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The Party Isn’t Over

By the 15th Party Congress in 1997, the number of Party members with at least a high school education was over 43 percent, up from 13 percent in 1978. Over 90 percent of the Central Committee had been to college. Of the entrepreneurs surveyed by Dickson more than 40 percent were Party members, a percentage far greater than in the population as a whole. These investors and leaders of private companies saw themselves as “partners, not adversaries, of the state.” The more successful the urban entrepreneurs become, Dickson discovered from his polling, the more closely they adhere to the concept of Party rule and the less they favor substantial political change. These Red capitalists and other rich men and women “believe,” he found, that the business associations they belong to “represent both their interests and the viewpoint of the government. While they are not demanding civil, political, or social rights that would clearly mark themselves as citizens…a more explicit concept of citizenship [may] emerge.”

Accompanying the rise in education and skill has been growth in the number of associations, usually professional or business-related, to which many Chinese now belong. These include, according to Dickson,

…independent entrepreneurs, owners of private enterprises, enterprises with foreign investment, organized labor [unions not under Party control are forbidden], Cath- olic and Protestant churches [only those deemed “patriotic” and under Party control], writers, scientists, and other functional interests.

What cannot exist are associations or political groups opposed to the Party. Dickson observes that in China, unlike some other countries, these associations have not led to a civil society in which individuals and groups express interests contrary to the policies of the state. Chinese associations seek close relations with the regime. The increasingly successful people in this “non-critical realm,” as Dickson calls it, are “primarily concerned with the management and regulation of collective goods and services but less interested in changing the political system itself.” Nor are Red capitalists the only group who have drawn closer to the regime. After decades of persecution many intellectuals, as in imperial times, see themselves as “loyal remonstrators” rather than severe critics, much less revolutionaries. Perhaps they are weary of living in fear and welcome having a secure place in a growing economy. “The truly dissident voices are relatively small in number and are perhaps held in higher regard abroad than they are within China.”

What is emerging, Dickson writes, are “corporatist structures…as a substitute for coercion, propaganda, and central planning to maintain party hegemony.” These new “structures” include not only groups of businessmen, but of unions, Catholic and Protestant churches, writers, and scientists, all in associations sanctioned by the state. To belong to unsanctioned groups, however, such as the underground Catholic Church, which has many more adherents than the approved body, or an unofficial political party, such as the Democrats (nearly all of whom are in jail or exile), is to risk suppression and persecution.

Why do the new rich join the Party? Dickson says that to them it is seen as the place from which they gain influence on financial policies, obtain scarce materials, and secure loans and tax benefits. Inside the Party, professionals and business people are shielded from unfair Party and legal decisions, and from competition from outside the Party. Such are the benefits for those inside the system of the “Leninist logic [which] still prevails in China.”

The Red capitalists, Dickson concludes, reinforce the Party’s commitment to economic reform, growth, and productivity, and, in doing so, they may be contributing to the undermining of the Party’s Leninist foundations. It is certainly true that Chinese can now much more openly criticize the regime, so long as they don’t take public action against it. But in Dickson’s view, what is really doing the damage to the Leninist state, which its rich domestic partners do little to challenge, are some of the consequences of the current system—increasing inequality, corruption (which then President Jiang warned more than once could “bring us down”), joblessness, and the degradation of the environment. Unfortunately, Dickson could not have conducted a parallel poll of workers, peasants, and low-level state employees, many of whom have been openly expressing grievances. Only when such information is available will we begin to have an adequate account of the tensions in China.

Still Dickson has no doubt that the inequality, corruption, and other distortions of the economy require genuine political reform—which the Party and its well-to-do members so far do not permit. Genuine reform would include open debates about policy between groups and organizations that are not officially “supervised,” a legal system with genuine commitment to impartial law—“in short,” as Dickson says, “democratization.” Very likely, such reforms, more surely than corruption, would bring the Party down; the Party continues to insist that reform of the kind Dickson mentions would lead to “chaos.”8

Of course it is the Party itself that since 1949 has produced most of China’s problems and disasters. Nonetheless, it has persuaded many Chinese and not a few Western experts that, to avoid chaos, it must remain in place. “Indeed,” as Bruce Dickson says near the end of his highly informative, if pessimistic, analysis, “the lesson of the CCP’s tenure as the ruling party in China suggests that it forcibly represses all efforts by non-state actors to expand the parameters of political participation.” No wonder that fundamental political reform is hard to discern.


In Beyond Tienanmen, Robert Suettinger writes: “The regime has assumed social goals, political, and ethical norms and goals more like those of the United States than of Mao’s China.” This sentence occurs one page before the end of Mr. Suettinger’s 442 pages of text and it astonished me for two reasons: to say that China is more like the US nowadays than like the hellish place that was Mao’s China is not saying much; but more importantly, Mr. Suettinger’s book raises many questions about this conclusion. In a masterful summary of why the regime cracked down as heavily as it did on the Falun Gong spiritual movement beginning in April 1999, Mr. Suettinger comments that although China is far more open than it was ten years ago, President Jiang Zemin’s campaign against the Falun Gong made plain his “fundamental Leninist attitudes”:

It revealed a man—and a party—still frightened of its own population and convinced of the need to extirpate every organization or social movement capable of developing political alternatives to the Communist Party…. It portrayed…a political party unprepared for political reform, unable to resist the temptation to view the world through ideological blinders.

As for any similarity to the United States, Mr. Suettinger says, “the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China has remained one of wary distrust that occasionally deteriorates into enmity.”

Mr. Suettinger was a high-ranking official at the heart of US–China policymaking, in the State Department, CIA, and National Security Council, who observed discussions between sen- ior American and Chinese leaders. His book is notably balanced, occasionally eloquent, and never tedious. It is a careful survey of relations between Washington and Beijing from Tiananmen in 1989 to the final years of the Clinton presidency, and concentrates on why this relationship has always been awkward and sometimes in crisis. Policymaking, he says, is governed less by grand strategy than by personalities, domestic politics, and, perhaps above all, unpredictable events.

Suettinger, who must have been soaked in classified information during his long government career, insists that he has used only open sources and interviews. Some of his anecdotes certainly are telling. A minor example is the meeting in Beijing in June 1996 between Anthony Lake, national security adviser to President Clinton, and President Jiang Zemin. Suettinger was present. Lake had brought a folder of “talking points” on trade and human rights issues, but Jiang ignored these points and in excellent English discussed the similar watery origins of the words “Jiang”—river—and “Lake,” and went on to express views on poetry, microchips, and philosophy. “Lake looked at his staff, shrugged, and put his talking points away.” The Americans concluded that Jiang was happy with the progress of the US–China negotiations up to that point and saw no need to say anything substantial.

A very large event was the accidental US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999. The Chinese believed and continue to believe that the strike was deliberate. Thousands of Chinese, some spontaneously, some officially directed, demonstrated in the streets of Beijing and attacked the US embassy. Neither country, Suettinger rightly says, and not for the first time, understood the reactions of the other. Perhaps the biggest effect was on young Chinese, who had admired the US and now “felt betrayed and humiliated. Their rage was real, and the effects of it persisted.” Suettinger went to Beijing in June 1999 to discuss the bombing with Foreign Ministry officials just before the arrival of Thomas Pickering, President Clinton’s personal envoy. Suettinger’s hosts “made it clear that nothing Pickering said would be accepted by the Chinese government as a satisfactory explanation.”9 The bombing was gradually mentioned less often but the dispute over it was not officially resolved.

Taiwan, Suettinger emphasizes, is a major and “intractable” obstacle to smooth or merely agreeable relations between Beijing and Washington. The conflict between the two Chinas has lasted fifty years, ever since Beijing claimed sovereignty over the island and Washington has made this impossible; in 1996 the US moved a naval task force near Taiwan to make clear that it would prevent either missile attacks or an invasion. As he says, Taiwan is a “core issue” for Beijing, bound up in China’s history and perceived destiny. He might have noted that a foreign policy often based on resentment about long-distant national insults is unimpressive. It is an issue, moreover, on which the People’s Liberation Army has always been consulted and insists on having a part in making policy. Taiwan can cause a sudden crisis in the China–US relationship. In 1992, President George Bush announced that he would sell 150 F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan. This was a political move intended to gain support in Texas and to thwart the presidential ambitions of H. Ross Perot. Bush told the Chinese ambassador, “This is going ahead. It’s political. Tell Deng Xiaoping that is something I have to do.” (As of mid-April, with the outcome of the recent Taiwan presidential election still uncertain, the policy of the Bush administration remained unclear.)

Beijing, Suettinger implies, has no friends; only temporary allies, and the sale was “a fundamental misreading of China’s position and reaction.” Whatever the elder Bush had imagined about the friendships he had established with Chinese leaders since the days he represented the US in Beijing in 1974, he was denounced. The Chinese, convinced that Washington had broken an agreement about what sort of weapons the US could sell Taiwan, broke another agreement and “very publicly” sold a nuclear power reactor to Iran.

Most surprising, and most insightful, is Suettinger’s insistence that the Tiananmen “massacre” lies at the heart of the uneasy relations between the Chinese and the Americans. Many China experts advise those like me who witnessed the Tiananmen repression to “put it behind you.” Mr. Suettinger writes: “There has been little forgetting and less forgiving of what the two countries accused each other of in 1989.” He states that each side contends that the other has misrepresented what happened in Beijing in the spring of 1989. This preoccupation lies behind and undermines attempts to deal with human rights problems, Taiwan, trade difficulties, arms proliferation, and periodic reinforcements of stereotypes. The most fundamental aspect of the stumbling block Tiananmen represents, Mr. Suettinger astutely observes, is this:

The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party remains a product of Tiananmen. Few of them would be in their current positions of power had not the events of twelve years ago taken place as they had…. Their legitimacy is tied to Tiananmen,…[and] they have punished with jail or exile or isolation all who have questioned those judgments, piling injustice on top of error.

They also deny access to China to the American scholars Perry Link, Andrew Nathan, and Orville Schell, who were involved in preparing The Tiananmen Papers, the documentary collection (which Mr. Suettinger regards as largely authentic) purporting to show how Deng and his closest comrades decided to intervene in the student demonstrations.10

Although the new government is often described, with some justice, as more open than its predecessors, this openness does not extend to many of the Party’s traditional concerns. In its most recent report the State Department says that human rights have regressed during the last year. In Tibet the authorities continue to lock up monks and nuns who demand independence, and refuse to negotiate with “the criminal Dalai.” Beijing threatens Taiwan with extreme violence if it appears to be pursuing independence. In early December, Major General Peng Guangquan and Senior Colonel Luo Yuan warned that if Beijing decided to regain Taiwan by force it would willingly sacrifice the 2008 Olympics, foreign investment, economic progress, and good foreign relations, and be prepared to suffer high casualties.11 Some American experts on the Chinese military, who have held senior political and military positions, suggested at a recent seminar at Oxford that if Taiwan seemed to be losing in a military conflict with China, the US would consider “taking the war to the Mainland.”

Disturbed by months of peaceful agitation for greater democracy in Hong Kong, Beijing now labels the leaders of the movement as unpatriotic. One high Chinese official has warned that if Hong Kong voters continue to demand that a genuinely representative legislative council be elected, Beijing might abolish even the present council, which is almost powerless.

In a recent study published in China, “The Condition of China’s Peasantry,” the two authors expose in detail the deteriorating condition of China’s 900 million farmers, whose incomes have generally remained low, while east-coast urban wealth has risen. They describe the corruption of rural officials, and accuse ex-President Jiang Zemin and ex-Premier Zhu Rongji of covering up peasant poverty, which, the authors say, has resulted in “one country with two systems.” In response to this study, the government has promised rural reforms aimed at improving the lives of peasants.12

Perhaps the most astonishing development this year is the letter about the Tiananmen events of 1989 to the National People’s Congress written by Dr. Jiang Yanyong, the man who last April publicly accused the government of lying about the extent of SARS, which resulted in the dismissal of the health minister and an admission by President Hu Jintao that some officials had concealed the crisis. The repression at Tiananmen remains the most sensitive political issue in China, although some Western experts on China say it is a dead issue. Normally, even mentioning it as a problem attracts arrest and detention. In his letter, written in February to Premier Wen Jiabao, Dr. Jiang described the Tiananmen demonstrators in 1989 as “innocent patriots” opposing a corrupt government of “racketeers.” Dr. Jiang claimed that most Chinese supported the students in 1989 and want a reassessment of the killings. Most sensationally, he wrote that in 1998, just before he died, Yang Shangkun, who was the president at the time of the Tiananmen events, admitted that what had happened in Tiananmen had been a huge mistake by the Party which some day must be corrected.

In suggesting what the US should do, Suettinger shows himself to be a cool, or to use one of his favorite terms, “clear-eyed,” pragmatist. Although he values human rights, he plainly thinks that the US policy statements expressing concerns about political prisoners, Tibet, Taiwan, and democracy only elicit flinty reactions from the Chinese and obstruct progress in matters like trade and arms on which Beijing has proved itself prepared to deal if it is not fundamentally challenged. Suettinger agrees with Rebecca Hersman, author of Friends and Foes,13 that those “individual members of Congress with single-issue agendas for China—human rights, nonproliferation, abortion, and religious freedom—may have significant influence on the larger policy agenda.” This noisy crowd, Suettinger believes, “arguably contributed to decisions that turned out to be erroneous—for example, Clinton’s linking of human rights standards and most favored nation status.” In the end the Chinese got what they wanted and did not back down on human rights.

Suettinger wants the American– Chinese relationship to be “managed” by cooperation between bureaucracies—by the National Security Council in the US and a “national security small group” in China. This must be done to counter the groups within each country that see the other as an enemy.

Suettinger waits for the very end of his excellent book to reveal these thoughts. I cannot agree with them. The Chinese bureaucracies can in fact be all too adept at “managing” antagonistic popular reactions to US policies. Suettinger echoes the offi-cial position in Beijing when he warns that political reform in China could collapse into “social destabilization, ultranationalism, or aggressive expansionism.” The Party, too, warns that “only we can rule China,” and that if it falls there will be “instability,” and locks up democrats, Falun Gong members, underground Catholics, Tibetan Buddhists, and Xinjiang Muslims. The Communist Party may be “odious… on occasion,” Mr. Suettinger warns, but we must deal with it. He predicts that the Party will survive by “permitting its citizens to live, work, think, and communicate as they will.” Yet only thirty or so pages before this Mr. Suettinger describes a “Leninist” regime, “frightened of its own population and convinced of the need to extirpate every organization or social movement capable of developing political alternatives to the Communist Party.”

In fact the need to “manage” the conflicting expectations of the US and China—whatever that means—is not the real lesson of Robert Suettinger’s superb book, although it is a common view among China experts. He seems to me to point in the opposite direction: the more voices calling for change in China the better, and if this means that the US officials find themselves in awkward positions, that is what should distinguish Washington from Beijing. In China, until recently, dissenters were condemned as “counterrevolutionaries.” Nowadays they are described, simply, as “criminals.” It seems an illusion to call this progress.

  1. 8

    There is an illuminating discussion of this party–entrepreneur relationship since June 4 by Wang Hui, a professor at China’s elite Quinghua University, in his new book, China’s New Order: Society, Politics, and Economy in Transition, edited by Theodore Hutars (Harvard University Press, 2003).

  2. 9

    At Harvard that year, of the many Chinese students I asked about the bombing all but one were certain it was deliberate. The exception was Wang Dan, a Tiananmen leader imprisoned after June 4, 1989, and a Ph.D. candidate.

  3. 10

    Public Affairs, 2001; reviewed in The New York Review, February 8, 2001.

  4. 11

    New China News Agency, December 3, 2003.

  5. 12

    See the Sydney Morning Herald, Feb- ruary 21, 2004.

  6. 13

    Friends and Foes: How Congress and the President Really Make Foreign Policy (Brookings Institution, 2000).

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