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A Shanghai Faction Media Coup ahead of the 20th Party Congress

This year the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attracted more worldwide attention than any prior CCP national congress has, and the media hype surrounding the CCP’s meeting did not disappoint.

First, we’ll mention the landslide victory of Xi Jinping (习近平). He gained a third-term as the CCP’s head and managed to install his allies in a majority of the CCP’s top-ranking positions. For much of 2022, many media outlets broadcasted doubts about Xi’s ability to retain power. They cited various insider sources and offered opinions that Xi would not secure his third term. Many Western media and even those on Wall Street chimed in on the topic of Xi’s continued rule (for example, George Soros published three articles advocating against Xi).

In reality, not only did Xi not lose power – he convincingly augmented his power, as evidenced by his complete cleaning out of the Youth league faction.

Before the CCP’s 20th congress, the CCP’s internal landscape was shaped by three major factions within the party. Each one was led by a current or former CCP head. These included:

  • The Xi Jinping faction,
  • The faction of former CCP leader Jiang Zemin (江泽民), also known as the Shanghai faction (since Jiang was once the party head of Shanghai, and thus Shanghai became his power base), and
  • The faction of former CCP leader Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), also known as the Youth League faction (since Hu was the head of the Communist Youth League from 1984 to 1985, and he built up his team with people who had Youth League experience). {1}

At the CCP’s 20th congress, the Youth League faction lost almost everything. They now have no members on the elite seven-member Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP, nor any of the 24 seats on the also-important Politburo of the CCP. During the previous 5-year term, they had two Politburo Standing Committee members, Li Keqiang (李克强) and Wang Yang (汪洋), as well as a Politburo member Hu Chunhua (胡春华) who also served as Vice Premier. This time around, Li Keqiang and Wang Yang are totally out (and they can now be considered retired), and Hu Chunhua lost his Politburo seat and retains only a seat on the lesser 205-member Central Committee of the CCP.

The Youth League’s annihilation was further highlighted by a video showing Hu Jintao, the spiritual head of the Youth League faction, being escorted out of the meeting hall during the closing session of the 20th congress.

These blows to the Youth League faction were not only a huge surprise, but also a U-turn from the media’s anti-Xi narrative as mention earlier, for it was the Youth League faction that had been portrayed as Xi’s challenger and potential replacement.

Jiang’s Media Portrayed Xi as Weak

One cannot help but wonder how the media could have been so wrong for such a long time. Who was behind the narrative that Xi’s reign was in trouble? Was this an honest mistake or a deliberate setup? One course of analysis is to see who has benefited the most from the media narrative that Xi’s power was faltering.

On the surface, Xi’s faction was the biggest winner at the CCP’s 20th congress. Xi secured a third term as head of the CCP and Xi’s faction now controls an overwhelming majority of the CCP’s top political apparatuses. Xi and his loyalists took five of the seven positions on the Politburo Standing Committee, and they now control a majority of the 24-member Politburo.

The Xi faction’s achievement happened in spite of, not because of, the media narrative that portrayed Xi as weak. Xi would probably have sought to quell such a narrative had he been able to.

Further, one finds that Jiang’s Shanghai faction was also a winner at the CCP’s congress. The Shanghai faction obtained the remaining two politburo standing committee positions, now occupied by Zhao Leji (赵乐际) and Wang Huning (王沪宁), and it also retained a few seats on the politburo. Sure, this win is nothing compared with Xi’s gain, but it is much preferable to the total loss suffered by the Youth League faction.

Significantly, the Xi-weakness narrative originated from the many of media outlets controlled by the Shanghai faction. Was it a coincidence that all major figures of the Youth League faction, from Li Keqiang to Wang Yang to Hu Chunhua, had been portrayed as Xi’s challengers by Jiang’s media? Meanwhile, the members of Jiang’s faction were not portrayed as such? Is there any wonder as to why Xi directed his anger at the Youth League faction?

Given a plausible motive and the necessary access to media outlets, we conjecture that the Shanghai faction aimed to induce Xi’s anger by pushing a narrative of Xi’s weakness and the Youth League faction’s ambition.

One can corroborate this theory by looking at who lost out due to the media’s narrative. Certainly, the Youth League faction was the biggest loser. Looking further, one can find that Xi sustained a reputational loss. To say the least, Xi’s treatment of Hu at the 20th congress, regardless its real cause and attendant circumstances, will be attached to Xi for a long time to come. Some have theorized that Xi staged Hu’s removal to serve as a warning to potential challengers. Again, Xi didn’t need to make such a show of power, as his control at the top levels of government was already nearly total.

So we come back to the same question: given that Xi’s power was so secure, how could those “insider” sources have been so wrong? “Insiders” are supposed to know a system’s internal state more accurately than “outsiders,” right? It seems that the “leaks” about Xi’s weakness were deliberate misinformation.

If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Manipulate ‘em

This is not the first time we’ve seen the Shanghai faction’s media stirring up controversy with a hidden agenda. Back in 2014, when Xi Jinping launched a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that eventually sacked many of Jiang’s loyalist, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) received troves of leaked records revealing offshore accounts held by Chinese officials. The information was so extensive that it must have been collected by a group that had significant power and insight. Who supplied these leaked documents? Well, here’s a hint: The revealed information exposed many high-ranking officials, but it left out Jiang Zemin, Zeng Qinghong, and other big officials in Jiang’s camp.

While conventional wisdom may say, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Jiang’s faction is no stranger to the alternative stratagem, “if you can’t beat ’em, manipulate ’em.” When your opponent is too strong, trick the opponent into serving your aims.

Back in 1992, Jiang’s faction successfully did just that: Jiang Zemin and his loyalists schemed up a plot to turn Deng Xiaoping against his close allies Yang Shangkun (杨尚昆) and his younger half-brother Yang Baibing (杨白冰), resulting in the Yang brothers being forced to retire.

The Yang brothers had been Deng’s trusted allies and were appointed by Deng to be in charge of the military. When Deng found that Jiang Zemin was not following his policy of reform and opening up, Deng toured southern China in early 1992 and warned that Jiang might be removed. The Yang brothers made a high-profile announcement that the military would resolutely escort Deng’s reform and opening up, and Jiang was forced to get behind Deng’s policy. Starting then, Jiang and his faction began looking for opportunities to get revenge on the Yang brothers.

One in summer 1992, Yang Baibing proposed the promotion of 100 generals from the Chinese military. Jiang’s group took the opportunity to spread rumors that Yang Shangkun wanted to replace Deng Xiaoping and that the Yang brothers were working on a political coup. The rumor reached Deng, and thus a wedge developed between Deng and the Yang brothers.

Next, Jiang’s right-hand man, Zeng Qinghong (曾庆红), went to tell Deng’s son that the Yang brothers wanted to build a military of their own (the Yang’s military) to replace Deng’s military. Zeng Qinghong then hit Deng’s Achilles heel by claiming that the Yang brothers wanted to redress the June Fourth movement and blame Deng for the Tiananmen Massacre. Deng would do anything to stop that from happening.

After these preparations, Jiang met with Deng to report that the Yang brothers’ had “anti-Deng” ambitions. In October 1992, Deng then removed the Yang brothers from the Central Military Commission. {2}

The Shanghai Clique’s Motives

With Xi’s power now surpassing that of Deng Xiaoping in his heyday, and with Xi’s victory at the CCP’s 20th Congress secure, it is inevitable that Xi’s group will further expand its control of the government in the coming period. Before the 20th congress, one would have thought that the Shanghai faction was in even greater danger than the Youth League faction, potentially facing a significant loss of power or even being cleaned out entirely.

Ever since Xi became the head of the CCP in 2012, Jiang’s faction has been more threatening to Xi’s power than has the Youth League faction. For example, Jiang loyalists Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai planned a coup to overthrow Xi. Hu and Xi joined forces to purge them in 2012 and 2013 (both are now serving life sentences in prison on corruption charges). This year, Xi arrested another group belonging to the Shanghai Clique.  Sun Lijun, Fu Zhenghua, and several other people in the public security apparatus had been plotting a coup against him. Three of the conspirators were given the death penalty with a reprieve.

On the contrary, the Youth League has never caused such serious danger to Xi. If Xi really needed to choose a group to eliminate, one would expect Jiang’s Shanghai faction to be a more likely target than Hu Jintao’s Youth League faction. After all, Hu Jintao was a great benefactor to Xi Jinping. When Xi took the top leader position from Hu in 2012, Hu chose to retire completely and thus ensured that Xi would obtain full power. Compare this with when Hu took the reins from his predecessor Jiang: since Jiang was only semi-retired, he became the “Emperor Emeritus,” overshadowing Hu during each of Hu’s two 5-year terms.

Thus, a less surprising outcome of the 20th congress would have been for Xi to take more power away from Jiang’s faction and, at worst, to take an equal amount of power away from the Youth League group. For the Jiang faction to maintain its two seats on the politburo standing committee at the expense of the Youth League faction is nothing short of a masterstroke.

Jiang’s Media Portrayed Li Keqiang as a Challenger to Xi

How did the Shanghai faction manage to direct Xi’s ire towards the Youth League faction?

First, there was a worldwide anti-Xi campaign focusing on Xi’s seeking a third term. Xi, of course, wouldn’t yield to international pressure. Although he didn’t have a good way to fight back against such an international wave of negative PR, he did have the power needed to crush internal challengers.

Was there really an internal challenger to Xi? Yes, the media created and endorsed one. Some YouTube hosts and media celebrities soberly discussed the possibility of Li Keqiang replacing Xi (习下李上, “down with Xi, up with Li”). Different versions of “insider information” circulated, making claims about Xi being forced down – these all later proved to be just rumors. Several of the YouTube hosts and media celebrities who reported this “insider information” bear the marks of Jiang’s faction. Eventually, the Western mainstream media was dragged in, with many major outlets pontificating on Xi’s chances of retaining power.

The anti-Xi, pro-Li media campaign may have sown the seeds of Xi’s distrust in Li Keqiang and in the Youth League faction, but solid evidence against them was still lacking.

The COVID lockdowns in Shanghai presented a golden opportunity to the Shanghai faction. Via its control of the mid-level and grassroot-level officials in Shanghai, the faction purposely disrupted the food supply to the 25 million people who were locked down, creating a large-scale humanitarian crisis in China. Chinascope published an article supporting the thesis that the food shortages during Shanghai’s lockdown were the intentional result of such a political infight. {3}

This man-made disaster in Shanghai set up the Youth League group in several ways:

First, the COVID lockdowns made Xi and his “zero-COVID” policy look responsible for the food shortages, casting Xi as an enforcer and intensifying the international criticism of Xi. The stronger the anti-Xi movement was, the more fiercely Xi would want to take revenge against internal targets.

Second, the Shanghai lockdowns put Li Keqiang, who belongs to the Youth League faction, in an awkward position. Li, who is China’s outgoing Premier, was in charge of the country’s economy. With the economy of Shanghai, one of China’s most significant economic engines, locked down for a month, Li could not deliver satisfactory GDP numbers. Given that “zero-COVID” had caused Shanghai’s economy to grind to a halt, Li seemed to fall into the trap and began advocating against Xi’s COVID policy. For example, Li Keqiang hosted a meeting with 100,000 officials, giving speeches that stressed the importance of economic development while downplaying the “zero COVID” policy and also repeatedly promoting reform and opening on several other occasions.

Third, the Shanghai COVID lockdowns appeared to weaken Li Qiang’s prospects for replacing Li Keqiang to become China’s next Premier. Li Qiang is a close ally of Xi who, during his time as Shanghai Communist Party Secretary, loyally carried out Xi’s zero-COVID policy. Li Qiang’s reputation suffered during the Shanghai lockdowns, which might have given false hope to the Youth League faction regarding Hu Chunhua’s shot at becoming Premier. This was a hot topic for political commentators. We speculate that the Youth League might have been tricked again and had behind-the-scenes maneuvering to push Hu Chunhua for the Premier’s position. But in Xi’s mind, Li Qiang was the only candidate for the position. During the 20th congress, Xi elevated Li Qiang to the Politburo’s number-two position, putting him on a clear path to become the country’s next Premier (and violating the CCP’s unwritten convention that whoever serves as Premier must first serve as Deputy Premier).

With the above evidence appearing to confirm that the Youth League faction was indeed his rival, Xi went ahead and crushed the faction with an iron fist, cleaning it out during the 20th party congress. So, the Shanghai faction came out ahead: via shrewd political manipulation, it retained its power by setting the Youth League faction up to be purged.

It must be said that the Shanghai faction’s victory is only temporary. Xi continues to place his own people in key positions while removing and blocking Jiang’s people. Besides, Xi is unlikely to forget or forgive the Shanghai faction’s past coup plots against him, and so the Shanghai faction still faces being phased out at a later date.

The moral of the story? The trickery and viciousness of the CCP’s infighting can be way beyond a rational person’s imagination.

{1} Observer Research Foundation, “The Rise of the Xi Gang: Factional politics in the Chinese Communist Party” by Shukla, Srijan, February 12, 2021.
{2} NTD TV, “Revealed: Deng Xiaoping fell into Jiang Zemin’s Scheme to Remove the Yang brothers,” November 25, 2017.
{3} Chinascope, “Did Political Infighting Cause Shanghai’s COVID Chaos?” April 15, 2022.