None, because the strongest forces outside the ruling clique are a cult, nationalists, and Maoists. If they do make a democracy, it will be a democracy in name only with 1-2 parties that are made up of ex CCP officials.
The following is a list of potential rivals to the current leadership:
Category 1: Significant Forces
Falun Dafa – Formerly China’s largest religion, Falun Dafa in exile is the the most vocal and well funded Chinse opposition group. Most of the movement’s 100 million followers were middle aged women, but the movement since the crackdown has been led by wealthy and well-educated exiles, who have funded a vast empire of opposition activities. Falun Dafa’s projects include two written mouthpieces: minghui and epoch times, TV network New Tang Dynasty, the Shen Yun cultural festival (which ends with a depiction of a typhoon destroying Shanghai), and English language propaganda outlet China Uncensored. Falun Gong also runs Tuidang yundong, a volunteer effort which does mail and phone campaigns in China to encourage CCP members to resign their membership. Their claimed “body count” is larger than the total number of CCP members. In the late 1990s, Falun Gong posed a potential (but unrealized) threat to the Chinese government, as it claimed over 100 million members on the mainland in good authority and organized Tiananmen-style marches against the CCP. The religion was severely suppressed by the Jiang Zemin administration, and today its adherents in mainland China most likely number in the hundreds of thousands.
Key to the success of the suppression campaign was a 2001 self-immolation incident, which Falun Dafa stated was staged. Western observers were quick to point out the incongruities in the incident (including the presence of firefighters just yards away from where the incident took place, ready to put out the flames). The CCP has since done interviews with one of the perpetrators to try to counteract this narrative. At the time, the self-immolation incident painted Falun Gong practitioners as insane, and created a social stigma towards the religion that aided its persecution.
While well-funded and well-organized, Falun Gong is seen in the same light by Chinese as Westerners see Scientology, as its Tuidang campaign is widely parodied on Chinese social media.
Maoists – Probably the most serious threat to the Xi regime today, and one of the few forces that is still regularly demonstrating. The purge of Maoists is ongoing but has been more subtle than crackdowns against other forces, because there is sympathy for Mao within the government, and especially within the senior ranks of the PLA. High-ranking Maoists inside the PLA include Major General Li Shenming, who contradicted the CCP’s official history by denying that the Great Leap Forward led to human deaths (on the CCP’s own website, mind you), and Mao’s grandson, Mao Xinyu. While retaining their rank within the PLA, both men were removed from important posts early in the Xi administration. Still, sympathy for Maoism within the government means that Maoist agitators like Yuan Yuhua continue to give speeches at universities. The government has vaccilated on the main Maoist agitation/news outlet, Maoqi Network. The site was banned and unbanned several times before finally being unbanned in 2017.
Perhaps the most famous Chinese Maoist in the West was Bo Xilai, party secretary of Chengdu. Bo made waves in Western and Chinese media as the first high-profile corruption case prosecuted by the Xi administration. Western outlets suspected that his prosecution was in response to his public campaign for a position on the Standing Committee, China’s highest governing body. Public campaigning to influence CCP promotions is a taboo within the Communist Party, and Bo’s neo-Maoist movement was dismantled as a result. However, his supporters and subordinates reorganized into the “Zhixiandang”, a Chongqing Maoist party, but it was banned later that year. Low-level protests continued, reportedly until 2017.
Maoism in China is divided into several segments. In 1989, Tiananmen leader Chen Ziming said that Maoists were divided into two categories: those with fond memories of Mao, and those who thought Mao was still relevant. This is still true today. Most Chinese are at least partially in the first category, especially rural people, the elderly, and those who feel left out of the country’s development. While the party has grown internally critical of Mao, he is still widely praised in popular media.
The second category are the left wing of the CCP, whose fortunes have waxed and waned, but who still constitute a force. After Mao’s death in 1976, the left wing “Gang of Four”, led by his wife, was purged by Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping. However, a remnant of this faction survived, led by future premier Li Peng. During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the left within the CCP recovered their prominence after the right, led by Zhao Ziyang, failed to contain the protests with an appeasement approach. Li convinced Deng Xiaoping to purge the right, crack down on the protests, and restore state control over the economy. After Li’s retirement, the left-CCP was led by Luo Gan. Much of the left has been purged by Xi after his takeover, but some officials survive.
Besides Zhixiandang, there have been other short-lived attempts to organize a Maoist party separate from the CCP. One party attracted media attention in 2009, but was last reported about in 2012.
Nationalists – By far the most potent faction today. While Maoism is popular among the PLA’s generals, ultranationalism runs strong among the junior officers, who routinely (and very publicly) brainstorm ways to destroy the US and conquer Asia. The most outspoken member of this group is Colonel Dai Xu, who founded his own think tank dedicated to sinking the US navy, and writes a column devoted to rallying his countrymen against America and China’s regional enemies. In case this wasn’t enough, he also has a blog. He still holds his rank in the armed forces while doing all this, mind you, and is a senior lecturer at the PLA war college.
Also prominent in this group is Colonel Liu Mingfu, who has written a number of books about China’s prospects to create a new world order, based on “superior cultural genes”. The “hawks”, as they’re called in China, appear to be Xi’s favored faction of the PLA. Xi has adopted a number of their recommendations for the modernization of the PLA, and appointed Wei Fenghe, a missile commander connected to the group, as defense minister last year. While generally outranked by the Maoist old guard in the senior ranks, the nationalists have the upper hand because their seniors have largely been kicked upstairs since 2013-15.
Nationalism is extremely popular among ordinary Chinese, so much so that one could say China’s dominant ideology is not Communism, but nationalism. The nine dash line is the single most popular WeChat avatar, and the CCP frequently tries to calm down grassroots nationalist responses, such as the boycott on Japanese goods and the public’s response to the Xinjiang question. In other cases, the regime mobilizes nationalism for its own benefit. Despite this, there is no nationalist popular organizations like there are for Maoists, meaning the nationalist faction, for the time being, is strictly a military one.
Category 2: Illegal Cults
Illegal religions in China are those not controlled or registered under state associations. Since 2003, they have been persecuted by the 610 Office, which was originally dedicated only to Falun Gong. Cults have been a major source of rebellion throughout Chinese history, and the CCP’s current policy of suppressing any religion that gets too large is a mirror of Imperial policy. This in turn makes cult members criminals in the eyes of the central government, and makes them easy to stir to rebellion.
Spirit Sect – Founded in 1986 by a man named Hua Xue, this Christian sect has attracted a following among rural peasantry in Shandong. Hua was sentenced to forced labor in 1990 for “hooliganism”, but his cult persisted and several members were put on trial in 2014.
Disciple Society – Influenced by the suppressed “Jesus Family”, Disciple Society was founded in 1989 by Ji Sanbao, and preached that prayers and faith could increase the grain harvest. The cult’s third leader, Chen Shirong, was jailed, but the cult retains a membership potentially in the hundreds of thousands, and made headlines in 2014 with a suicide controversy.
Three Grades of Servants – A cult at one point retaining hundreds of thousands of members, whose existence today is questionable. In 2018, the government convicted Yunnan peasants allegedly part of this organization, but this was disputed by cult watchers. In the 2000s, the organization was involved in assassinations against its rival, Eastern Lightning.
Eastern Lightning – Probably the largest illegal cult in China besides Falun Dafa, Eastern Lightning is a considerable force with 4 million members. The organization has “defeated” a number of smaller cults and occupies a prominent position in sections of rural China. It runs a very amusing youtube channel and has been implicated in murders.
Category 3: Insignificant/Defunct Forces
Guo Wengui – A billionaire who escaped to his Manhattan loft and claimed to have inside knowledge of the CCP’s corruption. His documents have since been discredited. The CCP evidently doesn’t consider him much of a threat, since their response has been muted. Apparently, he was still running his company through local proxies in 2018, and probably still is to this day. A pretty cool guy in person though.
Weiquan – While not really a political faction or movement, weiquan are the Chinese equivalent of cause lawyers, offering free legal counsel to people who have been persecuted by the government. In 2016, several were arrested in a limited crackdown.
New Citizen’s Movement – A grassroots organization which staged small protests in China in the early 2010s, based largely on the work of Xu Zhiyong. The movement spread its literature through social media, but was largely destroyed by crackdown in 2013-14.
Democracy Party of China – A movement founded by Tiananmen activists based out of New York City. Until relatively recently, it was running “infiltration campaigns”, which were essentially mail campaigns into China to undermine the CCP. The last campaign was photographed on their website, dated to 2014. It is still holding rallies in the US, the most recent of which was last month.
New Democracy Party of China – A short lived party, founded by a human rights activist. He was arrested in 2008, and the site went defunct the year after.
Category 4: Imaginary Forces
“Princelings” and “Tuanpai” – An outdated and over-simplistic view of CCP internal politics that has since fallen out of favor. When Xi took over, many commentators hypothesized that there were two factions, “Princelings” and the Tuanpai, or “Youth League” faction, who came from different backgrounds (party families vs. peasant/worker families) and existed in different patronage networks. This view has since been contradicted by Xi’s behavior. In the “first round” of Xi’s purges, officials of commoner background were the main victims, but afterr 2016, he enlisted commoners to purge fellow princelings. The “princeling” faction was never that united to begin with, and it has now become clear that Xi intended from the beginning to eliminate people on both “sides”.
“Jiang faction” and “Hu faction” – Another over-simplistic view of the CCP – at the start of Xi’s first purge, some observers believed he was getting rid of the allies of Jiang and Hu. There is some truth in this – many of Jiang’s old allies, like former security chief Zhou Yankang, were removed, but others were incorporated. Hu Jintao’s protege, Li Keqiang, has become Xi’s long-time right hand man. Just like the princelings and tuanpai, these factions were probably never that coherent to begin with.
The CCP does not seem to have “factions” in the traditional sense (groups following a leader), but instead has loose conglomerations of people with the same ideas. While details about the CCP’s current deliberations are obscure, we have a lot of information about CCP infighting in the 70s and 80s, dealing with the post-Mao crises and Tiananmen Square, and in 2012 dealing with the Bo Xilai crisis. All the evidence points to the CCP being an “every man for himself” environment, where the leader calls meetings of the Standing Committee to decide major issues, and everyone bickers and tries to assert their own viewpoint. The arguments about China’s growth trajectory in the 70s and 80s led to Hua Guofeng’s retirement and Deng Xiaoping’s instatement as Paramount Leader. The Tiananmen crisis led to Zhao Ziyang briefly convincing Deng and the Standing Committee on his appeasement approach, before Li Peng convinced them it wasn’t working. In the purge of Bo Xilai, the entire Standing Committee met to discuss the issue, and came to an agreement that Bo should be purged. The CCP pursues no consistent policy besides what the group decides, which depends on the persuasiveness of each individual and how the crisis shapes in favor of one position or the other. The “plasticity” of the CCP is key to understanding its response to any potential crisis.
So with this in mind, how could the CCP be overthrown, and by whom? There are a couple possibilities.
- Revolution: The most hoped for outcome in the West is that the CCP will be completely overthrown after an economic downturn or major scandal. The security apparatus is very strong and good at crackdowns, as shown by the numerous links in this post and by the crackdown against Falun Gong in the 2000s, so I’d rule this one out. If the CCP is overthrown, there will need to be people on the inside who are okay with it – in other words, a coup.
- Nationalist Coup: A far more likely scenario. An economic downturn or scandal leads to protests. The military nationalists decide to dispense with the overbearing party, which is “lacking in ambition and vision”. To gain approval from the protesters and achieve their goal of reunification with Taiwan, they declare a “democracy” before forming a conservative ruling party equivalent to the Japanese LDP.
- Maoist Coup: Less likely now than six years ago due to the sidelining of many of the Maoist generals. In this scenario, the senior officers move faster than the “hawks” and force the Politburo to elect a new Standing Committee consisting of the left-CCP, triggering a hardline phase in China’s development.
- Reform: Far more likely than revolution, there is a chance that, when faced with protests in response to a major shock, the Standing Committee authorizes limited elections. This is less likely than 2 and 3 simply because the CCP’s policy is to suppress dissent, “learning from the lessons of the USSR”. I’ve written more about this here. If this happens, it will most likely spiral out of control as in Eastern Europe and lead to #2.
- Revolt: The most likely scenario overall, and not a hopeful one. In the face of a shock, certain illegal cults and isolated opposition groups take matters into their own hands and start an armed rebellion in the poorer parts of China. Ever-hopeful international rivals try to support these rebellions, but ultimately they go nowhere.
What would a democratic China look like?
The most potent forces in the public consciousness today are Maoism and Nationalism. The “mainstream” CCP today is a compromise between these two lines of thought, which has produced a capitalist middle ground that people “consent” to because it’s working so far. A Chinese democracy would be the same thing, just polarized. There would be a Maoist Party, appealing to people who feel left behind in the New China, and a Nationalist Party, appealing to the elite, who would trade majorities with each other. They would broadly agree on a much more aggressive foreign policy than what the CCP, motivated mainly by economic interests, is pursuing now.
Because everyone with any kind of government experience is or was a CCP member, the parties would be led by largely the same people who are running the CCP today. Just, instead of using the “collective decision making process” I described in the section about CCP plasticity, they’d form 2 distinct factions – leftist and rightist – and fight their battles in public.