How the Communist Party Rules China
Buy the Book: You can buy The Party on Amazon
Communism? What Communism?
When Rupert Murdoch attended a dinner in Beijing in the late 1990s, he remarked that in all his visits to China, he had yet to meet a Communist. A strange remark indeed considering he was dining in by far the largest Communist state in the world, although admittedly, one which in the past twenty years has transformed itself into a global economic powerhouse and changed the dynamic of the world’s economy in the process. But as Murdoch clearly recognised, it is exactly this contradiction that China – or to be more specific, the Communist Party that governs China – presents to the world today.
How is it that a party that came to power on the basis of overthrowing the old landlord class and returning the country’s wealth to the people, is now ruled by a wealthy elite of its own? How did a party that for so many years railed against “capitalist roaders” and “bourgeois sympathisers”, ditch half a century of ideological baggage and embrace a new philosophy in which “to get rich is glorious”? It may have seemed impossible after Mao’s death in 1976, that only 40 years later, the chaos of his reign could have been forgotten and the country transported to where it is today. But if McGregor’s account is anything to go by, rather than the Party taking a back seat during all of this, it is the Party that has made it all possible.
Having spent nine years in China working as a correspondent for the Financial Times, McGregor seems to have been well placed to view the Party’s workings up close, arguing that while the reigns of the economy have been loosened considerably over the past few decades, the control over the various bodies which ensure the Party’s continued grip on power has only tightened further – a slight-of-hand that has been achieved not by acting as the ever-present master in the daily lives of ordinary Chinese citizens, but by disappearing almost entirely from view.
A Political Panopticon
The Party has adapted to the challenges that economic progress has brought, McGregor argues, by retreating further, yet infiltrating deeper into the country’s fabric. As such, though economic policy may have changed markedly during this time, politically, the Party is still as devoutly Leninist as it always has been. It is the quintessential “empowered elite providing enlightened leadership to the masses”, its legitimacy wagered on the promise of keeping the economy charging forward and the country getting richer. The Party’s genius over the past thirty years, has thus been to maintain the institutions and authoritarian powers of Soviet-style communism, while doing away with the ideological dogma that inspired them. It is the lifting of the veil of how this power operates at which The Party aims.
Throughout the system, the Party has positioned itself, McGregor writes, like a “political panopticon”, allowing it to keep watch over all aspects of the state while at the same keeping itself hidden. Senior government officials, military figures and much of the senior management of China’s state businesses are all, first and foremost, Party members. Their appointments are controlled by the Central Organisation Department for whom Party loyalty is the key determiner of candidates’ suitability. All of whom operate in the shadows ensuring that the Party’s will is implemented above all other considerations. As one professor from Beijing’s People’s University notes, the Party is like God. “He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.”
You get the feeling reading The Party, that there is a certain anger – though in no way explicit – running through each account of the insidious, and often brazen way, the Party operates in order to maintain its absolute control. Everything the Party does is done with its own interests as paramount and everything else – be it the country, its institutions or its people – subordinated to the goal of ensuring the Party’s survival.
There has been no better example of this than the events of June 4th 1989 when, threatened with the potential of a popular uprising, the Party ordered the People’s Liberation Army to put the People in their place. Indeed, McGregor notes that the founding principle of the PLA – that ‘the Party commands the gun’ – means that rather than the usual role of the army being to defend the country, in China, the PLA’s primary mission is to keep the Party in power.
The Party is Paramount
The Party also commands the law, the media, education and religion, while the boards of China’s biggest companies – numbering some of the largest in the world – are answerable to the Party first and their shareholders a distant second. This was no more apparent in 2004, when the Organization Department announced without warning that the top executives at China’s three biggest telecommunications companies, two of which were listed overseas, were to be switched – not replaced, but switched, between themselves. As McGregor writes, “it was the equivalent of the CEO of AT&T being moved without notice to head its domestic US competitor, Verizon, with the Verizon chief being appointed to run Sprint.”
More infamously, when the state-owned Sanlu dairy company was made aware that its baby milk formula had been laced with the industrial chemical melamine and was causing the deaths of hundreds of infants cross the country, the first reaction of both the company and its Party committee was to cover-up the story so as not to cause an international outrage in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Party bodies censored the news and overrode the board in order to prevent the news from leaking out. Then, when the case finally was out in the open, months after the Olympics was over and thousands more babies had been made ill, lawyers were intimidated, courts manipulated, and the company executives scapegoated, all in order to protect the fact that the Party’s own secretive internal processes were the reason the disaster wasn’t dealt with when it first came to light almost a year earlier.
Whether the Party can continue in the same vein is the big question confronting the world today. With rising censorship and greater crackdowns on freedom of speech than ever before, the Party certainly seems to think so. Though as the country’s economic worries pile up (as of 2016), maybe it believes it has little choice. Credit problems, a rapidly aging population and an environment that has suffered greatly during the boom years, are all lurking in the shadows waiting to scupper the Party’s great success. Controlling public opinion and placating the masses as the country attempts to pivot away from its credit-fuelled growth, is going to be one of the biggest challenges the Party has ever faced.
As McGregor writes: “the Chinese communist system is, in many ways, rotten, costly, corrupt and often dysfunctional. But the system has also proved to be flexible and protean enough to absorb everything that has been thrown at it, to the surprise and horror of many in the West.” The Party has adapted before and will have to do so again. Whether it comes out the other side, is a question that will affect us all.
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