Went to a talk the other day by Richard McGregor of the FT, whose acclaimed new book “The Party” examines the state of the Chinese Communist Party – and the most interesting thing for me was his characterisation of the party as having “drifted underground”.
The CCP is running the world’s biggest country by population and one that is projected to become world’s biggest economy in 10-15 years, yet as an organisation it is has a “habit and instinct to secrecy”, he says. Astonishingly, the CCP may even be banned in Hong Kong, he says, because it doesn’t comply with some of the territory’s basic statutes. Yet it has overall power over that territory.
By giving Chinese people, by and large, more freedom to live their personal lives as they please, the party has been able to retreat into the background. Most Chinese have little or no contact with the party, whose propaganda is like a kind of background drone, a “radio that has been left switched on”, a continuing noise that people are able to block out.
In these semi-underground conditions, he says, the party is thriving. Its main ideology is the “ideology of power” and being cut off from the public serves this end. It can get on with making big strategic decisions while ordinary people get on with living their day to day lives in a kind of mutual pact of non-interference.
The CCP’s secrecy works to its advantage. Broadly speaking, it knows more about everyone else, including foreign governments, than they know about it.
CCP rule is reinforced by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is not a conventional army with a basic mandate to protect the nation but is instead the CCP’s own militia dating back to the Chinese civil war and is there to keep the party in power. It has been extremely successful in this, says Dr Ding Xueling of Hong Kong’s Science and Technology University (with whom I spoke for this piece).
Most Communist regimes around the world have collapsed, but there’s little danger of that happening in China anytime soon, he says. However, the China model is not exportable, says McGregor. Vietnam comes closest to it, but is “struggling”.
This division between the executive and the populace is all the more entrenched because the party is the only organisation with the bureaucratic skills, knowledge or network to run the country – “almost deliberately so”, says McGregor. It says to the Chinese people: “We can do the job, you can’t, and since you can’t, we will.”
In many ways this is working well for China, which he describes as a “success story”. These conditions give it the power to be extremely flexible, which makes it better able to respond to circumstances than a democracy, McGregor says, where the decision-making process is slower.
The government also is also increasingly meritocratic. Those within it who do their jobs well are promoted, those who don’t perform are shunted out. Meanwhile, the progress of the internet in China has not prompted the democratic reform some thought might be inevitable. But it has made more information about conditions on the ground across China directly available to the government, which makes it better able to respond.
Finally, there are some attempts to make the government more transparent and accountable – but not the party itself. The party “hides behind the government”, says McGregor.
However, while China is doing undeniably well, CCP rule has its downsides, he says.
In its “dark heart”, the CCP is hostile to the West, he argues. This hostility is particularly entrenched in the CCP’s propaganda department, partly because its task is to denigrate alternatives, the most obvious of which is democracy, and partly based on historical events (which is to some extent justified).
This question of attitudes to the West is interesting. The reaction to the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 sparked anti-US/UK violence in China, which both Rachel DeWoskin and James Kynge wrote about in their books. They were surprised to be treated with hostility by their Chinese buddies: “Are we really friends?” asked Kynge, who has been in China since the 80s.
Nationalism is useful to the CCP to deflect foreign criticism on almost any topic. But, McGregor argues, it could be a real source of instability if China starts to replace the US as the dominant military power in East Asia.
It’s natural for China to want to dominate, he says, and any other country in its position would want the same. Neither will it want to rely on the US for its energy security.
However, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have all been able to become prosperous under the umbrella of US military protection. But the Korean civil war is not over, the Chinese civil war is not over and China-Japan relations are not as friendly as they could be.
“I really wonder how China can guarantee the trust that goes along with that [being the region’s biggest military power]. In the long term that’s one of the most unstable elements of CCP rule.”
And of course, not all Chinese people are happy with the way they are governed. I was speaking with one young woman in her early 30s from Sichuan, university educated, never been abroad to a western country – she said she didn’t feel free, didn’t think China was developing well and said this was something “everyone is talking about”, with about half approving of the path the country is taking and the other half not.
“Nowadays, it is relatively easy to be an ordinary good person; but it is very difficult to be a good person who gets ahead of other people,” adds Professor Wang Jisi, a professor at Peking University (translated by China Elections & Governance blog).
And further up the food chain, a Chinese two-star general has warned his conservative Communist Party masters and firebrand PLA colleagues that China must either embrace US-style democracy or accept Soviet-style collapse.