Xi Jinping and Factionalism in the Party: From a Group of Losers to Winners

 By Ashu Maan

Factionalism [Zōngpài Zhǔyì; 宗派主义] has been an integral part of the Communist Party of China (CPC) since its inception. Contemporarily factionalism is seen as a group of winners/dominant in the Party. While factionalism had generally been seen as taboo by the Party, it has been rampant and leaders have tried to form their factions to consolidate power within. However, there was a time (especially during the Mao years) when factionalism was fret upon and generally associated to losers/opponents within the Party.

Mao and Factionalism Mao Zedong gave a speech on 1 February 1942 at the opening of the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Mao’s speech acted as a launch pad for the Yan’an Rectification Campaign [Yán’ān Zhěngfēng Yùndòng; 延安整风运动]. While the Rectification Campaign was a tool used by Mao to undermine his opponents and consolidate his position within the Party, Mao called the campaign as an attempt to root out factionalism within. In his speech, Mao pointed that there was a need to build a “centralized Party” free from “factional struggles”. In his speech[i] Mao even attacked the Party founders like Chen Duxiu and Zhang Guotao, calling them “dishonest” and accused them of factionalism.

The Rectification Campaign ended in 1945 at the 7th National Party Congress with Mao becoming the uncontested leader.The Rectification Campaign was the first mass-movement started by Mao to achieve political gains. During the movement, Mao used factionalism as a tool to target his opponents by accusing them of factionalism and then discrediting them politically. Therefore factionalism was generally associated with losers/opponents within the Party. Even after the end of the Rectification Campaign, Mao used factionalism to sideline his opponents or even his own people who had run out their usefulness. The most pertinent example is the “Gao Gang Affair”,. Mao made Gao Gang the Chairman of the National Planning Commission to undermine Zhou Enlai. However, on strong resistance of Zhou Enlai, Gao was accused[ii] of indulging in factional politics to become the General Secretary of the Party and ultimately committed suicide when Mao even refused to meet him.

Contemporary Factionalism in the Party

During Mao’s time he was the source of power in the Party. However, in the last three decades, the General Secretaries have used factionalism to exercise power within the Party. These factions have served as the source of power of these leaders. The Communist Youth League (CYL) served as the source of Hu Jintao’s power whereas the Shanghai Clique was the source of power of Jiang Zemin. The CYL and the Shanghai Clique had dominant position in the Party when Xi Jinping became the General Secretary. However, there is a distinction in Xi’s faction. Xi’s faction is full of his sub-ordinates from his days as provincial leader. Therefore, Xi becomes a source of their power. However, it is through his faction that Xi exercises power in the Party.

Xi started his struggle[iii] against the CYL faction and the Shanghai clique in 2013 through the anti-corruption campaign. Simultaneously, Xi also built his own faction and appointed his people in positions of power in the Party.

Origin of Factions

In China there is a social system called Guanxi[iv] [Guānxi; 关西]. In this system a network of people forms a relationship that is mutually beneficial to all of them. Factions in China are formed on the same lines. Theoretically factions in China have developed on three basis. The first is on the ‘basis of origin’ [Tóngxiāng; 桐乡], the second is on the ‘basis of educational background’ [Tóngxué; 同学], and the third is on the ‘basis of common organizational experience’ [Tōngháng; 通航].

In the last three decades factions have been built on these basis. The Shaanxi Gang[v] in Xi’s faction follows the system of Tóngxiāng while the Communist Youth League faction and the Shanghai Clique followed the system of Tōngháng.

20th Party Congress and the End of Factions!

The 20th National Party Congress concluded on 22 October 2022. The Party Congress resulted in strengthening Xi Jinping’s faction position in the CPC and the Politburo. Of the 24 members of the 20th Politburo, 17 members are from Xi’s faction and 7 members have no faction. Thus, bringing an end to the dominating position of the Communist Youth League Faction and the Shanghai Clique since the late 1990s.

Usually, Chinese leaders are big on symbolism. Xi Jinping also paid a symbolic visit[vi] to Yan’an with the 20th Standing Committee after the Party Congress. Yan’an is revered as the CPC’s ‘Mecca’ as it served as the Party headquarters during the Chinese Civil War. Yan’an was also the site of the 7th National Party Congress, that brought an end to Mao’s Rectification Campaign thus symbolising the end of factionalism and Mao’s consolidation of Power. The 20th Party Congress also put an end to the influence of the CYL faction and Shanghai Clique and indicated towards the dominance of Xi’s faction in the Party. Therefore, Xi’s visit to Yan’an was a symbol of his and his faction’s dominance in the CPC for the foreseeable future.


Historically, Factionalism was a negative connotation in the CPC. Mao used factionalism to marginalise his opponents. Therefore, it was associated with losers/marginalised leaders. However, in the past three decades factions have become a source of the General Secretaries and have been associated with winners/dominant leaders. Since Mao’s Era, the only phenomenon consistent is that factions are constantly falling and being overtaken by new ones. Mao’s faction succeeded the ‘Twenty-Eight and Half Bolsheviks”; Deng Xiaoping’s Reformist faction succeeded Mao’s; Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai Clique succeeded Deng’s; Hu Jintao’s CYL Faction worked/struggled with the Shanghai Clique; and Xi Jinping’s faction succeeded the CYL faction and the Shanghai Clique. Currently, Xi’s faction has the dominant position in the Party, but as the ‘Romance of Three Kingdoms’ gives teaches us that “The long united must be divided and the long divided must be united”, Xi’s Faction is bound to be succeeded by a new faction.


[i] Mao Zedong, “Rectify the Party’s Style of Work”, Marxist.org, 1 February 1942. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-3/mswv3_06.htm.

Accessed on 25 November 2022.

[ii] Shiraev, E., Yang, Z. (2014). The Gao-Rao Affair: A Case of Character Assassination in Chinese Politics in the 1950s. In: Icks, M., Shiraev, E. (eds) Character Assassination throughout the Ages. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137344168_13

[iii] Willy Lam, “Xi Jinping raises the Zhejiang clique, fights the communist youth league, Asia News, 31 May 2016. Available at: https://www.asianews.it/news-en/Xi-Jinping-raises-the-Zhejiang-clique,-fights-the-Communist-Youth-League-37642.html. Accessed on 25 November 2022.

[iv] Asialink, “Understanding the concept of ‘guanxi’”, Asia Link, 2017. Available at: https://asialinkbusiness.com.au/china/conducting-business-in-china/understanding-the-concept-of-guanxi?doNothing=1. Accessed on 25 November 2022.

[v] Cheng Li, “Xi Jinping’s inner circle”: The Shaanxi Gang”, Brookings, 30 January 2014. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Xi-Jinping-Inner-Circle.pdf. Accessed on 25 November 2022.

[vi] World News, “Xi Jinping invokes Mao Zedong in visit to cradle of Communist Revolution”, Hindustan Times, 29 October 2022. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/xi-jinping-invokes-mao-zedong-in-visit-to-cradle-of-communist-revolution-101667023574006.html. Accessed on 25 November 2022.