In China, the ruling Communist Party is everywhere, and it is nowhere. It permeates every corner of every citizen’s life, yet it has no legal existence. It calls itself “Communist,” and retains the hallmarks of a Communist party that Vladimir Lenin came up with a century ago – secretive, antidemocratic, and all-enveloping. Yet it has presided over an orgy of capitalist economic development the likes of which the world has never seen.
Like the country it governs, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a head-spinning mass of contradictions. Richard McGregor, a former Financial Times bureau chief in Beijing, makes a valiant effort to untangle them in The Party.
His book’s subtitle, though, “The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers,” is somewhat misleading. Readers hoping for glimpses inside that secret world will be disappointed. McGregor is one of the finest reporters to have covered China in recent years, yet even he cannot take us into the party’s inner sanctum.
The CCP is the largest political party in the world, with close to 78 million members, and the most successful. It has maintained power for more than 60 years despite subjecting its citizens to mass famine during the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and murderous chaos during the Cultural Revolution.
It has done so, McGregor argues persuasively, by abandoning the outright and absolute terror that characterized its earlier rule under Mao Zedong and turning instead to “seduction rather than suppression.” The iron fist can still be clenched, as the 1989 massacre on and near Tiananmen Square showed. But it is sheathed in the velvet glove of prosperity. By aligning itself foursquare with the material comforts that the past 30 years of “reform and opening” have brought, the party has bought more loyalty, or at least acquiescence, than force could ever have ensured.
This doesn’t have much to do with communism, of course. As Yan Xuetong, a disillusioned nationalist professor of politics, laments to McGregor: “At this moment, the sole, dominant ideology shared by the government and the people is money worship.”
But why leave it to such failed dictatorships as Cuba and North Korea, or to disaffected local intellectuals, to define communism? “We are the Communist Party, and we will decide what communism means,” declares Chen Yuan, a top banker.
China’s rulers may have distorted communism’s promise of economic justice: Workers’ share of the nation’s wealth has been dropping for the past decade, McGregor points out, and China is one of the most unequal countries in the world, to judge by its Gini coefficient of 0.48. But they have preserved the key characteristics of one-party rule familiar to anyone who lived under the Soviet system.
The CCP permeates every level of society, pulling strings that control every activity. Judges cannot rule without consulting their court’s party committee. The People’s Liberation Army is not China’s national army: It is the armed wing of the Communist Party; company boards make no decisions that have not been cleared by the firm’s CCP secretary.
The party’s preeminence is neatly captured by a banal but telling detail, McGregor notes: The Shanghai party secretary’s license plate is 00001. The city’s mayor must make do with 00002.“The Party is like God. He is everywhere,” McGregor quotes a university professor in Beijing as saying.
So resolutely has the party wiped out any organization or network that could possibly compete for Chinese citizens’ loyalty – whether it be another political party, a grouping of nongovernmental organizations, or a religious organization such as Falun Gong – that there is no conceivable governing alternative to the Communist Party.
The inevitability of its rule, officials say, is simply “the verdict of history.” McGregor points out that none of the recent potential threats to the party have yet proved really dangerous. China appears to have emerged from the financial crisis in relatively good health. The emerging middle class is not demanding political reforms as its European and American counterparts did in earlier centuries, inequality has not bred revolution, and even endemic corruption has not fatally weakened the party.
Nobody may really believe in the party anymore. The system may be “rotten, costly, corrupt and often dysfunctional,” as McGregor suggests. But it “has also proved to be flexible and protean enough to absorb everything that has been thrown at it,” he points out. And if McGregor is to be believed, it will go on proving to be so for the foreseeable future.
Peter Ford is the Monitor’s China correspondent.