The claim that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is misunderstood by outsiders has become something of a cliche recently, conferring upon the almost 80-year-old political organization an aura of impenetrability. This dearth of knowledge has slowly been remedied, however, with the publication in recent years of solid studies on the party’s philosophy, modus operandi and ability to defy the odds by remaining in power.
Two new books, The Party, by former Financial Times Beijing bureau chief Richard McGregor, and The Chinese Communist Party as Organizational Emperor, by National University of Singapore professor Zheng Yongnian (鄭永年), make important new contributions to our understanding of this most enigmatic of political parties.
Though targeting very different audiences (McGregor’s style is journalistic, whereas Zheng’s is overly academic), the two works reach similar conclusions as to the CCP’s strategies, conclusions that had already been proposed in David Shambaugh’s China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation (reviewed in the Taipei Times on May 11, 2008). The party brooks no organized opposition (what Zheng refers to as a counter-hegemony), does not tolerate the formation of political parties capable of challenging its hold on power, opposes the complete divorcing of party from state, and does not encourage the evolution of democracy as it is understood elsewhere.
This said, the CCP is no monolith, as the two books clearly demonstrate, nor has it failed to comprehend the tremendous challenges that have emerged as the country modernizes and embraces capitalism. The party’s decision to allow capitalists to become CCP members, which Zheng describes as an epochal development in the politics of the past century, is a case in point.
The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers
By Richard McGregor
The Chinese Communist Party as Organizational Emperor: Culture, Reproduction and Transformation
By Zheng Yongnian
This adaptability, McGregor and Zheng argue, has also had effects on the state’s willingness to use force to repress dissent. Though, in the extreme, the security apparatus will not hesitate to violently quell dissent, the preferred means of oppression have become more refined and subtle, relying instead on intimidation and, with increasing success, co-optation.
Intra-party democracy, or the “accommodation of democratic elements,” which Zheng looks at in more detail than McGregor, is also a product of the CCP’s adaptability and, along with economic growth, probably the key to its survival.
Both authors point to corruption, particularly among the upper ranks of the CCP, as well as unequal distribution of wealth, as posing the greatest risks to state stability and by extension to the party. McGregor and Zheng cite the demise of the Shanghai clique in the mid-1990s and the use of allegations of corruption to bring top officials to heel as examples of how the war on corruption has become intrinsic to factional politics. McGregor’s description of the party apparatus in charge of investigating corruption (and the system that enables officials at the very top to avoid scrutiny) makes for particularly entertaining reading.
While there isn’t anything fundamentally new about the subjects addressed by the two authors, their exploration of the various CCP departments, and how they intersect and interact with the state apparatus, is very helpful, though Zheng’s, which can become so detailed as to name the professors teaching specific classes in the Central Party School, will likely appeal to a very confined group of experts on China.