One party, two Chinas

Two of the great contradictions of modern China are Xintiandi, a swank restaurant and bar district in Shanghai, and the country’s Communist Party School in Beijing, where cadres are educated in Marxist-Leninist thought. Apart from contradicting each other, they are also contradictions of themselves, much like modern China.

Xintiandi with its modern and pricey restaurants populated by Shanghai’s yuppies (who spend more on a night’s meal in the complex than the average Chinese family could afford for food in a month) is a monument to both the present and the past as it was built in order to preserve the buildings in which the country’s Communist Party was founded in 1921. The Communist Party School stands on the grounds of one of the country’s first seminaries for Catholic priests in Beijing and the burial place of the Jesuit missionary Mateo Ricci.

Mao and Ricci would probably turn in their graves at the contradictions. But strangely, Richard McGregor, the Financial Times’s former Beijing bureau chief and the author of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers doesn’t see the incongruities of modern China. To him China is a communist nation because the structure and working of its ruling party is Leninist. And to McGregor that’s all that matters. He writes “somehow, [the party] has outlasted, outsmarted, outperformed, or simply outlawed its critics, flummoxing the pundits who have predicted its demise at numerous junctures.”

This is the fundamental flaw with what would otherwise be a very good book.

For anyone not familiar with the inner workings of the Chinese Government, The Party is an eye-opener. While you might understand in some vague way that the Communist Party runs China, this book will help the reader to understand what this means in practice. When China is referred to as a one party state what it means is that the one party is responsible for everything from the setting of political, social and economic policy and the appointment of government officials from the president down to the lady who cleans the local public toilets. That includes the top executives of China’s biggest companies and even some of its small ones, all of the senior academic posts at tertiary institutions, all the newspaper and magazine editors, and TV and radio producers. In fact, you are unlikely to hold such powerful and plush posts unless you are a member of the party. More importantly, the heads of China’s biggest companies carry ministerial rank in the government. And they all have a little red phone on their desks that connects them directly with the government and senior party apparatus.

Imagine that happening in any Western country. Think of the United States run by one party – Republican or Democrat – where that party has complete control over the appointment of every government official from cabinet secretaries to the janitor at the local high school, every newspaper editor (the Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, even the San Diego Union Tribune), every TV and radio producer (CNN, NBC, ABC), every judge, every professor at every notable university (Harvard, Yale, Stanford). Imagine even the Catholic Archbishops of New York, Boston and San Francisco all appointed by that party with or without consultation with Rome. And the same for all other religions represented in the country. Then consider the heads of America’s biggest companies all appointed by that party -- ExxonMobil, GE, CitiGroup, AT&T -- even the little Bells.

Now you start to get an idea of the power and pervasiveness of the Communist Party of China.

This is interesting stuff, especially for those without much understanding of the workings of modern China.

But the failing of the book, its great flaw, is that it neglects to analyse the pressure the party is currently under given China’s rapid and unstoppable modernization. For McGregor the only question is whether China is communist. To him it is because the party that governs it is Marxist-Leninist -- as he puts it, China is still run on “Soviet hardware”.

In a strictly political sense this is true. In terms of how the party works it is true. China copied the Soviet model and improved on it. No room for glasnost or perestroika here.

To McGregor, speculation about the collapse of China’s Communist Party is unfounded. It survived previous uprisings, like the May 4th Movement and the Tiananmen protests, sometimes crushing them brutally. In recent years the party has been taking a more hard line approach on freedom of speech and severely cracking down on dissidence. Therefore, McGregor seems to conclude, it will continue to do so in perpetuity.

Last year I attended the launching of The Party in Beijing. (Although not legally available in China, the book was launched at an American Chamber of Commerce event in Beijing; how’s that for contradiction in this most contradictory of countries?) At this gathering McGregor was asked to describe the vision, mission and values of the Communist Party compared to a Western corporate organization. McGregor responded somewhat banally that values are not what matters but institutions, and that in that sense the Communist Party could withstand any attack.

But McGregor has missed the point. He has failed to consider the implications of recent changes to Chinese society. It is much less communist now than it was 30 years ago or than the Soviet Union was at the time of its collapse. China is wealthier now than when students filled Tiananmen Square in 1989 and China’s social problems are much bigger than they were at that time. The gap between rich and poor has grown to a chasm of Grand Canyon proportions. Middleclass Chinese are now looking for a greater say in government decisions that can impact on their daily lives, while the poor simply want a better deal.

To put it simply, the stated values of the Communist Party ring hollow today. Mao, in spite of his many faults, at least went some way to creating a classless society and reducing the gap between the haves and have-nots. Today’s CP has exacerbated the gap and therefore squandered its legitimacy. Any which way you want to cut it, the party’s vision, mission and values are clearly defunct.

McGregor seems to think it inconceivable that a popular grassroots movement could develop in China and topple the party. By failing to look at the economic and social situation of China, and the power modern communications technology places in the hands of potential political activists, he has done his readers a disservice.

Who would have thought even two months ago that Hosni Mubarak would be getting on a jet plane and fleeing Egypt in the face of a popular uprising? Indeed, China’s Communist Party leadership is probably a little worried today that its “Soviet hardware” may not be equipped to deal with the rising expectations of its own people. I guess the party is so secretive that those members interviewed by McGregor decided against letting him in on this worst kept of its secrets.

I can’t help but feel the former Beijing bureau chief of the Financial Times should have probed a little deeper in writing this book. He seems to have only peeled the top two layers of the onion that is the Communist Party of China but left the core still hidden from view.

McGregor’s book is a good read if you want some charming anecdotes about the secret workings of China’s Communist Party. But if you are hoping for some insight into the future of the regime and the country you can safely by pass this read.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.



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