In any country ruled over many decades by a single party, the histories and identities of party and nation are inevitably intertwined. So it was under the Indian National Congress, in Japan under the Liberal Democrats – and especially in the Soviet Union and China under their Communist parties.
The Soviet Union is gone, and the Congress and even the LDP have found themselves out of power, but the Communist Party of China (CCP) maintains its grip.
Richard McGregor’s revealing new book, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, helps to explain how it has managed this feat, and how China has evolved over more than six decades of tumult, reconstruction and dizzying economic growth.
McGregor – formerly Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times – neatly does away with the notion that those years of change have resulted in a rethinking of the Party’s structure or function.
A favorite trope of foreign visitors holds that the today’s China would have Mao and Lenin spinning in their graves. On the surface, perhaps – but a resurrected Lenin, McGregor writes, would find little he didn’t recognize in China’s present Communist Party. The organization remains Leninist to its core.
If anything, the CCP has done much to perfect Lenin’s vision. True to the spirit of democratic centralism, the party has presented such a unified public face in the years after 1989 that intra-party factionalism is all but invisible to casual observers. It has also maintained the People’s Liberation Army as a political, not a national, organization, and vigorously opposed efforts to make it a tool of the state.
The Soviet Union’s nomenklatura system, which filled positions from a list of senior party members, has been expanded to ensure a CCP presence at all levels of government, society and industry. Through the Organization Department – a body so secretive that its giant Beijing headquarters lack identifying signs or listed phone numbers – the Party hires and fires ministers, local officials, professors and the heads of state-owned enterprises.
McGregor’s book is most fascinating when it describes these structures and the ways in which the Party exists outside and above the law. It is an organization first and foremost concerned with self-preservation, and which unequivocally places itself above the state, using a single line in the constitution’s preamble as justification.
Behind the scenes
The book also illuminates the CCP’s presence in the commercial sphere. The heads of the 50-or-so largest state-owned enterprises have on their desks "red machines" – telephones linked to the Party’s internal communications network – to ensure they are never out of touch with the leadership.
But the Party maintains strenuous efforts to keep a low profile. McGregor describes the New York and Shanghai listing of Shanghai Petrochemical (SHI.NYSE, 600688.SH, 0338.HK) in 1993, for which the phonebook-sized prospectus was effectively "silent on the role of the single most important decision-making force in the company."
While times have changed, the CCP still retains control over key commercial areas. Consider the musical-chairs reappointments of the heads of China’s major telecom companies to their competitors in 2004. Investors were stunned, but seen through the eyes of the CCP, this was nothing more than an internal reshuffle.
It’s difficult not to come away from the book with an appreciation for how the CCP has managed perceptions of its rule. China’s leaders are often accused of being poor practitioners of public relations – and indeed, in cases like the SARS outbreak and the initial stages of the tainted milk scandal, they have done a terrible job.
However, this ignores the Party’s skill at defining and controlling the country’s broader narrative. Discussion of disasters like the Great Leap Forward remains tightly scripted, and recent years have seen the CCP extend its reach further back in history, to better establish the historical inevitability of its rise.
McGregor writes that he approached the book as "a curious journalist opening, or trying to open, the system’s many locked doors and looking inside." In that sense, there may be little here that is new or unknown to close watchers of the Party. But in channeling his curiosity into this eminently readable book, McGregor has done a great service to those who would hope to better understand where China’s power lies.