The Secretive World of the Communist Party

The lack of transparency surrounding the appointment of China’s new Communist Party government later this year extends to basic political and economic philosophy


communist party

The city of Beijing has installed an interactive find-your-route kiosk with a touchscreen on the street from the People’s University to Weigongcun underground station. On its sides, red display screens show messages from the Communist Party of China (CPC), complete with hammer and sickle, and photos of worthy workers and model officials. Is it also intended to help people find their way around the world of communist politics? The crowds of fashionable students (young women in hot pants or mini skirts and young men in T-shirts with English slogans) seem unlikely to get the message. In China, the latest hi-tech is often used alongside the most archaic methods.

The CPC’s 18th national congress, scheduled for “the second half of 2012” according to the official communiqué, reflects this paradox. China’s sole political party, which has controlled the country since 1949, has devised a system for renewing its central leadership. The highest Party and state officials (the general secretary, who is also the president of the People’s Republic, the prime minister, and the chairman of the National People’s Congress) will be limited to two terms, or a maximum of 10 years, in office. For members of national authorities (the CPC’s Central Committee and Central Politburo, and the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress), retirement age will be 68.

So 2012 will bring one of the most extensive leadership transitions ever seen in a communist country. Seven of the nine members of the Central Politburo Standing Committee (CPSC) (1), the centre of political power in China, will be replaced, as will 60-65% of the members of the Central Committee. Nobody knows how the new members will be chosen. In a way that recalls imperial China, the CPC’s succession is being prepared in secrecy, with obscure power plays, Machiavellian intrigues, strategic alliances and low blows.

Over 2,000km away, in Guangzhou, I met Yuehui (not her real name), a young woman typical of China’s middle classes, fashionably dressed and made-up. Her mother is a primary school teacher, her father a civil servant. She is taking a master’s degree in law at the prestigious Sun Yat-sen University. Like her parents, she is a member of the CPC. She is self-confident and at ease in discussions. After a little hesitation, she was willing to talk politics (although her friends were not) and immediately explained: “The Party is a kind of club, a network that can be useful for your career — a bit like a professional association.” Being a member will help her to get a good job and guarantee promotion. Blushing, she admitted: “From my teens, I dreamed of joining the Party.” Like most young people in China, she was a member of the Communist Youth League. “When the Party leadership chose me to become a member, because I was a good pupil, I was so happy. It was like winning a prize or having a birthday.”

Her enthusiasm has waned. “I wouldn’t do it again. It creates all kinds of obligations. I have to go to lots of meetings, which is very time-consuming, when I have many interests.” The grassroots organisations, normally dormant, have been very active over the last few months, following the dismissal of the politician Bo Xilai which uncovered major divisions within the CPC. “Most of all, I have to toe the Party line. I can’t say what I think. It weighs heavily on me, because I’m very independent-minded.”

  • ‘Close your eyes and carry on’

Nobody has told her formally not to deviate from the official line. But if she did, she would have to explain herself to “comrades” assigned to lead her back to the straight and narrow path. Handing back her Party card would be impossible — political apostasy. She might be able to distance herself from the Party if she left her neighbourhood and kept quiet. But if she got a job in the civil service or a government enterprise, she would be forced to comply with Party directives. In the words of a Party veteran who despairs of the situation: “You don’t have to believe; you just go to the meetings, close your eyes and carry on.”

It is easier to join the Party than to leave it. Often, the secretary of the school, neighbourhood, company or village branch of the Party chooses those felt worthy to join. Those who failed to join at secondary school or university, and feel that being able to flash a Party card would help their career, can apply to join, as long as they can find a sponsor and are willing to submit to extensive inquiries into their career and personal lives.

Between 2007 and 2012 more than 10 million people joined the CPC. It officially has 80.6 million members, around 25% under the age of 35, with another 50% aged between 36 and 60. Although the leadership (especially at local level) has never been so openly criticised as it is today, there have never been so many applicants. Membership opens many doors for young people (at least those who are not rich) and is a kind of peace-of-mind insurance for the CPC, which hopes that it will help control Chinese society.

Sons and daughters of Party members are guaranteed membership, as are intellectuals and graduates — yesterday they were reviled as “petty bourgeois”, today they are getting the red carpet treatment. The aim is to make the CPC a “party of excellence” and, since Party and state are one, to recruit trained people to govern the country. The formation of the elite favours recruitment in Chinese and foreign universities, now a popular career path. But that doesn’t exempt would-be leaders from attending Party schools.

Those appointed to senior posts at provincial or central level must pass through these important political institutions, where they study Marxism and the subtleties of current policy, while acquiring high-level public administration skills. The China National School of Administration, established in 1994, sometimes shares premises with the Central Party School (CPS), founded at the time of the Revolution. Chinese and foreign scholars with excellent reputations are invited to teach at this institution; the Guangzhou branch has attracted major US economists. Access to the internet is unrestricted. No foreign book, even the most critical of China, is forbidden. The Party will do anything to make sure its leaders get the training they need.

I was not allowed to visit the Beijing branch of the CPS, headed by Xi Jinping, the future president of China. But two China Daily journalists, Chen Xia and Yuan Fang (2), have immersed themselves in this strange world, which brings together the Party elite from every level of government. Students are cut off from the outside world (their secretaries and drivers are not allowed to enter the school). During their first week, they take placement tests to assess their knowledge of political theory, including the basic theories of Marxism. They are then divided into groups taking classes on different subjects: Party history, religions, minorities, corruption, HIV/AIDS prevention. After classes, the students meet again for free discussions. But there is still a hierarchy: students from the prefectural government level eat in different canteens and sleep in different dormitories to those from the provincial or central level.

  • ‘Future backbone of the government’

According to Chen and Yuan, there is also a special class of officials aged between 45 and 50, who are the “future backbone of the Chinese government”. Their course lasts a year, and the first three months are devoted to reading classics such as Marx’s Capital and Engels’s Anti-Dühring. The students receive in-depth tuition in all areas of government, including the legislative system, budget drafting, financial control, foreign policy, management, personnel management, eradicating corruption and conflict resolution. China’s leadership is getting a highly specialised training.

The CPS also helps to select future leaders. The CPC Central Committee’s Organisation Department, which has a strong influence on Party affairs, and on appointments in government, the media (with the Party Publicity Department, formerly the Propaganda Department), universities and state enterprises, sends observers to sit in on student discussions and identify candidates for future promotion. A member of the teaching staff told Chen and Yuan that a student had been suspended for his negative attitude in class, and that this had virtually ended his political career. Understandably, those who aspire to high position are reluctant to voice criticism.

A Party official I met in Beijing told me, on condition of anonymity: “Nothing has changed; the emphasis is still on obedience.” There are 70 official criteria for promotion (3), including academic achievement, seniority and (if the candidate is in a position of responsibility) performance — measured, for example, in terms of return on investments or improvement in air quality. Not forgetting “stability”: any public scandal attracting national attention will impact on the official’s career. The lack of transparency means that decisions are arbitrary, perpetuating a standardised elite.

“After China opened up, until the mid-1990s, anyone at the bottom of the ladder could better themselves. That’s no longer possible,” said the economist Yang Jisheng, a former reporter for the Xinhua (New China) News Agency. We met in a café beyond the fourth ring road, south of Beijing, where he told me about his book Analysis of Social Classes in China (4), published in Hong Kong (and distributed illicitly), then on the mainland, where it was twice banned before being published in its current edition in 2011. Yang, who is still a Party member, never got into trouble, even though he had uncovered a fault in the Chinese system: the creation of a class of people who inherit wealth and power.

According to Yang, “there is no longer any social mobility. Basically, all the jobs are reserved for the children of Party or government officials, who are better educated. For the generation born since the reforms, you could say that social class is being perpetuated: children of officials become officials; the children of the rich become rich, the children of the poor stay poor.” This may seem commonplace in the West, but, in a country that claims to be built on “the power of the people” and “socialism” (albeit Chinese-style), many feel it is intolerable.

The “princelings” (taizi dang) — children of senior Party figures and heroes of the Revolution — occupy positions at the heart of the Party apparatus (about 25% of current members of the Politburo), and especially at the head of major public and semi-public companies. They compete with the “youth leaguers” (tuanpai) — people from more modest backgrounds who started their careers in the Communist Youth League  — such as China’s current president Hu Jintao and his prime minister Wen Jiabao. Future president Xi Jinping, son of Zhou Enlai’s former right-hand man, is a “princeling”; Li Keqiang, expected to be the next prime minister, is a “youth leaguer”.

  • Settling differences

Is there a class struggle within the Party? Though some believe there is, the divides do not seem to bear any relation to the backgrounds of the leaders. Before being ousted from public office, Bo Xilai, CPC committee secretary for the city-province of Chongqing (population 32.6 million) and son of one of the early leaders of the revolution, was a champion of the rights of migrant workers and the enemy of property developers, but also advocated trials that showed little regard for human rights. Wang Yang, CPC committee secretary for Guangdong Province, where major exporters are based, was not born with a silver hammer and sickle in his mouth. He has made himself a prophet of economic liberalism, while preaching political opening-up and public liberties. This shows how difficult it is to analyse Chinese society on the basis of western political concepts — reformers versus conservatives, right versus left — even if some (including both Mao Zedong nostalgics and intellectuals who defend social rights) like to call themselves the “new left”.

Differences can be settled with (symbolic) violence, as in the Bo affair. After gaining a reputation as an enemy of corruption, Bo was himself accused of corruption and Maoist nostalgia and removed from office. According to China’s prime minister Wen Jiabao, “The risk of a return to the Cultural Revolution is a real one.”

This official version is often questioned in private. When the Party brings the charges — rather than an independent legal system — it is hard to disentangle truth from falsehood. But corruption runs so deep in Chinese life that it is not implausible that the boss of Chongqing should have replaced officials with his own supporters. He made “red songs” fashionable again, but to claim that he wanted to return to the worst excesses of Maoism and the Red Guards is a big step. Yan Lieshan, an editor-in-chief of the Guangdong-based newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend) said: “It doesn’t make sense. Some of the things he did may recall the Cultural Revolution, but the people have learned; they are better informed, more open-minded. We won’t be going back to those times.”

Feng Yuan, an architectural historian at Sun Yat-sen University specialising in the Cultural Revolution, was born in 1964, during the Maoist madness: “Some of the older generation may be given to nostalgia. But their numbers are negligible. Among young people, references to Mao reflect two things: dissatisfaction with no outlet for expression and no resolution, coupled with a belief that society at the time was more egalitarian and less harsh; and an insufficiently critical assessment of that period.” The official verdict on Mao Zedong and his regime is “70% good, 30% bad”, and critical studies are not easily accepted. Two of Feng’s articles on that period, published in a book of his lectures, have been banned. He insists on rigorous historical research, free from ideological manipulation, even in a good cause.

The Bo Xilai scandal would not have turned out as it did if China had freedom of debate and if currents of opinion were recognised, as Hu Jintao promised at the start of his second term as president. That promise was forgotten, but the ideological standoff within the state apparatus could still explode: it turns on the role of the state (and of the Party), and the content of social and political reforms (see Party rivals dispute change).

And what of Chinese-style market socialism? The official pamphlet “How much do you know about the Communist Party of China?” describes it as a creative application of socialism as created by Marx and Engels and states that the design of the system is that of a Marxism under development. No Communist will admit to this fossilised way of thinking, but the problem remains. He Gaochao, an expert on industrial relations who works in Guangzhou and lectures New York, admits that “there is really very little difference between American capitalism and Chinese capitalism,” but says that, in China, “a real effort is being made to improve the lives of workers and peasant farmers — it’s congenital.” There is no sign that this is true, and it’s a bit too simple as a definition of socialism. (This may explain China’s efforts to promote an alternative ideology: Confucianism.)

Liu Jinxiang, former deputy mayor of Guangzhou in charge of finance, agrees: “If, by socialism, you mean more equality, then Sweden is more socialist than China. Many aspects of the old Chinese society have survived. People don’t really know they are aiming for any more. We have no criteria, no model to follow. How should we define our system — market economy, socialism, state capitalism? None of these concepts really fit. That’s why there is such confusion over which direction we should go in. We have a lot of theoretical work to do. You could say that we are in the phase of state capitalism as a means of building a socialist society where there is more room for individuality.” This is a worthy goal, but the preparations for the 18th national congress give no hint of any change of course.

First Published at Le Monde diplomatique.

Martine Bulard is deputy editor of Le Monde diplomatique

(1) After the Congress, the CPSC may be reduced to 7 members (as in 2002) or expanded to 11 members.

(2) Chen Xia and Yuan Fang, “Inside the Central Party School”, China Daily, Beijing, 5 May 2011.

(3) See Richard McGregor, The Party: the Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, HarperCollins, New York, 2010.

(4) In Chinese only.

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