Special thanks to Joshua Philipp, a senior analyst with China Decoding, for providing much of following information and theories.
It’s easy to get lost in the complexity of China’s internal politics. While China is ruled by one party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) itself is far from monolith. Within the CCP, numerous factions have long fought for control and influence. These on-going battles, in turn, have tremendous influence over both China’s internal and external policies and actions. For example, the evolving situation in North Korea, so often treated as the simple case of a perhaps unhinged national leader going of the rails, could actually be a symptom of the on-going power battles within the Chinese government itself.
Joshua Philipp, a senior analyst with China Decoding, has been following the developments in China and North Korea closely. He argues that, “it’s impossible to understand the situation in North Korea without first understanding the nature and intentions of the individuals who have propped up the Kim regime. It’s fairly well known that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has prevented the North Korean system from collapsing… But what is less known is that the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is not part of the faction that has sway over North Korea.”
These claims present a lot to unpack. China is currently led by President Xi Jingping, who has emerged as a powerful leader within China, as well as globally. However, according to Philipp, the power that Xi wields is far from absolute. While Xi has launched an aggressive reform campaign to crack down on corruption and to modernize China’s economy and government, he is also vying for influence with former President and CCP head Jiang Zemin.
Even before securing the Presidence in 1989 and up until now Jiang Zemin has remained one of the most important power players within China. He was arguably was the most important figure in the third generation of Communist leaders. Under Jiang, China remained an ossified “pay to play” environment. Any enterprises looking to conduct business were expected to pay kickbacks to Communist Party Leaders. Military leadership spots and other high-level political positions, meanwhile, could be flat out purchased.
This created a two-way system. The government became beholden to the officials it received gifts from, while the corrupt cronies themselves could be blackmailed by the government. This produced a rigid and corrupt political system with small groups of senior government officials and cronies controlling much of the economy and political apparatuses.
After Jiang retired, Hu Jintao came into office with reform-minded ambitions. Hu wanted to weaken the corrupt crony system and to increase the power of market forces and legitimate businesses. However, Jiang had all but set up a shadow government. Hu enjoyed little support within the regular government, he was effectively powerless. According to Philipp, Jiang’s faction continued to essentially run the government.
Fast forward to 2013 and Xi Jinping, who was vice-President under Hu, assumed the Presidency. Like Hu, President Xi has been bent on reforming and modernizing China. Also like Hu, Xi has faced considerable push back from the Jiang faction. Regardless, Xi has slowly been able to expand and consolidate his power. Over time, he was increased his influence over the civil bureaucracy and the military. However, Philipp believes that Xi’s control over diplomatic missions remains weak, and that the Jiang faction still enjoys considerable influence, especially where North Korea is concerned.
Philipps asserts that, “the influence over North Korea is held by a faction led by former CCP leader Jiang Zemin, whose faction has launched a soft coup against Xi and has forced Xi’s faction into a life and death struggle. This internal battle is the reason behind Xi’s “anti-corruption campaign.” The Jiang faction notably still holds strong control over the CCP’s diplomatic systems and its subversive overseas networks, and Xi has only recently begun to wrestle control of the military from the hands of the Jiang faction. Most notably, the Jiang faction still holds control over North Korea, and has in the past used this control as both distraction mechanism and as a pseudo “dead-man’s switch” for the survival of their regime.”
This brings us back to North Korea. While China is currently North Korea’s biggest trading partner and political protector, historically the country was more closely aligned with the Soviet Union. When Jiang assumed power, however, he moved quickly to establish strong relationships with North Korea. A quick Google search will reveal countless photos of Kim Jung Il and Jiang together, smiling and embracing each other warmly. It was under Jiang that China became North Korea’s principle protector, and it seems likely that Jiang’s still lingering influence is why China remains steadfastly aligned with the rogue state.
The relationship isn’t just for North Korea’s benefit. Philipp and China Decoding believe that the Jiang faction still controls many of the diplomatic missions, including the mission to North Korea. If so, North Korea would be one of the Jiang factions most important and powerful bargaining chips. Nuclear tests and other activities can be used to distract the global and national Chinese media from developments within China.
President Xi may well be prepared to take a less favorable position towards North Korea. However, Xi may lack the internal influence needed to actually bring North Korea under control or to even influence the Chinese government. Kim Jong Un may be taking marching orders, or at least guidance from the Jiang faction. The Jiang faction, in turn, can use North Korea to create distractions, and to cast a bad light on the Xi presidency. How influential or effective can Xi be if he can’t even bring North Korea to heel?
Philip notes that before President Xi met with President Trump, the Trump Administration was quite antagonistic towards China and especially its stance on North Korea. Following their April meetings at Mar-a-Lago, Trump warmed quickly to Xi, calling the Chinese President a “good man”, and showering him with other praises. Some media outlets went as far as to label the relationship a “bromance.”
Philipp believes that the meeting allowed President Xi to explain his position more fully, and to shed light on the simmering rivalry between his camp and the Jiang faction. Xi may have been able to convince Trump that, as of right now, he doesn’t have much direct control over North Korea as he’s still trying to reign in the diplomatic missions. If this conversation did occur, it’d help explain Trump’s quick warming to the Chinese President and their apparent “bromance.”
For now, much of the above remains speculation. However, the rivalry between the Jiang faction and President Xi offers a compelling theory to explain China’s seeming reluctance to reign North Korea in. Xi might simply lack the internal influence to actually do so, while Jiang may be holding onto North Korea as a sort of last resort and reliable tool to foment distractions. President Trump has been back on the offensive, bombarding China with more accusations of being “useless” as North Korea has continued to advance its nuclear and missile technologies. The Chinese government did green-light increased United Nations sanctions last week, perhaps hinting that Xi is expanding his influence in the diplomatic circles, and is willing to reign North Korea in.