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The Party Isn’t Over


Early in the years following China’s post-Mao reforms, a Chinese sociologist told Princeton’s Perry Link, “We’re like a big fish that has been pulled from the water and is flopping wildly to find its way back in. In such a condition the fish never asks where the next flip or flop will bring it. It senses only that its present position is intolerable and that something else must be tried.”1 Now that China’s economy is being hugely transformed, will this bring political change? And if it happens, will the change be incremental or radical? Either way, can the Communist Party survive?

The Party has always put survival first. In December 1989, six months after the Tiananmen Square events, when many intellectuals and a few entrepreneurs had participated in the demonstrations, Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin decreed, “We must make sure that the leading authority of all Party and state organs is in the hands of loyal Marxists.” Private entrepreneurs, or “exploiters,” as they were called, were banned from the Party.

But on July 1, 2001, President Jiang Zemin praised business leaders for hastening China’s modernization and proposed ending the ban against their joining the Communist Party. Bruce Dickson, a political scientist at the George Washington University, says that this proposal stunned the orthodox members of the hierarchy. “What could be more incongruous than having millionaires in a party created to represent the interests of workers and peasants?” one prominent member asked. Some of Jiang’s critics accused him of violating Party discipline and rules and warned that his proposal would destroy the Party itself.

In the statements and interviews that emerge from China, there are several very different approaches to these developments. Die-hard Maoists still insist that the freedom to pursue profit in private companies must be reined in and Party discipline reinforced. Others suggest that the economy should widen in a capitalist direction but that the Party, while flexible, must remain in charge to prevent chaos. This view was stated clearly by Deng Xiaoping in 1980:

Democracy without socialist legality, without the Party’s leadership and without discipline and order is definitely not socialist democracy. On the contrary, that sort of democracy would only plunge our country once again into anarchy and make it harder to truly democratize the life of the country, develop the economy and raise the people’s standard of living.2

Chinese writers also claim that most Chinese want more political change but within a Party-run system; when polled, few of them want real democracy with elections. A survey of popular attitudes supervised by Andrew Nathan of Columbia University in 1990, a year after the Tiananmen events, showed that much of the population had absorbed Deng’s analysis of what China needed. Very few of those polled wanted to get rid of the Communist Party’s leadership. Surprisingly, most of them claimed the government had little impact on their lives.3 It is often said about China that economic development eventually will lead to democratization. But as Andrew Nathan has noted, “When the entrepreneurial class is part of the ruling network, the bourgeois revolution is as liable to result in fascism as democracy.”4

Finally, there is the opinion of imprisoned or exiled democrats. One of the most eloquent of these is Fang Lizhi, the dissident astrophysicist who was a hero for many students until the Tiananmen events, when he took shelter in the American embassy; he now lives in the US. He recalls the Chinese who used to argue “that Western science was not appropriate to China. We no longer find such people because it is universally acknowledged that science has no East or West. Scientific laws apply everywhere. I believe that those arguing that democracy is unsuited to China will someday meet with a similar fate.”5

In two excellent books, Bruce Dickson and Robert Suettinger, a former member of the CIA and the National Security Council, put forward their views on the prospects for Chinese democracy. According to Dickson, “The evidence so far is quite clear: the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has repressed every popular movement calling for democratization and political reform.” Not only do “many Chinese seem to believe that the CCP is essential for maintaining political stability” but “most individuals and groups in China do not seek autonomy but rather closer embeddedness with the state.” He concludes: “The argument that the CCP can ultimately be the agent for gradual and peaceful political change in China (in other words that democratization in China will follow the transformation path) is not based on any tangible evidence.”

Robert Suettinger is far more optimistic. Admitting that “for social control purposes” (some would say keeping itself in power) the Party remains heavy-handed and repressive, he concludes that “in its quest for economic success that incorporates socialism and capitalism, the regime has assumed social, political, and ethical norms and goals more like those of the United States than of Mao’s China.” It would be hard to disagree that China today is in some ways more like the US and less like its Maoist predecessor. And it is true that the government permits all sorts of private companies to compete and sell on the international market. But this is far from saying that it is moving away from control by a single party.

Could the newly democratic Taiwan be a possible model or at least inspiration for China’s future? Dickson’s previous book, Democratization in China and Taiwan: The Adaptability of Leninist Parties,6 showed clearly—and he is an admirably concise writer—that Taiwan’s transition from Nationalist dictatorship to its present directly elected democracy, the first-ever on Chinese soil, could not provide a model for the mainland.

He points out that the Nationalists were a minority refugee regime from the mainland ruling over a large majority of Taiwanese, who, although ethnically Chinese, came from a different cultural and historical background. Most Taiwanese families trace their families back at least two hundred years, if not more. Although Taiwan’s dialect and customs originated in Fujian province just opposite Taiwan on the mainland, most Taiwanese and many children of mainlanders who arrived with the defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1948–1949 now describe themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.7 The Taiwanese also controlled much of the economy, following a long and much-resented economic domination by the Japanese. As a result, Chiang Ching-kuo, Chiang Kai-shek’s son and successor, only very slowly drew the Taiwanese first into local and then national affairs. Young Taiwanese, many of them educated in the United States, “created pressure within the KMT [Kuomintang/Nationalist Party] for democratization.”

Finally in 1996, the Taiwanese voted for Lee Teng-hui, a Taiwanese, as president. Unlike the KMT, which always seemed to Taiwanese to be “foreign,” the mainland CCP, an indigenous party, is not “motivated by the search for domestic sources of legitimacy [or] by the type of ethnic conflict that prompted Taiwanization.” Dickson believes that “there is little likelihood of the CCP following in the path of the KMT, transforming itself and presiding over the successful democratization of its political system.”

Because it will not bring its rivals into its own system of power, preferring to imprison them, the CCP, Dickson said in his earlier book, “has created a backlog of grievances against the party.” These will not vanish and the many worker and peasant riots and demonstrations of recent years are only the most visible dangers to Party rule.

Of course the Party is not going to wait patiently to collapse. Dickson first examines how the CCP has been changing its organization, membership, and officials to fit into the rapidly changing economy and society that Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms brought into being. “The debate inside and outside the party,” he writes, “concerns the compatibility of a Leninist ruling party alongside a market economy.”

Dickson’s second main theme is an analysis of the origins, activities, and goals of the “red capitalists,” the “entrepreneurs with close personal and political ties to the CCP.” After reviewing the scholarly literature on whether economic development leads to some form of democracy, Dickson concludes that it may do so, but neither inevitably nor immediately, and notes that the role of big Chinese investors and business leaders is “complex and ambiguous.” He notes that they may “prop up an authoritarian regime because they benefit materially or because they are worried that political change will harm their property interests.” Many of the one million Taiwanese now working in China are opposed to President Chen Shui-bian’s declarations of independence. Many of them flew back to Taiwan just before the recent election to vote against him.


Visiting China in the 1990s, Dickson conducted the first poll ever taken of Chinese entrepreneurs. It was not a fully representative survey, he writes, but it strongly suggested that the more successful, better-educated, and urban Chinese entrepreneurs are uneasy about fundamental political change and therefore favor a continuation of Party rule. For these businessmen, Dickson says, “autonomy,” i.e., cutting oneself off from the Party, “is akin to powerlessness.” He adds that while businessmen do not yet occupy leading political positions, they “have confidence in the ability of institutional mechanisms to deal with their concerns, and downplay the importance of personal relations as a factor in business success.” Here he ignores the potent role of corruption in relations between business and the Party. Official corruption is always mentioned first by Chinese when they discuss national problems, and several of the senior leaders have warned that it could bring the Party down.

But the regime’s collaboration with capitalists and landlords is indeed a reversal; they used to live under suspicion, enduring prison, torture, and death. Their “class backgrounds,” it was said, made them implacable enemies of the Communist state. Dickson points out that during the “high tides” of ideological frenzy, such as the Cultural Revolution, Party membership expanded enormously. Recruitment to the Party diminished whenever “Redness” became less important than expertise. During the more radical periods, candidates were selected sometimes for their class background, fervor, and obedience; at other times education, technical skills, and economic ambitions counted more heavily. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in the late Seventies, educated and skilled victims of the Maoist years were released from prison and encouraged to put what they knew at the service of economic reform. It was increasingly proclaimed that “to get rich is glorious,” a phrase attributed (without evidence) to Deng.

But because of the uneasy mixture of Reds and experts, Dickson observes, “the party at all levels was divided by factionalism.” By the Nineties, he also shows, even the Party itself was becoming irrelevant, in the eyes of both young Chinese who were making money and those who felt left behind. Party membership and authority were dwindling, as making a career in business and strengthening one’s ties to the Party were seen by many young rural entrepreneurs as incompatible. In the countryside Party cells were weak or had totally collapsed, their places taken by clans, churches, and criminal gangs, called triads. The Party, Dickson writes, grasped that to deepen its economic reforms and to save itself would require major internal changes, including adding members who would previously have been banned.

  1. 1

    Perry Link, Evening Chats in Beijing (Norton, 1992), p. 163.

  2. 2

    Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, 1975–1982 (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984), p. 341.

  3. 3

    Andrew J. Nathan, China’s Transition (Columbia University Press, 1997), especially Chapter 11; see The New York Review, August 13, 1998.

  4. 4

    Nathan, China’s Transition, p. 12.

  5. 5

    Fang Lizhi, Bringing Down the Great Wall (Knopf, 1990), p. 219.

  6. 6

    Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1997; reviewed in The New York Review, August 13, 1998.

  7. 7

    Professor Melissa J. Brown of Stanford University convincingly demonstrates the validity of a separate Taiwanese identity in her informative Is Taiwan Chinese? The Impact of Culture, Power, and Migration on Changing Identities (University of California Press, 2004).

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