Red China’s Party Blues

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In the People’s Republic, the Party is all pervasive. But its enormous influence and intense secrecy mask inner impulses of dissent that could yet shake things up


The other night in Shanghai, I was having a quiet dinner with a Chinese friend; I’ll call him Z. We talked about books—detective fiction, Shanghai’s vibrant theatre scene. The conversation turned to politics, and, unexpectedly, to the Communist Party of China.

As an expatriate living in Shanghai, I don’t think much about the Communist Party of China. Life here is too comfortable and too much fun. My husband and I rent a flat in what used to be the old French Concession area. In our compound, inhabited by a mixed crowd of wealthy Chinese and foreigners, the parked cars are BMWs, Mercedes and grey Buick vans. I bicycle around leafy, tree-lined streets. We fraternise with an eclectic, international lot. I study Chinese and immerse myself in Shanghai’s history, for I have fallen in love with the city and the layered process of its discovery. As an occasional city tour guide, I point out to visitors the towering skyline in Pudong, across the curve of the Huangpu River. Then I swivel to the row of 1920s’ buildings on the Bund. I like to watch people’s faces change as they take in the shimmering city. Compared to the China I first saw in 1988 when I was a student, this is a new land.

“China is not really Communist,” visitors declaim. “China’s so prosperous.” “People are content.” 

W is a brisk, articulate 80-year-old Shanghainese man who grew up in pre-Communist China, and is married to a dear friend of mine. W remembers living in crowded quarters, his family’s hardscrabble life; he remembers going hungry. He remembers the People’s Liberation Army marching into Shanghai in their canvas shoes in May 1949. “These present years are the best times China has known,” he says. “When you talk about human rights, I say it is a human right to have food and shelter.”

I agreed.

Over my quiet dinner with Z, in his even manner, he said, “The sole, ruthless aim of the Communist Party of China is to hold on to power. All this prosperity, all this wealth, it’s okay as long as the CCP has power. If, for some reason, the growing prosperity should interfere with the power structure, let me assure you, the CCP will rein in the economic growth, it will destroy the people, all their wealth, to hold on to its power.”

“Don’t forget Mao Zedong and Liu Shaoqi,” Z said. Mao did not hesitate to crush his once greatest ally, Liu Shaoqi, and launch ten years of chaos during the Cultural Revolution, just to purge his enemies and hold on to his position.

I had a sinking feeling.

Of course, those of us who live and work in China know the boundaries. On the internet, we bump up against the Great Firewall of China—we cannot access Facebook, or Twitter, many blogs. Certain keyword searches—such as ‘Communist Party of China’—will lead to a message of the site being dysfunctional. A blip. And then the site is restored. We know our surfing is monitored.

China only allows a handful of foreign movies to play in theatres every year. A friend who runs an art gallery was harassed by the police who provided only a paltry explanation. In the back streets of the French Concession, not far from where I live, behind unmarked gateways rise the posh residences of retired Communist Party leaders. There are no signs, just cameras and barbed wire over high walls. Should you take a wrong turn on your bicycle, or get too close, guards will mobilise in seconds.

Each year, on the 4 June anniversary of the 1989 army crackdown on the Tiananmen Square student demonstrations—the biggest recent challenge to the Party—nothing happens. China has managed to snuff out all reminders so effectively that a generation has grown up ignorant of that movement.

There are ways around all this.

I now pay an annual fee for my own VPN, which hides my server’s origin so I can surf without limits. We buy pirated DVDs from shops that are disguised, but not that much. My curator friend’s landlord threw her out after the trouble with police, but she’ll find another venue. I was in Hong Kong for 4 June this summer. In Victoria Park, some 150,000 people gathered holding lighted candles. They sang songs and listened to recordings by mothers who had lost their offspring to bullets in Tiananmen Square 21 years ago. The Hong Kong demonstrators brought along children born since, so they too would keep the knowledge alive.  

Sure, things have loosened up in China. The Chinese travel all over the world now, individually or in groups. Many political dissidents have come back home—they work as consultants or bankers.

Chinese author Zhang Lijia expressed this openness in a New York Times op-ed piece last year—she’d left after the Chinese government suppressed the student protests in Tiananmen. Of her return, she wrote, ‘We’re still in a cage here. But for many, my fellow marchers included, it has grown so large that we hardly feel its limits. In that sense, the 1989 protests weren’t a total failure. Without our efforts, China’s rulers might have not expanded the cage at all.’

The painful mental acrobatics required to reconcile the evident prosperity and relaxation surrounding us and what Z was saying over dinner, what we all know to be true, were beyond me.

Luckily I found someone who managed it. Richard McGregor, the Beijing bureau chief of Financial Times released an elegant book this summer called The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.

Reading it produced in me an unutterable relief, for here, finally, was a nuanced book that described exactly the China I live in. McGregor had prised open the oyster with a sharp knife, to reveal the pearls and the rot within. The book elucidates, pulls all the pieces together without trying to stuff the picture into a theoretical framework. McGregor has a pleasurable turn of phrase. He even articulated my brain-pain:

‘The multiple, head-spinning contradictions about modern China can throw anyone off the scent.’

The Party, he explains is ‘secretive by habit and inclination’, and has made extensive efforts to keep the mechanisms of its power off the front stage in China’s public life, and hidden from the rest of the world. This was convenient for the West too, for it allows a pretence that China’s booming commercial life and new worldliness is enough to blow away any Communist thoughts.

‘Peek under the hood of the Chinese model, however, and China looks much more communist than it does on the open road. Vladimir Lenin, who designed the prototype used to run communist countries around the world, would recognise the model immediately… For all the reforms of the past three decades, the Party has made sure it keeps a lock-hold on the state and three pillars of its survival strategy: control of personnel, propaganda and the People’s Liberation Army.’

The Party’s genius and remarkable political feat lies in the way it has, for the past three decades, held onto the political institutions and authoritarian power of old-style communism, while tossing out the ideological framework that gave birth to it. The Party’s conscious retreat from the private life of Chinese citizens also had a freeing effect on society.

Ordinary Chinese no longer need the Party’s permission on where to live, work, study, travel, when to have a child, get married or where to shop. There are still Party declarations, McGregor says, but they ‘exist in a kind of parallel universe, like a radio left on in the background, a constant presence, but for the most part easily tuned out and forgotten altogether’.

The Party is an awesome political machine, with a membership of 75 million by mid-2009, equivalent to roughly one in twelve adult Chinese.

The present China Inc has its roots in the 1989 student uprising and the controversial military crackdown. Instead of clamping down on private enterprise, it would simply beef up the political controls. Deng Xiaoping’s formula ran thus: ‘The Party would still pursue free-market reforms, but in tandem with recalibrating and tightening political authority in Beijing. Equally, the Party might not own state assets directly, but it would maintain the right to hire and fire the executives who managed them.’

Similarly, with the banks, the Party quietly brought the country’s banking system under its direct wing with two committees who would oversee bank activities.

Outsiders mistook the state sector spring-cleaning as a capitalist-style privatisation, but, McGregor explains, ‘the Party and state would retain control of the large companies in what were deemed strategic sectors, such as energy, steel, transport, power, telecommunications and the like… a small number of their shares were listed overseas, while the government kept about 70 to 80 per cent of the equity in its own hands’.

He describes the internal power struggles that developed, as these companies became behemoths that edged into the driving seat. One such company, PetroChina, headed to Sudan in search of fresh sources of oil, but irked international human rights activists for working with a repressive Sudanese government. It created a kerfuffle both inside and outside China. McGregor quotes a Peking University academic, Zhu Feng as saying, “These state-owned companies have become very powerful interest groups. They even hijack China’s foreign policy in Sudan.”

Still, the Party holds the reins through its Central Organisation Department, its human resources arm. ‘A similar department in the US would oversee the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governors and their deputies, the mayors of major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies, the chief executives of GE, Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart and about fifty of the remaining largest US companies, the justices on the Supreme Court, the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, the bosses of the TV networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities, and the heads of think-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.’

The Central Organisation Department is rife with problems, however, including the brisk buying and selling of government jobs for enormous sums of money. ‘The trade in jobs makes a mockery of the organisation department’s mission to find and promote virtuous and competent officials. It means that the department, which shadows the government, has become shadowed itself by an elaborate, underground black market in the very jobs it is meant to control. There are many documented instances of ‘buying and selling official posts’, as the phenomenon is called in China…,’ he writes.

The Party also firmly manages the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). ‘The huge size of the 1989 protests, the way they spread to cities throughout the country, the broad base of support they generated among students, workers and the intelligentsia, and the split they forged at the top of the Party over how to handle them—all reverberate profoundly within the Party to this day. Less well known, but seared just as deeply into the Party’s psyche, is how some PLA commanders and soldiers refused to obey when they were ordered to clear the protesters out of Beijing with military force.’

The Party’s solution for the PLA was similar to that for state-owned units—modernise, but tighten political control. 

The current, leaner army has 2.3 million people on its rolls, and ‘an astounding 90,000 different party cells operating inside it, about one for every twenty-five people enrolled in the forces’.

The Party has slowly but surely pushed the army back inside the barracks and outside the inner circle of politics. ‘The Politburo has not selected a military man for the Standing Committee, the leadership’s inner circle, since the 1992 congress. Only fifteen years previously, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, a period during which the military held the country together, more than half of the Politburo were military officers. Now, only two of twenty-four Politburo members wear uniforms,’ McGregor writes.

These institutions the Party can control, but what about corrupt officials within the Party itself? The speeches of Chinese leaders are peppered with warnings about how corruption among party bureaucrats is directly responsible for social conflicts and public protests. Indeed, Chinese papers are filled with reports of party officials jailed or penalised for taking bribes.

The Party’s internal anti-graft body, located in Beijing, is called the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.

‘Senior party members in China are much like members of the US military when it comes to criminal investigations. They cannot be arrested by civilian law enforcement bodies or other outside agencies for criminal offences until the allegations have been investigated by the Party first,’ McGregor writes.

Graft-busting is so routine, the bribe amounts so increasingly large, that a few years ago when the former vice-mayor of Beijing, Liu Zhihua was convicted of taking bribes worth roughly $1 million, local internet commentators sarcastically labelled him an under-performer: ‘He should count as a clean official. No need for a trial. Release him now!’

He says that among the top ten government bodies that attracted the most job applications in 2008, eight were provincial tax bureaus, led by Guangdong, two were the customs bureaus of Shanghai and Shenzhen—all along China’s wealthy east coast.

A key part of the Party’s power lies in controlling the country’s story. The Party’s Central Propaganda Department enforces the official view of history, making sure that newspapers follow the party line, that school textbooks offer an acceptable interpretation of history; that official verdicts on events—like Tiananmen Square—are adhered to.

Part of that job, McGregor says, quoting a retired senior government official, is managing the image of Mao Zedong, for his biggest legacy to China was the Communist Party of China, and as long as the Party exists, the impact of Mao will be enduring.

Because the Party has shut out all debate on Mao, some academics fear that China may never move forward. ‘The Party’s biggest single burden was the Great Helmsman himself. In China’s history wars, the biggest battles have invariably been over the communist commitment to protect Mao, who still remains the single, overarching symbol of the Party and the nation.’

Which is why, a short essay in Chinese that popped into my mail recently made me sit up.

It was entitled, ‘Deputy Liu Shaoqi’.

The name Liu Shaoqi is a red flag, if your ear is attuned to the rhythms of Chinese politics. I read the text carefully, looking up in a dictionary any unfamiliar words and the endless stream of ‘chengyu’, poetic sayings that erudite Chinese like to sprinkle speeches with, like mushrooms after spring rain.
The essay was a description of Liu Shaoqi’s political rise alongside Mao and Liu’s stunning demise, when Red Guards burst into the Party’s headquarters at Zhong Nan Hai and arrested him.

They dragged him off and beat and tortured him, throwing him in prison, where he eventually died in 1969, to be buried anonymously. So much for the man who coined the phrase ‘Mao Zedong Thought’, the man who at one point was thought to be Mao’s successor, as the essay pointed out.

Two alarm bells rang in my head: the brutal treatment of Liu Shaoqi at Mao’s hands is tantamount to criticising Mao—an explosive taboo in China. Secondly, the essay was signed Liu Yazhou.

Liu Yazhou is no back-alley dissident. He is the son-in-law of Li Xiannian, a former president of China; Liu Yazhou’s political credentials are impeccable. He is a Lieutenant General, and a Political Commissar of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) University for National Defense.

This summer, he told a Hong Kong magazine, Phoenix Weekly, the following: “A system that does not allow its citizens to breathe freely, nor to maximally unleash their creativity, nor puts those who can best represent the people in leadership positions, is doomed.”

The Party, it seems is undergoing a silent upheaval behind closed doors yet again.

After all, if wind comes out of an empty cave, there must be a reason.