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China: One party, two factions
01:42 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Chinese Communist Party not monolithic, united entity

Analysts say party broadly divided between informal "elitist" and "populist" coalitions

Upper echelons of Chinese leadership about evenly split between the elitists and populists

Party adopts collaborative approach of collective leadership rather than zero-sum game mentality

Hong Kong CNN  — 

To the casual observer, the Chinese Communist Party may seem like a monolithic, united entity.

In recent years, its leadership has ruled collectively, rather than by the hand of a paramount leader, which was a characteristic of the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras.

But while the party outwardly stresses harmony and unity, political analysts believe its estimated 80-million-strong members are divided along deep-rooted factional lines with varying perspectives on social, economic, political, military and foreign affairs.

CNN looks at what makes the Chinese party machine tick.

Who are the key factional powers within the party?

The Chinese Communist Party is broadly divided between informal “elitist” and “populist” coalitions, according to China expert and Brookings Institution analyst Cheng Li. Other analysts conceive of the split in different terms, such as between liberal-minded reformist and conservative hard-liner camps.

Li argues the core elitist faction is the “taizidang,” or so-called “princelings” – the offspring of former revolutionary leaders and high-ranking officials. Another elite, albeit fading, faction is the so-called “Shanghai Gang,” or followers of Jiang Zemin, who served as mayor of Shanghai before becoming China’s supreme leader in 1989.

Read: China’s next leaders – Who’s who

The populists are dominated by the “tuanpai” – politicians who cut their teeth in the Chinese Communist Youth League, the party’s nation-wide organization for youth aged 14-28 to study and promote communism. The league is also a training ground for party cadres.

But any analysis of these factional allegiances must be treated with caution – as an educated but speculative discussion at best – given the lack of official information and the complexities influencing politicians’ backgrounds.

“Factional lines are often unclear, shifting or overlapping, conditioned by old alliances, family interconnections, conflicts, rivalries, shifting loyalties and pragmatic tactical considerations,” according to CNN’s Beijing bureau chief, Jaime FlorCruz.

“In some cases, these affiliations are also conditioned by the members’ work patron/protégé experience, i.e. with or under whom they worked and rose to power.”

How are these factions oriented?

Broadly speaking, the factions run along socioeconomic and geographic divides.

The elitist coalition tends to represent business interests, including entrepreneurs and the rising middle class of China’s affluent coastal regions, according to Li. The princelings typically have prestigious backgrounds as the descendents of former party heroes, tending to have credentials governing affluent provinces along China’s eastern coast. For example Bo Xilai, the disgraced politician once tipped for political stardom in China, is the son of Bo Yibo, a former Politburo member who last served as vice-chairman of the Central Advisory Commission during the Deng era.

Read: Bo Xilai saga nears the end game