Ukraine War Inflames Factional Struggles Within CCP Ahead of Important Party Meeting: Analysts

By Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.
March 10, 2022 Updated: March 17, 2022

NEW DELHI—Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has intensified factional conflicts within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as maneuvering for influence gathers pace ahead of an important Party meeting later this year, according to sinologists.

The Chinese communist leadership recently gathered in Beijing for its annual “Two Sessions” meetings of the regime’s rubber-stamp legislature and top political advisory body. The meetings brought together more than 5,000 of the country’s political, business, and social elite, tasked with approving the Party’s policy priorities for the coming year, although the event was overshadowed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The annual meetings are also the last gathering before the CCP convenes its twice-a-decade National Party Congress this fall, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to bid for an unprecedented third term in power.

The CCP’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the highest-level decision-making body of the Party, generally makes decisions on foreign policy issues by consensus, Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor of Chinese studies in New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told The Epoch Times. But on matters concerning Russia, Politburo meetings are characterized by vehement differences of opinion.

“The CCP congresses do generally attract high-intensity factional struggles, but in the background of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China’s nationalists, globalists, militarists, conservatives, liberals, and others are all fanning out to mobilize influence in favor of their own factions,” Kondapalli said.

While China is a one-party state and the CCP monopolizes power, Party leadership isn’t a unitary group, and members differ by ideology, political associations, socio-economic background, and policy preferences.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (R) arrives with Premier Li Keqiang (L) and members of the Politburo Standing Committee for a reception at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sept. 30, 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Factional Wars’

“Factional wars” have been going on inside the CCP for decades, and their complexity surpasses what most experts can express, according to Frank Lehberger, a Germany-based sinologist. The tumultuous Cultural Revolution during the 1970s to ’80s, for instance, saw particularly heavy infighting, resulting in the purging of many high-ranked CCP members.

Two warring factions have long existed within the CCP: The Shanghai Gang and the Chinese Communist Youth League. A third group, which began within the Shanghai Gang and eventually took over most of the key leadership posts in the Party and the central administration as well as the provincial level, is led by Xi Jinping, according to a 2021 research paper published in Observer Research Foundation.

The Shanghai Gang, led by former CCP leader Jiang Zemin, has experienced heavy losses from Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, Kondapalli said.

Scores of current and former officials have been purged over the years, as Xi has sought to eliminate the influence of factions that have undermined his authority since he took office in 2012, analysts say.

In recent years, several former senior members of the public security apparatus tied to Jiang’s faction have been the focus of the campaign.

Kondapalli pointed to two recent articles published in a Chinese publication aligned with the Jiang faction. Both reports appeared on Duowei News, a Beijing-based online news site that has strong links to Jiang and his close ally, Zeng Qinghong, a former top CCP official, he said.

One report dated Feb. 4 about India’s last-minute diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics was critical of Xi. Another report from Jan. 19, titled “An objective evaluation of Xi Jinping,” was also highly critical of Xi’s tenure, according to Kondapalli.

Given the extremely tight censorship environment in China, content that strays from official narratives or is critical of the regime or certain officials may only be allowed if there is backing from powerful figures within the Party. Thus, analysts have noted that such coverage has been used by Party factions to undermine political rivals.

The two reports, coupled with the spate of high-profile purges of former high-level officials, “have exposed fissures in the CCP,” Kondapalli said.

“Xi’s support for Putin’s actions has further complicated CCP struggles,” he said.

Lehberger says that Xi wants to stick with Putin, while Jiang’s faction doesn’t want China to be closely tied to the Russian leader. Media reports criticizing Xi’s policy decisions, however, are just one minor component among many complex parts in the CCP factional warfare, he said.

“More serious ones are assassination attempts of Xi, and silencing, imprisoning, or death sentencing (on bogus charges) of prominent members or minor stooges of the other factions,” he said.

Beyond the Ukraine crisis, Xi already is under immense pressure because of various domestic and international concerns, Kondapalli said. They include the pandemic’s continuing effect on China’s economy, trade and technology restrictions imposed by the United States, and growing international scrutiny over the CCP’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

Xi’s emphasis on food security during the recent meeting of the regime’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), hinted at brewing domestic issues, Lehberger said.

“Xi has been stressing during the NPC Congress food safety for the third time in two to three months … [this] usually this means that famine is not far away,” he said.

Meanwhile, developments in Ukraine have presented the regime with challenges as well as opportunities, he said.

On the first day of Russia’s invasion, China lifted all wheat import restrictions on Russia, as Western nations swiftly imposed economic sanctions on Moscow. Lehberger characterized that as an opportunistic move by the regime to acquire Russian commodities on the cheap while tackling food shortage issues domestically.

Yet the West’s vigorous response to Putin’s aggression has also served as a warning for Beijing.

The CCP has actually been surprised by the ferocity with which Western sanctions are ruining Russia, Kondapalli said. As a result, while Beijing has condemned the West for the sanctions, it has offered no substantial help to Putin.

“It must have given pause to any temptation to invade Taiwan,” Kondapalli said. “As a highly globalized economy, China cannot afford to attract similar sanctions, which could stall Beijing’s further rise.”

So far, Chinese institutions appear to be adhering to Western sanctions. Two China-backed infrastructure banks, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, have halted lending to Russia.

Ukraine Holds Off Russian Forces In Western Kyiv Oblast
A bicyclist rides past destroyed buildings in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 3, 2022. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Ties That Last

Factional wars within the CCP over how it deals with Russia are as old as Soviet Union’s relationship with the Party itself, which dates back a century. The Soviets helped create the CCP in 1921 and supported the Party for decades.

According to Kondapalli, any matters concerning Russia have tended to spark acute disagreements within the CCP.

“Much of it had to do with the love-hate relationship between the Soviet and Chinese Communist parties, their ideological agreements and differences,” he said, adding that in the early days, the Soviets had wanted to keep the CCP under their thumb.

“The CCP took the Soviets’ help but resented their bid to control it.”

After the CCP seized power, it adopted the Soviet model of development and used Moscow’s help in its campaign to modernize Chinese industries during the 1950s.

But the cooperation with the USSR didn’t last, as the communist powers famously had a falling-out not long after. In the decades that followed, many CCP officials would be targeted for removal on the basis of real or imagined ties to Moscow.

“The CCP also threw out Defense Minister Peng Dehuai in 1959 for being close to Moscow. Senior Politburo member Liu Shaoqi was accused of being a ‘Chinese Khrushchev’ and paraded on the streets [in the late 1960s]. In 1989, Zhao Ziyang, the Party’s general secretary, was accused of being the ‘Chinese Gorbachev’ for siding with students in the Tiananmen Square protests,” Kondapalli said.

However, after becoming the Party’s paramount leader in 2012, Xi made his first foreign visit to Moscow, during which the Kremlin allowed him to peek into its most secretive military command and control center, he said.

China’s ties with Russia today are “semi-alliance” in nature, according to Kondapalli, as a result of various agreements signed over the past few decades, including the 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty of Friendship. Most recently, Xi and Putin met in Beijing on the opening day of the Winter Olympics, during which the two announced a “no-limits” partnership.

But as Putin’s invasion triggers a widening global backlash, the CCP and its political factions find themselves wrestling with how to manage the fallout.

Russia is now crippled by the international financial and trade sanctions, and China’s economy will be deeply affected if Xi aligns too closely with Putin, Lehberger said.

“Jiang and a few others do not want China to be tied too closely to Putin, because Putin could now sink China together with him.”

Venus Upadhayaya
Venus Upadhayaya reports on wide range of issues. Her area of expertise is in Indian and South Asian geopolitics. She has reported from the very volatile India-Pakistan border and has contributed to mainstream print media in India for about a decade. Community media, sustainable development, and leadership remain her key areas of interest.