmland for a development project – are also more common in restive Guangdong than in other parts of the country.

The government has backed down from many of these protests rather than crushing them, perhaps giving another hint of Mr. Wang's gentler leadership style.

"If the Party would like to secure the nation's interests, they would find the so-called Guangdong model and Wang Yang's opinions more helpful [than the Chongqing model]" said Prof. Tang. "The simple way of using power to stabilize society is not suitable for today. They need to use social power to deal with social problems, they need to use market power to deal with market problems."


The outside world may get a hint of whether one or both of Bo Xilai and Wang Yang are set to join the world's most powerful leadership group in the coming weeks as the wider Central Committee of the Communist Party gathers in Beijing.

There may well be no pronouncement on the political future of either man – there are still months left in this secretive campaign for office before the next Standing Committee of the Politburo is unveiled, and Central Committee decisions don't have to be ratified by any congress, or pass muster with any court – but their ideas will surely be debated by its 300-odd members once the doors of the Great Hall of the People are sealed to outsiders.

Those in the best position to judge the relative merits of the two men are likely the residents of Chongqing, who have lived under the leadership of each one. Of course, there will never be a vote allowing residents to express what they really thought of the two men's comparative styles of government, but there's little question Mr. Bo has captured local imaginations with his campaigns. Mr. Wang, meanwhile, is remembered as a weaker, if more tolerant leader.

"Wang Yang promised the city economic development, and he delivered it, although some people don't appreciate it because the money didn't reach them," a Chongqing government official who asked not to be named said over a lunch of the region's famous hot food. Though the restaurant was nearly empty, he dropped his voice to a whisper so no one could hear he was discussing the party secretaries. "Bo took the shorter route [to popularity]and tackled the city's crime problem, so of course Bo is the more popular of the two."

"Both Bo and Wang spent a lot of efforts improving people's standard of living," said Zhang Yuren, a media expert at Chongqing Normal University. However, he said, "there are big differences: Bo believes the city should have a patriotic spirit, and he connects it to Red culture. Wang is different. He wants a diversified, more open culture."

But do enough other members of the Central Committee want the same? In many ways, the Bo-versus-Wang debate is just the latest incarnation of the behind-the-scenes struggle that has existed inside the Communist Party since the 1980s. Reformers such as then-Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang threw their support behind the students demanding change on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Afterwards, they spent the rest of their lives under detention.

No surprise, then, that the debate has become a whispered one, though Wen Jiabao has occasionally shaken the establishment with statements about the country's desperate need for political change. Now, with Mr. Wen set to leave office with little in the way of political reform to show from his decade as Premier, the country's liberals look to Mr. Wang with tired hope and Mr. Bo with fresh anxiety.

"I've been to North Korea," said Mr. Yu, the Southern Metropolis Daily journalist. "I would definitely rather live in Singapore."

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail's correspondent based in China.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at