Academic Sources: Victor Shih at the Journal of East Asian Studies on Chinese Elites



With the 7th Party Congress coming to a close, some of the most significant outcomes are likely to relate to promotions and demotions rather than to the policy record, which was predictably disappointing. But how to study such elite circulation? And does it matter?   

China provides a much richer literature on the topic, and one that North Korea watchers should emulate moving forward. As editor of the Journal of East Asian Studies, I was pleased to review a special issue pulled together by Victor Shih of some exciting new research on elite politics in China. The collection has now appeared as the inaugural issue of the journal at Cambridge University Press,

The project is timely. 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?

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; similar mechanisms are no doubt at work in North Korea as well, centered on the Kim family.

But this perceived stability can prove fragile if challengers such as Bo Xilai or Jang Song Thaek depart from the script. The papers in the 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; many are relevant for how we might study North Korea going forward.

Among the key findings of the special issue:

  • Formal institutions in China, such as the retirement rule, may lessen the incentive to engage in uncooperative behavior because younger officials are assured of future promotion opportunities. North Korea has clearly had no such rules, and the leadership has—until recently—been gerontocratic; that might be changing as the new generation comes in.
  • Elites in China and Vietnam have strategies for identifying uncooperative colleagues and act to prevent these uncooperative individuals from becoming too powerful. The North Korean system has relied more on outright purges from the top.
  • 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 enhance his ability not only to govern but to promote his favored faction. By contrast, we still don’t know that much about who the Kim family favors exactly, although both the family itself and descendants of Kim Il Sung’s confidantes have risen to the top.
  • Network analysis of China 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; is this going on in North Korea?
  • Shih’s collection shows how new methods can help identify interest groups within the state and party apparatus and how their power and preferences influence policy outcomes. To date, we have very little on North Korea suggesting that there are factional differences over policy; the monolithic structure of the system discourages it, but is it there beneath the surface?

A distinctive feature of the collection is that the authors use a range of new data, including new datasets based on biographical data, expert surveys, and Internet searches. 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. 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.

The Chinese and North Korean political systems differ in quite significant ways; the former—at least until Xi Jinping—was much more institutionalized and obviously remains so. But work of this sort now poses a positive challenge to North Korean researchers: to see whether this sort of analysis can be carried over to understanding how North Korea functions; a few efforts listed below have started the process.

Other work of interest on North Korean elites:

John Ishiyama on the North Korean leadership.

Ken Gause on the North Korean leadership.

Haggard, Herman and Ryu on mapping the succession.

Michael Madden's North Korea Leadership Watch.  

More From