• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful

Hu Jintao; drawing by Pancho

At times, McGregor also overcompensates for the lack of colorful detail by blowing up small anecdotes. One is the somewhat implausible and unsourced claim that every single top boss in China’s big companies has a “red machine”—a sort of Batman-like hotline to the Party. Unclear from the passage is who the executives talk to on the other end or why the Party would need such a crude leash for some of its most trusted lieutenants (who are the only people allowed to run such companies).

This highlights how even today the Party is still only understood through small slivers of access or insight. The sometimes vicarious ways that insights can be gleaned is wonderfully captured in Richard Baum’s China Watcher: Confessions of a Peking Tom. A professor at the University of California–Los Angeles, Baum has written a funny and insightful memoir that looks back at more than forty years of China watching. Unlike McGregor, Baum began his work when China was closed to outsiders. His big break was pilfering secret Communist Party documents that a Taiwanese intelligence agency had stolen from the mainland. By analyzing the documents, Baum helped explain the origins of the Cultural Revolution by showing the split that had developed between Mao Zedong and his lieutenants. Like McGregor’s efforts, Baum’s have succeeded—his initial analysis of the split in leadership is still accurate decades later. But the story also shows how random our access to the Party’s inner workings is; huge aspects of its current operation and even its key historical moments are unknown, despite the existence of leaked documents.3

Interestingly, both Baum and McGregor end their books with ruminations on the Party’s abuse of history. McGregor talks to a courageous historian who helped piece together a history of the Great Leap famine of the early 1960s. Like many journalists, McGregor sees such catastrophes as the Party’s weak point and implies that it faces a reckoning with history. Baum agrees and refers to a leitmotif of Chinese philosophy and history: Confucius’s call to “rectify the names,” in other words, to call things as they really are. That would involve, for example, revisiting the Tiananmen massacre and admitting that the Party, not the protesters, was largely responsible for the violence.

Focusing on these abuses, however, can lead to a sentimentality that clouds judgment, as David Shambaugh notes in China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. In a sobering but illuminating section, Shambaugh surveys the prognostications that leading Western China experts have made about the Party over the past two decades. Almost all were pessimistic and almost all were wrong. Most argued that the Party was hopelessly out of touch with China’s dynamic society and was doomed to failure. One even predicted its demise to the year (this year, in fact).4 Like McGregor and Baum, many were outraged at the Party’s recent actions—especially the Tiananmen Square massacre. They may be forgiven for a bit of wishful thinking, but Shambaugh convincingly points out that the West has consistently underestimated the Party’s ability to adapt and thus might be excessively negative about its future.

Shambaugh’s book is essentially the missing historical background to McGregor’s, and in some ways it is no less exciting to read. He argues that for the Party, the turning point was indeed 1989, not only because of the Tiananmen uprising but also the collapse of communism elsewhere. This forced the Party to undertake genuine political reform efforts—not reform in the sense of democracy, which is how Westerners usually see it, but in its apparatus and how it interacts with society. In the two decades since then, the Party has trained hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of low- to mid-level officials to make them familiar with the workings of the market economy, abolished many taxes on farmers, reduced restrictions on religious organizations, and enormously increased the standard of living of scholars, students, and others who protested in 1989.5 It also has largely withdrawn from the personal lives of Chinese citizens, allowing them to pursue their own ambitions and goals as long as they avoid the high crime of directly challenging the Party. This emasculates political life but leaves much else wide open. Thus debates inside and outside the Party are permitted on topics such as the growing rift between rich and poor.

From the Party’s perspective it pulled off a surprising feat in 2002 by organizing an orderly transfer of power that wasn’t driven by a crisis like Tiananmen or the Cultural Revolution. Unless a completely unforeseen series of events takes place in the next two years, it is likely to do the same in 2012, with the odds favoring Xi Jinping becoming China’s next leader. This shows that the Party has figured out the sort of institutional stability that largely eluded its counterparts in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.

This is essentially the view of the Party from its think tanks and training establishments. Shambaugh has culled a great deal of background on how these institutions fed information to the Party and how it responded, mainly by bulking up and curbing the worst of its excesses. Curiously, after describing all these reforms, Shambaugh concludes with a pessimistic prognosis for the Party’s prospects. The main problem, he believes, is that it can’t escape Samuel Huntington’s classic model of rising expectations and the accompanying demands for political channels by which members of the public can make their wishes known. Accepting such levels of popular participation would require a huge change in mentality for a party that for six decades has acted mainly as a development dictatorship, cajoling the nation forward. As it has ditched the utopianism of its first thirty years of rule in favor of the conventional mercantilist policies of its past thirty, the Party has also developed an ability to listen to complaints and make adjustments, while not seriously countenancing public participation.

Shambaugh also identifies a vacuity in the national ideology. Although the country’s leaders have offered up ideas, he says no unifying vision really inspires the vast nation of 1.3 billion. Traditional Chinese culture might suffice for the majority-Chinese population, but what of the fifty-five other ethnic groups, such as Tibetans, Uighurs, Dai, and Mongolians? Although these groups make up less than 10 percent of the population, they are concentrated in key border regions that have seen major protests in recent years. Some sort of national reevaluation is needed to make the country’s aims more inclusive and idealistic.

Instead, today’s leaders still follow the same basic bottom line that was first enunciated in the “self-strengthening” movement of the 1870s: attaining wealth and power, enhancing nationalism and international dignity, preserving unity and preventing chaos. As Shambaugh notes, this puts today’s Communist Party rulers in a long line going back not just to Deng and Mao but also to the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, the early-twentieth-century strongman Yuan Shikai, and the nineteenth-century self-strengthener Li Hongzhang. That in itself is a kind of legitimization but the goals are ultimately those of national survival. Once that has been assured, the vision becomes purely materialistic—economic growth.

For thirty years this has worked, but the next stage of economic development requires a more open economic and social system that can foster innovation and creativity. One badly needed reform would be to loosen the Party’s system of controlling business—the very structures that it has labored to build up over the past two decades. These tight ties between politics and economics have created giant state-owned companies that have had spectacular success on foreign stock markets. In early July, for example, China boasted the largest stock offering in history, the $22 billion listing of the Party-run Agricultural Bank of China. But these behemoths have sucked up much of the wealth created over the past decade, leaving the public with less of a share of the national output than in the past.

More tragically, this national sacrifice hasn’t really created truly outstanding and innovative international companies. The big companies that are listed abroad are indeed giants but mainly because of their sheer size; they are essentially little more than partially privatized quasi monopolies—big telecoms, banks, and insurance and oil companies. That makes them large but not particularly nimble, inventive, or influential in international markets, except when trying to buy natural resources.

Nor have the other companies routinely touted as international players—for example, the appliance maker Haier or the computer giant Lenovo—truly become global forces. Early on in its reign, the Party pushed get-rich-quick schemes like the Great Leap Forward that resulted in national catastrophe. These utopian plans are gone but more than a faint echo remains in the desire of Chinese companies to shortcut the painstaking process of creating international brands by buying faltering names.

The failure of Lenovo to leverage IBM’s brand after purchasing its personal computer business in 2005 casts doubt on the wisdom of such corner-cutting maneuvers. One can only assume that they appealed to officials looking for quick solutions to the Party’s call to create international Chinese brands. Independent boards of directors might have thought differently and pursued the more patient strategy followed by other East Asian companies.

Even then, companies would run up against another problem: the lack of creative and intellectually ambitious students. After Tiananmen, the government channeled huge sums into better dorms for students, housing for teachers, labs for scientists, and junkets for administrators. This satiated material demands and attracted foreign universities hoping to set up programs in China. But it can hardly be a coincidence that this system has never produced a Nobel Prize winner; even among China’s elite universities, the academic level resembles that of an average US land-grant university, with most no better than a mediocre community college.

Blaming the Party for all these problems would be unfair, but it is legitimate to ask if any one party in the world could solve them. Back in the 1990s, a charismatic premier, Zhu Rongji, ran China. When he was in charge, it was possible to believe that the system was perfectible, that with just the right brilliant person at the center, nothing was impossible. And this was indeed the time of a great many reforms: the state sector shrank, the country made ambitious pledges of economic changes to gain entrance into the World Trade Organization, and sprouts of civil society—including class action lawsuits and rural elections—were to be seen across the country.

Since then, the technocratic state that Zhu personified has grown stronger but in some ways more brittle. Economic reforms haven’t quite ground to a halt but the state sector is regaining lost ground, in part owing to the current administration’s policy of recentralizing control. Foreign policy, for all the international efforts to engage China on global issues, remains focused on two narrow concerns: territorial issues like Taiwan and Tibet, and resource extraction in Africa or Central Asia. And the state has become so adept at political control that no one seriously argues that civil society is becoming more robust; on the contrary, the Party’s new-found confidence has allowed it to roll back gains of previous years.

None of that threatens the Party in the near term, but this means it also lacks the impetus to reform. With China on top of the world, the Party’s perch atop the country seems impregnable and yet more vulnerable than ever.

—Beijing, September 1, 2010

  1. 3

    Some of the key points in history that still need to be addressed include how many people died in the Great Leap famine, reckoned to be the worst in history, or the circumstances surrounding the death of Mao. See Perry Link’s “Waiting for WikiLeaks: Beijing’s Seven Secrets,” NYR Blog, August 19, 2010.

  2. 4

    See Gordon G. Chang, The Coming Collapse of China (Random House, 2001).

  3. 5

    Jeffrey Wasserstrom also concisely lays out these points in a lively and vigorous primer on modern China, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. He argues that the Party avoided “Leninist extinction” because—paradoxically—it now allows so many protests. Estimated to number 230,000 during 2009, they act as safety valves and almost all are resolved peacefully by addressing protesters’ concerns and—now only as a last resort—through coercion.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print