China's princelings versus tuanpai

The fall of Ling Jihua, now under investigation for corruption, means Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken another step closer to consolidating his power base.

The former director of the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Central Committee was a senior aide to Mr Xi's predecessor, Mr Hu Jintao.

Mr Hu had sought to get his right-hand man promoted to the CCP's Politburo in November 2012, but the death of Ling's son in a high-speed crash in March that year put the brakes on the father's political aspirations.

Worse, Ling was demoted after he was found to have tried to cover up the accident: His son was at the wheel of a Ferrari and had two young women with him.

Investigations into the fatal accident found Ling to be not only corrupt but politically ambitious as well: He got himself involved in an alleged plot to unseat Mr Xi that was hatched by then Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and security czar Zhou Yongkang.

The probe against Ling for "suspected serious discipline violations", a euphemism for graft, was announced in a brief statement by Xinhua on Dec 22 this year.

But Caixin Net, a Web-based news outlet known to have close connections with Mr Wang Qi-shan, head of the CCP's Central Disciplinary Commission, reported "various signs showing that there was some sort of alliance between Ling and Bo".

As both Bo and Zhou have been dealt with - the former serving a life sentence and the latter placed under arrest early this month - Ling's ouster came as no surprise.

However, his predicament could likely spell trouble for - or even implicate - Vice-President Li Yuanchao.

The Ling family is said to own two properties in Japan worth US$500 million (S$662 million). As an indication of how close the relationship between the two men is, one of the properties that had been held in the name of Ling's son was, after his death, transferred to Mr Li Haijin and Mr Gao Quanjian, Mr Li's son and brother-in-law respectively.

This could present Mr Xi with a golden opportunity to purge the tuanpai and tighten his grip on power.

In China, there are two rival groups vying for top power.

On one end are the princelings, who are descendants of revolutionary elders whose claim to power is based on blood ties.

On the other are officials associated with the Communist Youth League (CYL), or tuanpai. The CCP Constitution defines CYL cadres as "the party's reserve force".

Under a tacit rule set by the late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, power succession is to alternate between these two groups.

Deng handed power to Mr Jiang Zemin, a princeling, who was succeeded by Mr Hu, a tuanpai. Mr Hu was in turn succeeded by Mr Xi, a princeling.

If this power succession model is followed, a tuanpai member, possibly Mr Li, should succeed Mr Xi.

Given Deng's clout and charisma, no one dared oppose this arrangement.

When it came to Mr Xi, he was challenged by Bo, a fellow princeling, and an ambitious tuanpai member such as Ling.

Mr Xi managed to fend off the challenges but was prompted to pre-empt future attempts by getting rid of Ling's proteges who were party bosses of Shanxi, Jiangsu, Yunnan and Qinghai.

More purges could await tuanpai officials in the event that Mr Li is removed. This is because when he was the CCP's organisation chief, he had promoted a number of tuanpai cadres to provincial ministerial positions.

Should Mr Li be brought down or sidelined as a result of his close links to Ling, there may be no one from the tuanpai faction capable of mounting a credible challenge against the princelings when Mr Xi is due to step down in 2022.

Perhaps, just as important if not even more so, it will spell the demise of a succession system carefully engineered by Deng that allowed China to enjoy 20 years of peaceful and stable power transfer from 1992 to 2012.

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