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Party Animals

How does the Chinese Communist Party retain its implacable rule over one-fifth of humanity? Richard McGregor explains.

By From the October 2010 issue

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The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers
By Richard McGregor
(Harper, 302 pages, $27.99)

The question is, how do they do it? They starved some 35 million Chinese in the late 1950s during Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward. They threw the country into social, economic, and political chaos in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution terror purges of the 1960s and '70s. They massacred pro-democracy student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Today their arbitrary arrests and denial of free speech and association continue. So how does the Chinese Communist Party, despite methodical oppression and denial of basic human rights, retain its implacable rule over one-fifth of humanity? With the implosion of the Soviet Union, total rejection of communism throughout Eastern Europe, and the theoretical end of history, the era was supposed to be over when a closed cabal of corrupt, self-serving goons could dominate a country so vast and diverse. Much less create, in only three decades, the world's second-largest economy and a geopolitical rival to the U.S.

Solving this conundrum is the task Richard McGregor has set himself in The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. A Financial Times correspondent who reported from China for 20 years, McGregor calls on his long experience and solid reporting to produce this illuminating, detailed depiction of the hidden moving parts of the world's largest political machine. Along the way, McGregor is tough-minded enough to give the devil his due. "The Chinese communist system is, in many ways, rotten, costly, corrupt and often dysfunctional," he writes. "Somehow, it has outlasted, outsmarted, outperformed or simply outlawed its critics, flummoxing the pundits who have predicted its demise at numerous junctures. As a political machine alone, the Party is a phenomenon of awesome and unique dimensions."

It is also certifiably paranoid. Latest proof is its banning of McGregor's book this summer. Although no official list of forbidden books is published, it is not on sale in mainland China and potential buyers are blocked when trying to find it online. Chinese websites of international booksellers like Amazon respond "This page cannot be displayed," just as they do to requests for information on the Tiananmen massacre or the Dalai Lama. This for a specialist book published overseas in English and unintelligible to the great majority of Chinese citizens. McGregor calls the ban "perversely flattering, and very much confirmation of the secrecy I was writing about."

Not that he or anyone else should be surprised. The CCP's grip on power is based on a simple formula from Lenin's original playbook: complete control of personnel, propaganda, and the People's Liberation Army. However China's smiling face may look to the crowds of foreigners flocking to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and this summer's Shanghai World Expo 2010, the very names of the bodies exercising that power -- the Politburo, Central Committee, Presidium -- all reveal that China's system runs, as the author puts it, "on Soviet hardware."

The principal tool of control is the Party's Central Organization Department. A direct descendant of Lenin's 1919 Orgburo, it faithfully replicates the Soviet nomenklatura system of reserving prize jobs for the happy few among Party faithful. Little known abroad and even within China itself, it operates out of a huge unmarked building near Tiananmen Square, its phone number unlisted. Its secret deliberations decide who will hold what positions not only in government, but also in business, the judiciary, media, and academia. It's as if, McGregor writes, a single department in Washington arbitrarily appointed the entire U.S. cabinet, state governors, and mayors of all major cities; Supreme Court justices; the chief executives of GE, Exxon-Mobil, Walmart, and dozens of other companies; plus editors of newspapers and heads of TV networks; along with the presidents of Yale and Harvard and chiefs of think tanks like Brookings and the Heritage Foundation.

Such a secret, systematic spoils system can only lead to colossal corruption. Party officials rule their local fiefdoms like virtual marketplaces where government jobs are bought and sold under an unofficial "pay for play" system. McGregor's research turned up an official in Suihua who paid more than $100,000 to the local Organization Department to become a party secretary. Another paid "only" $44,000 to be party secretary in a smaller locale, but parlayed that in two years into nearly $740,000 in graft, a gratifying return on investment of some 1,700 percent.

Addressing the Party's token anti-corruption commission in 2006, General Secretary Hu Jintao went through the motions of warning, "This time-bomb buried under society could...lead to a series of explosions which could cause chaos through society and paralyze the administration." But as he knows better than any, the Party system allows top officials to supervise themselves. Thus bribes now routinely run into millions of dollars to procure even low-level jobs. The author compares CCP corruption to "a transaction tax that distributes ill-gotten gains among the ruling class. In that respect, it becomes the glue that keeps the system together."

THE SYSTEM IS COMMUNIST to the core, but the rigid ideology that purportedly underpins it -- and led to the collapse of Soviet Communism -- has been carefully airbrushed out. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Deng Xiaoping, who had launched China's early market reforms in 1978, laid down the flexible new Party line: "On economic matters, relaxed controls; for political matters, tight controls." Party leaders quickly learned to talk out of both sides of their mouths, preaching Marxism in public statements while prodding businesses to keep getting bigger and richer.

The sleight of hand often works with foreigners: during a visit to Beijing some years back, Rupert Murdoch declared he hadn't met a single communist in China. Actually he could have found no fewer than 78 million card-carrying Party members, many multimillionaires. As for the Party's ideology, Chen Yuan, Party member, senior banker, and son of a Long March veteran, puts it succinctly: "We are the Communist Party, and we decide what communism means."

Above all, they try to avoid looking like communists. Leaders keep their Mao suits in the closet except for big Party occasions. When Hu Jintao travels abroad on state visits, he wears a Western business suit and is officially described not as general secretary of the CCP, but as president of China. This lowers his ideological profile -- communist, moi? -- and gives the superficial impression he was democratically elected instead of picked by the Politburo behind closed doors. As a professor at Beijing University explained to McGregor, "The Party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can't see Him."

To be sure, Chinese citizens still feel the Party's presence everywhere, but it is less heavy-handed. Although its thugs will strong-arm any person or group perceived as a challenge to its primacy, today it prefers persuasion, co-opting, and seduction rather than coercion. The most striking recent example of this more relaxed attitude is Tombstone, a 2008 book by the Xinhua News Agency journalist Yang Jisheng.

After years of clandestine research, Yang details for more than a thousand pages the horrors and suffering of Mao's Great Leap Forward, a strictly taboo subject for the Party. Though no mainland bookstore or publisher would touch such a scorching condemnation of Chinese communist brutality, the book is available in Hong Kong. And, mirabile dictu, Yang has not been arrested or even harassed. The Party prefers to try to obscure it by banning mention of it in the media. "The authorities are not as stupid as they used to be," Yang says. "If this had happened in the past, I would be a dead man and my family would have been destroyed."

AS A FINANCIAL REPORTER, McGregor is especially strong on the Party's ambiguous relations with business. Although the government has laid off nearly 50 million workers in state enterprises in its economic reorganization, he cautions Western observers not to confuse this with free market privatization -- the Party retains ultimate control of state businesses. "The corporate animal that emerged from the protracted and painful birth of China Inc. was a strange new beast," he writes, "both commercial and communist."

For one thing, the state still owns either 100 percent or a majority of key sectors from oil, petrochemicals, mining, and banks to telecoms, steel, electricity, and aviation. For another, all heads of large businesses are Party members and jump to it when Beijing gives an order -- as when it told bankers to flood the market with credit, often against their better judgment, to deal with the current financial crisis. On the desks of about 50 of the most important sits a "red machine," a special encrypted telephone linking them to top Party, government, and business players. The ultimate Chinese status symbol, the phone will be answered, promptly, by a loyal Party member.

Newspaper editors and TV producers also get frequent calls, even if they don't have red machines on the desk. It will be from the Central Propaganda Department giving the angle on the day's news. Here again, the Party now uses a soft sell, relying on the media's "self-discipline." Chinese newsmen don't really need to be told how to play a story, one editor explained to McGregor. "There is a red line in their head."

Americans will soon be getting more of the Party's perspective on current affairs as an increasingly media-savvy Propaganda Department develops Chinese news media overseas. The Xinhua agency recently announced plans to open a prominent newsroom in New York's Times Square, with Reuters, News Corp., and the New York Times as neighbors. It will provide a Chinese-slanted news feed to CNC World, the agency's new 24-hour channel. This is part of the Party's decision to spend billions of dollars to create a global media empire to offset what it considers biased coverage of China.

Having banned it, the Party clearly considers McGregor's masterful study to be biased coverage indeed. All the more reason to buy it, in order to learn what the Party would rather we did not know about how it really runs the country and how its hybrid Leninist capitalism works. The book also should be required reading as an antidote to the coming wave of 90th-anniversary CCP hoopla next year. The Party already has thousands of researchers working up a propaganda barrage of its official history since its creation in 1921. The world is about to hear more than it wants to about how the Party "successfully united and led the Chinese people to achieve miracles," as Central Committee Vice President Xi Jinping recently put it.

When will the Party be over? On that inevitable, probably bloody, day when Chinese citizens decide that it's not enough in life to get rich, if they don't have the right to live free under a democratically elected government. They may already be partway there, having manifestly lost their communist faith. As a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing told McGregor, "Party leaders realize that they don't have a dominant ideology they can use to run the country any more. The sole ideology shared by the government and the people is money worship." 

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.