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May 29, 2010 12:15 am

The Party

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Cover of the book 'The Party'

The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, by Richard McGregor, Allen Lane £25, 328 pages, FT Bookshop price: £20

The larkier sort of Chinese official has been known to compare his country’s Communist party with the Catholic Church, or at least the Vatican. Infallible in doctrinal matters, and with an all-embracing control over any appointments that matter, the party aspires to the Vatican’s longevity without manifesting too much evidence of its own awesome omnipotence. Richard McGregor quotes one Chinese professor who makes an even more elevated comparison. “The party is like God,” he avers. “He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.”

McGregor, the FT’s deputy news editor and a former Beijing bureau chief, makes a good fist of raising the party’s visibility in a book that is as informative as it is entertaining, and rich in the sort of anecdotes that put flesh on the bones of his arguments. What is the extraordinary political model that has presided over the resurgence of China’s power while the Middle Kingdom has rejoined the global economy? As a result of this historic development, China triggered a global deflationary boom and is set to become the largest economy in the world. Should we throw overboard as clapped-out western vanities the notions that democracy best promotes sustainable prosperity and that there is an umbilical link between economic and political freedom?

In China, of course, both are limited in a system that defies easy description. Is it Singapore writ large, or a variation of Japan’s capitalist development state? Is it market Confucianism or capitalism within an autocratic system of control? To describe it as socialism with Chinese characteristics does not much advance the ideological analysis. After all, the structure is light on Marxist economics and sociology and heavy on Leninist brutalism. Chen Yuan from China’s Development Bank says: “We are the communist party and we will decide what communism means.”

The successes notched up by whatever it is are legion, and I am one of those who believe that China’s rise has been on the whole beneficial for the rest of us as well as for the hundreds of millions of Chinese lifted out of poverty. China’s cheerleaders assert that this success is dependent on the party exerting a tight grip on every aspect of life, albeit not so restrictive as was once the case thanks to greater prosperity and the growth of a middle class. All political power is centralised, with the party’s Central Organisation Department controlling appointments to state-owned companies as well as government bodies. The independence of the courts and the media, and the role of religious groups and civil society, are all restricted. The chief justice is not a lawyer but had a career as a policeman and in the security services. Rivals have been systematically eradicated and dissidents are sent to labour camps. Liu Xiaobo, a veteran campaigner for political freedom, was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison; the environmental campaigner Wu Lihong has also been jailed. Others who challenge the system pay a similar price.

In authoritarian societies, historical scholarship is always regarded as subversive. Judgments on the past – about Mao and the Great Famine for example – are closely controlled by the party bureaucracy. Even Judi Dench’s dialogue in the Bond film Casino Royale (2006) had to be censored to avoid political incorrectness over the cold war. More surprising is that social equity in China has been downgraded in an economic model that heavily prioritises investment and the accumulation of a corporate and state war chest.

McGregor points out that in the decade of rapid growth after 1997, the share of workers’ wages in national income fell dramatically from 53 per cent to just 40 per cent of GDP. The very rich have become richer, sending their offspring to the most expensive British public schools, and the very poor have become poorer with health statistics in rural areas that are comparable to those in, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is not much sign of socialism here.

Yet China has been transformed. There is no denying it. The system that takes the credit is brilliantly described by McGregor. He regards it as “rotten, costly, corrupt and often dysfunctional”, but he notes that it “has also proved to be flexible and protean enough to absorb everything that has been thrown at it”. So will it just go on and on, with economic growth legitimising its survival? There does seem to be at least one ideological debate at the heart of the party. Hardliners argue that if the party gives up any more control over the economy it will sooner or later lose control of the state. Reformers reply that unless the party surrenders more control over the economy, this will not grow so fast and that in such circumstances the party will certainly lose control of the state. China’s dilemma is that both sides of the argument are surely correct. We all have a stake in the ability of China’s leaders to resolve this conundrum without provoking turmoil.

Chris Patten is a former governor of Hong Kong. His most recent book is ‘What Next? Surviving the 21st Century’ (Penguin)

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