The beast that is China’s ruling party

Review of The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor was originally published in the Vancouver Sun on August 14, 2010.

In the spring of 2006, I enrolled in a curious course at the B.C. Institute of Technology in Vancouver. It was called the “Fundamentals of Doing Business with China,” but it turn out to be more like “Leninism 101.”

Our instructor, Lawrence Gu, had just become dean of Canada’s first Confucius Institute, a partnership between BCIT and the Chinese government. There are now more than three hundred Confucius Institutes around the world, mostly offering Mandarin classes. BCIT, Gu enthused, was the first to offer a practical business course.

Our first lesson was on China’s governance. “It’s the most sophisticated structure in the world,” Gu said. “It looks familiar, but it isn’t.” He distributed four handouts. Stapled on top was one simply titled “Party.” It was an organizational chart showing the Communist Party’s Secretary General, the Politburo Standing Committee, Politburo and Party Central Committee, in descending order.

“Why do I put the Party first?” he asked.

At every level of government, Gu explained, village leaders, mayors and provincial governors are shadowed by Party apparatchiks who hold the real power in China. At the top sits the Politburo Standing Committee. “These nine members are really calling the shots,” Gu said. He described the Party’s Secretary General Hu Jintao, who is also China’s President, as “the emperor.”

Gu boasted of his “pragmatic” approach in beating out more prestigious universities for the country’s first Confucius Institute: “We followed the Chinese government strategy and you’ll find out that’s the strategy for success.” That is also the first fundamental: when in China you need to toe the Party line.

Gu’s greatest challenge was finding a course textbook. “I don’t think you can have one,” he said. “The subject is too difficult and fluid.”

That is until now. Richard McGregor’s new book, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, should be required reading for anyone wanting to do any kind of business in China. Understanding the Party is fundamental to success—and survival, as McGregor describes in chilling prose.

McGregor’s narrative unfolds like Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard, in which the writer tracks the mysterious cat through the Himalayas. As we travel with McGregor in search of his “beast,” as he calls the Party, we see mostly the bloody trail of its mauled victims, from 35 million starved to death in the Great Leap Forward to students massacred in Tiananmen Square. With every gripping anecdote, McGregor gets closer to capturing the essence of the Party, but in the end this animal, like the snow leopard, proves elusive.

“The problem in writing about the Party… is that, much as the Party might be staring you in the face, you can’t easily glare back,” he writes. Indeed, he adds: “Sometimes, you can’t see the Party at all.”

“The Party is like God,” one Chinese academic tells him. “He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.”

Yet McGregor sees more than most. A reporter for the Financial Times, he’s been covering China for more than a decade, and is a seasoned, entertaining guide. His book is a page-turner, a mystery of sorts. Although he only glimpses into the Party’s inner workings, McGregor’s quest to shed light on the murky clique that rules the world’s largest country becomes a vehicle for understanding modern China with all its contradictions and paradoxes.

The Party is everywhere and nowhere. “Over time,” he writes, “the Party’s secrecy has gone beyond habit and become essential to its survival, by shielding it from the reach of the law and the wider citizenry.”

McGregor deftly describes how the Party has junked its outdated Marxist software, but “still runs on Soviet hardware.” It operates on a Leninist mainframe, keeping its “lock-hold on the state and three pillars of its survival strategy: control of personnel, propaganda and the People’s Liberation Army.” This point is often lost on many Western observers who hail the end of Communism in China. Not quite.

“The Leninist bureaucracy survives, but the Party has added a touch of McKinsey to ensure it performs,” he writes, referring to the global business consultancy.

The book’s first half focuses on the Party’s control of the state, business, personnel and the army while the second half describes the Party’s many challenges: reigning in corruption and rogue officials in the regions, controlling the growing capitalist class and managing the narrative of China, “because if this narrative unraveled, it could devour them all.”

At times, McGregor makes it seem like the average Chinese is living in the Matrix; workers may be improving their lot, but the real purpose of their daily toil is to sustain and enrich the “red machine,” whose greed and graft knows no bounds. And anyone who tries to expose the Party for what it truly is will be duly annihilated.

“As a political machine,” he writes, “the Party has so far proved to be a sinuous, cynical and adaptive beast in the face of its multiple challenges.”

McGregor is less successful at describing its evolution. That the Party has succeeded so spectacularly shouldn’t be a surprise. Lenin designed his dictatorship of the proletariat by a vanguard party of professionals as a means to industrialize rural peasants. Leninism is reverse-Marxism: first the political revolution and then an industrial one. That’s exactly what China’s Communist Party has done with aplomb.

But can this rickety “Soviet hardware” effectively manage an increasingly post-industrial, pluralistic society of tech-savvy citizens and irreverent youths? For many observers, democratization seems inevitable in China, just as the autocratic Kuomintang relinquished power to multi-party elections in Taiwan. Indeed, the Party already allows for elections of village leaders and in some townships. Yet McGregor sidesteps the issue of political reform.

The Party has become craftier too, but McGregor barely touches on the new methods and technologies being used to seduce and suppress, co-opt and coerce, public opinion. Besides the Great Fire Wall, the Party is employing electronic surveillance, polling and focus groups, and is probably monitoring Internet search terms on Baidu (China’s Google) and the blogosphere to keep one step ahead of the mob.

Whether it uses democratic elections or technological innovations (or a bit of both) to manage the complexities of post-industrial society, as McGregor rightly points out, the Party isn’t over in China.

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