The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers

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Book review: The Party. The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. By Richard McGregor. HarperCollins, 2010. R$ 26,49 (amazon.com.br)

It is common to hear nowadays that China is now essentially a capitalist country. And while it is true that elements of capitalism pervade Chinese society, allowing the economy to more than triple in size over the past decade, McGregor’s “The Party” shows that China remains more communist than it appears to the casual observer. In many aspects, he shows, the country is similar to the Soviet Union in its heyday: The ruling communist party has long eliminated all political opposition, it tightly controls the media and the courts, suppresses religion and civil society, and sends dissidents to labor camps. Lenin, the author claims, “who designed the prototype used to run communist countries around the world, would recognize the [Chinese] model immediately."

And yet, somehow, the party has outlasted, outsmarted, outperformed, or simply outlawed its critics, flummoxing the pundits who have predicted its demise in numerous critical moments. In his engaging book, the author draws a fascinating picture of the most powerful and largest political party in the world, that, as he rightly claims, needs to be put firmly at the heart of the modern Chinese story. Far from being important merely for those interested in China’s domestic politics, understanding China’s ruling party is crucial for foreign policy analysts. The People’s Liberation Army, for example, still reports to the Communist Party, not the government, and the position of General Secretary of the party is more important than that of President. This hierarchy exists on all levels: Shanghai’s Party Secretary, for example, is more powerful than the city’s mayor, and so on.
The party’s penetration of society and its unbridled power are fascinating. One in twelve adult Chinese is a member (there are 75 million members right now), and one third of lawyers are party members. At the same time, the party has no legal basis, no telephone number, and no website, simply basing its power on one line in the constitution that assigns the party a “leading role”.

Party

The most intriguing question the author seeks to answer is how such a large organization seemingly wedded to communist dogma could survive and preside over such radical social and economic changes in China – after all, the party shows no sign of loosening its grip on power. The most important strength, according to McGregor, is the party’s flexibility and pragmatism in some areas (such as economic management) paired with unrivalled obduracy and refusal to change in other (political management). At the same time, it is able to recruit the best and brightest from all parts of society, including entrepreneurs, thus providing excellent networking opportunities and access to decision-makers. This allowed the party to turn into a successful guardian of China’s economy and provider of stability, while asking citizens to abdicate their political rights in return. It remains to be seen how patient Chinese citizens will be with the party once it is no longer able to deliver double-digit growth.

McGregor’s book is thus a must-read for China observers, and for any foreign policy whose government seeks closer ties with China. Rather than dealing with government officials, foreign diplomats should build their networks with party officials, who take the important decisions. Yet since the Communist Party is obscure and difficult to understand, dealing with it effectively takes time and energy.

If foreign companies like to enter the Chinese markets, they need to embrace the party leaders, and diplomatic support is necessary in this endeavor. Many countries that have not yet invested in a strong diplomatic presence are already paying the price.

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Photo credit: Xinhua/Li Xueren