Introducing Contentious Elites in China: New Evidence and Approaches, an upcoming special issue of the Journal of East Asian Studies.

Recent purges in China have dismissed former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and former Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Xu Caihou as well as scores of other high level officials in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Has Chinese politics shifted in a fundamental way?  In the upcoming inaugural issue of the Journal of East Asian Studies at Cambridge University Press, a group of scholars present exciting new research on elite politics in China.

Despite apparent institutionalization during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao years, Chinese politics has a long history of contention within the party, with powerful patrons implicitly or explicitly competing with one another through factions: the informal networks of reciprocity formed by senior leaders to protect themselves against potential challengers. Most of the time, formal institutions and established norms manage to keep elite conflict in check.  To remain in power, the upper echelons of the party cooperate with one another in the interest of shared control. But this perceived stability can prove fragile if challengers such as Bo Xilai or even the party secretary general defect from status quo arrangements.  The papers in this volume explore the factional dynamics that have driven politics in the post-Mao era and the factors that may produce internal stresses in the future.

Among the key findings of the special issue:

  • Formal institutions, such as the retirement rule, may lessen the incentive to engage in uncooperative behavior because younger officials are assured of future promotion opportunities.
  • Elites in China and Vietnam have strategies for identifying uncooperative colleagues and act to prevent these uncooperative individuals from becoming too powerful.
  • Having ties with the party secretary generally increases one’s likelihood of promotion relative to peers who either have no such ties or ties only with other Politburo Standing Committee members. Besides showing that factions matter, this result also suggests that the agenda setting and personnel powers of the party secretary enhances his ability not only to govern but to promote his favored faction.
  • Nonetheless, network analysis suggests that an actor’s position in the midst of various elite networks may be a better predictor of political survival than direct ties to individual patrons. Ambitious elites build implicit coalitions to advance to the top of the party hierarchy.
  • New methods can help identify interest groups within the state and party apparatus and how their power and preferences influence policy outcomes.

A distinctive feature of the collection is that the authors use a range of new data to reach their conclusions, including new datasets based on biographical data, expert surveys, and Internet search.  The papers also deploy a range of new methods, including social network analysis and agent-based modeling.  The new data, which are mostly derived from publicly available sources, promise to vastly improve the replicability of results in the study of Chinese politics.  The collection of systematic data on elite networks, for example, permits a much more nuanced understanding of elite factions than previous scholarship that depended on elite interviews, close reading of memoirs, and analysis of selected official publications. For example, instead of debating whether factional ties matter for promotion, quantitative measurements of factional ties allow scholars to map networks and gauge the impact of factional ties with individual senior leaders in the CCP and under specific political environments.

This special issue exemplifies the mission of the Journal of East Asian Studies; to present cutting-edge research on substantive issues of importance to our understanding of East Asia. Don’t forget to sign up for Journal of East Asian Studies content alerts to ensure you are notified as soon as the special issue is published.

Victor Shih, University of California San Diego

Stephan Haggard, Editor, Journal of East Asian Studies

Update 10/05/2016

Click here to read the special issue.

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