The CCP Meme

I was bit struck by a post I read today over at ESWN which begins as follows:

You know the meme — the Chinese Communist Party leaders are a bunch of ruthless butchers who have slaughtered tens of millions of Chinese citizens. Okay, so we got that out of the way. Here is the question: Why do they do that? You know the meme. They want to seize onto their power. Next question: To seize onto their power in order to do what? This is where it is usually stuck — they want to seize onto the power in order to seize onto the power, and this is obviously not intellectually satisfying unless you think every one of them is Mao Zedong as portrayed in Jung Chang’s so-called ‘biography.’

Now we get to the question of Wen Jiabao. What does he want? The photo below (via Xici Hutong) was taken during his recent field study trip in Anhui. Here, he is having lunch at the Ma’anshan Steel Factory workers’ cafeteria. For his own meal, he insisted on paying four RMB as required under the rules.

ESWN then makes the case, with which I agree, that Wen is a good guy who wants what’s best for his people and that there are many more in the CCP like him. True enough.

But…I have to admit I was put off by some of his phrasing. What if I wrote, “You know the meme — the Stalin clan was a bunch of ruthless butchers who have slaughtered tens of millions of Russian citizens. Okay, so we got that out of the way.”

I find this disingenuous, because by calling it a “meme,” ESWN is strongly implying this is something of a red herring, something we automatically think, Pavolvian-style, when the CCP comes to mind. It implies we are naive to think this way.

I would counter that it is not a meme at all, it is a matter of fact, and it can be documented, justified and proven. They have done these things. Is there more to the story, and has there been progress? Of course. But they have slaughtered millions, although today they no longer do so and no one claims they do. No one.

I had this conversation with a reader earlier today as we sipped coffee in Sanlitun. There are so many truly noble people in the party, idealistic, urbane, compassionate and profoundly decent. He was telling me about his many friends in the CCP that fit this description. But, he said, that doesn’t change the party’s track record or neutralize their sins past and present. No matter how many good apples in the CCP basket, they are still authoritarian and ruthless, and at times borderline totalitarian. He asked aloud, “How can the party be so bad when there be so many wonderful pary members?”

I’m sorry, if someone said to me, “You know the Nazi meme, about how they slaughtered millions of Jews,” I think I’d be offended. I often agree with ESWN and link to his site more than just about any other, but his choice of words bothered me all day, as it borders on a whitewash. Praise the CCP for the progress of recent years, but don’t deny that it’s got more blood on its hands than just about any other political party in power today. No matter how nifty Wen Jiabao is, that fact remains and is anything but a meme.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 39 Comments

Richard – it’s you! You’re back! Does that mean I can go to sleep now?!

August 30, 2005 @ 3:37 am | Comment

Please, go to sleep – but I can’t post again tonight. I have been incredibly busy meeting old friends and colleagues, not to mention readers of this site, and I probably won’t post again for a day or two. But then, you never know…:-)

August 30, 2005 @ 3:40 am | Comment

I’ve a couple of new posts waiting in the wings.

August 30, 2005 @ 3:41 am | Comment

how about this, richard:

“You know the meme — japan as a nation is a bunch of ruthless butchers who have slaughtered tens of millions of Chinese citizens…”

August 30, 2005 @ 7:05 am | Comment

Sweeping the past under the rug is no way to deal with the present.

“How can the party be so bad when there be so many wonderful pary members?”

I think this one is pretty easy. Totalitarian regimes rule by force. By definition, they aren’t the choice of their people. No matter how many national congresses they have and no matter how flowery their pronouncements, in the end, they all rule by brute force, by keeping the people in line.

This means that the people at the top are always vulnerable. They can be knocked out of office by an uprising of the people, a political foe or a natural disaster. Their only defense is to surround themselves with people who are as ruthless as they are, but loyal. Of course, each of these people is also vulnerable, and can only keep their spot in the inner ring if they, too, surround themselves with a cadre of ruthless, loyal people.

Studies have shown that individual humans are much more prone to do evil (such as shocking an innocent test subject with a dangerous amount of electricity) if they feel that they are but one link in an evil chain. If they can reason that the evil isn’t really their fault (they didn’t start the chain) and will go on whether they participate or not (someone else will do it if they refuse), then even the most innocent-seeming people will do shocking things (accidental pun). There is also a proven tendency in humans to escalate: if you can get away with a little, you push it and try to get away with more. And, of course, every one of us is more likely to do something bad if we think no one is watching…

The structure of a totalitarian government is thus a perfect growth medium for evil. Everyone in the chain is insecure and conscious of the fact that they can lose everything at the whim of a higher up. The only ones watching are their equally insecure peers. Small bits of corruption happen every day and go unnoticed. The government can be made up of a majority of good people with the welfare of the people at heart and yet still do horrible things. The pattern is exactly the same, whether it’s Hitler, Stalin or Saddam.

The only defense against this sort of thing is open, democratic government. If people know that others are watching and that they will be held accountable for their actions (even small ones) and that their position is secured by the rule of law, then they obviously tend to fewer bad things.

The folks at Enron got into trouble because no one was watching. They were able to compartmentalize their bad actions, so that each one was only one part in a chain and they got away with little things, which emboldened them to move up to bigger ones. They didn’t start out evil, they got that way by a bad environment.

So, it’s not the character of the average person involved, it’s the structure of the system they inhabit. Totalitarian governments always become rotten, even if they start with the best of intentions.

August 30, 2005 @ 7:59 am | Comment

ESWN remarks:

This is where it is usually stuck — they want to seize onto the power in order to seize onto the power

Uh, maybe ESWN gets stuck there, not sure how many others do. I think most of the rest of us would reply with something like “they seize onto power because it is enormously personally beneficial (i.e. in terms of wealth, status, access, influence, power, authority, etc.) ”

August 30, 2005 @ 8:08 am | Comment

It’s been a while folks, but ESWN’s question has a ready answer. Consider the CPC as not simply a political party, but rather a bureaucratic organ. Inertia is what keeps the party putting along and the instinctive nature of bureaucracies to perpetuate themselves is what drives their desire to maintain control. Imagine if you will, the Communist Party as being similar to say the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, except they also control the police and armed forces. A cursory examination of American civics will show how even in the transparent political entities, largess and power will accumulate, and those who have it will ruthlessly attempt to maintain their own perks, privileges, and power. (Refer Japundit’s recent post about a Japanese township ordering 200,000 yen luxury ashtrays, only to have a no smoking ordinance render them moot) Witness the budgetary battles between organizations for their share of funding. In the case of China, the party is itself an amalgamation of lesser bureaucracies formed into one uber-bureaucracy. Those millions of cadres, clerks, and officials demand their perks and will fight to keep them.

The party of today is not that of the 50′s or 70′s. It [i]was[/i] a party of action, of excess, and the ruthless exercise of power. It’s now a party of mediocrity characterized by portly 50 year olds with bad comb-overs using imbezzled funds for 1000 rmb banquets and night outs at the local KTV with their favourite mistress. The last thing these men butchered was the pork sausages they had for breakfast.

August 30, 2005 @ 8:28 am | Comment

Rob writes:
“Totalitarian regimes rule by force. By definition, they aren’t the choice of their people. No matter how many national congresses they have and no matter how flowery their pronouncements, in the end, they all rule by brute force, by keeping the people in line.”

What about if the ‘evil regime’ delivers the goods to the people? I agree that the current regime rules by brute force but, at the moment in China, the CCP are (at least partly) delivering the economic goods. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no CCP apologist but who are we foreigners to stand up and critcise the CCP when they have improved the material lives of hundreds of millions of people and dragged China into the international community of nations?

The fact is, China is infinitely more free and more rich than 30 years ago. Yes, absolutely, some of the freedom issues are going backwards but the fact remains, when I first came to China in 1991, there were no cars, no apartment blocks, no international brand name shops, etc etc.

One has got to draw a line between progress and PROGRESS.

August 30, 2005 @ 9:56 am | Comment

I would reply to Jing’s post but, as I agree with parts of it, I’m in too much shock to type right now. I’m also very frightening.

August 30, 2005 @ 10:00 am | Comment

ESNW has always struck me as somewhat of an apologist for the CCP. This just confirms it. Also, Shanghai Slim is dead on. It is ESNW, not anyone else, who gets stuck on something so obvious as why people want more and more power. That is like asking why people want more and more money.

August 30, 2005 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

Certainly we can agree that there are friendly people who mean well in the CCP and still oppose the general direction that CCP rule has taken. Generalizing (demonizing?) an entire group of people because of the actions of its leaders is different from criticizing the policies of a group.

I think ESWN writes as if critics of the CCP behave like the CCP. I understand that there are good members of the CCP. The CCP does not understand (or does not recognize) that there are decent practitioners of a specific religion.

August 30, 2005 @ 2:56 pm | Comment

How can the party be so bad when there are so many wonderful party members?
How many of those wonderful people are in the top ranks of the party? Historically, it’s always been the brutal and ruthless people who rise to the top in communist movements. The well-meaning and idealistic people have the odds stacked against them and usually stay at the bottom, if they are lucky enough to escape being purged.

August 30, 2005 @ 6:38 pm | Comment

The last thing these men butchered were the pork sausages they had for breakfast
The CCP hasn’t become so soft that they’ve forgotten that their power comes out of the barrel of a gun. They were willing to use that gun in 1989 rather than let their people challenge the 1-party system, and there is no reason to believe they wouldn’t do the same thing again today.

August 30, 2005 @ 6:50 pm | Comment

bingfeng: how about this, richard:
“You know the meme — japan as a nation is a bunch of ruthless butchers who have slaughtered tens of millions of Chinese citizens…”

Bad analogy, bingfeng. To say the entire nation is a nation of butchers is irresponsible, while pointing to the perpetrators of the butchery — be it the CCP or the Japanese masters of war – is quite valid. When you say Japan is a nation of butchers, you really are speaking in a meme, i.e., a statement of questionable fact designed to “stick” and influence people’s emotions misleadingly. However, to call the Japanese war architects – or the Nazi leadership or Mao’s CCP or Stalin and his coterie – butchers is a statement of fact, not a meme.

August 30, 2005 @ 8:39 pm | Comment

1000rmb banquets? is that per person \?
i had a chinese student who told me his father who was a colonel would go out for 30,000rmb meals and there were 6-7 generals/colonels at the table…unreal!

August 30, 2005 @ 8:41 pm | Comment

I was lost for words during a philosophy class last week when a student said “Hitler killed all those Jews. Yeah. He was completely evil. Right. But he was still doing what he thought was best for his country.” She happened to be Ukranian…

August 30, 2005 @ 9:02 pm | Comment

1,000 RMB for dinner is hardly outrageous. 1,000 per person is more like it.

Check out the Courtyard Cafe in Beijing great French food and wine. The Fois Gras is to die for.

Can easily drop 2- 3,000 for a two person dinner.

August 30, 2005 @ 9:16 pm | Comment

bingfeng: how about this, richard:
“You know the meme — japan as a nation is a bunch of ruthless butchers who have slaughtered tens of millions of Chinese citizens…”

Bad analogy, bingfeng. To say the entire nation is a nation of butchers is irresponsible, while pointing to the perpetrators of the butchery — be it the CCP or the Japanese masters of war – is quite valid. When you say Japan is a nation of butchers, you really are speaking in a meme, i.e., a statement of questionable fact designed to “stick” and influence people’s emotions misleadingly. However, to call the Japanese war architects – or the Nazi leadership or Mao’s CCP or Stalin and his coterie – butchers is a statement of fact, not a meme.

Posted by richard at August 30, 2005 08:39 PM

————

namely japan is still ruled by the family that once pushed the japan into WWII.

calling today’s CCP as Mao’s CCP is somewhat similar to call japan “a barbaric nation”

August 30, 2005 @ 9:17 pm | Comment

Kier, that comment from the Ukranian is consistent with many things I’ve heard about the Soviet Union/Russia and the anti-Semitism there.

August 30, 2005 @ 10:33 pm | Comment

While I occasionally take issue with some of ESWN’s assumptions and conclusions, in fairness it must be said that his blog is an invaluable resource for those of us without the language skills or access to read the Chinese press.

August 30, 2005 @ 11:40 pm | Comment

I’m still stuck on the “bad comb-overs” line…

August 31, 2005 @ 1:25 am | Comment

1,000 rmb/person for dinner is not really so unusual. A guy I know here in Shanghai once mentioned that he occasionally enjoys a 1,200 rmb/person breakfast.

I was just reading a Dutch guy’s blog in which he was describing a pizza dinner he recently enjoyed in Shanghai. At 700-800 rmb/person, he thought the price was quite reasonable for pretty good pizza, wine and coffee. I have to admit, when I read that one, I thought “Eight hundred kuai for … pizza? Dude, they saw you comin’ …” :-)

Sometimes I forget that there is a whole strata of people in China (both foreigners and locals) who are incredibly, amazingly wealthy. Then I’m reminded, like the other day, when I saw a Chinese guy driving a new Bentley. They go for around US$150,000.

That would be something like an American driving a $500,000 car. What kind of car costs $500,000? That’s more than a new Maybach or Lamborghini. Maybe a Ferrari Enzo, or FDR’s personal limousine.

For those folks, as well as the legions of “on the public’s dime” officials, I think 1,000 rmb/person dinners are not uncommon.

August 31, 2005 @ 1:44 am | Comment

That really was masterful, Jing, deserving a requote:

The party of today is not that of the 50′s or 70′s. It was a party of action, of excess, and the ruthless exercise of power. It’s now a party of mediocrity characterized by portly 50 year olds with bad comb-overs using imbezzled funds for 1000 rmb banquets and night outs at the local KTV with their favourite mistress. The last thing these men butchered was the pork sausages they had for breakfast.

:-)

August 31, 2005 @ 1:49 am | Comment

namely japan is still ruled by the family that once pushed the japan into WWII.

calling today’s CCP as Mao’s CCP is somewhat similar to call japan “a barbaric nation”
Posted by bingfeng at August 30, 2005 09:17 PM

Hmmm…let’s analyze your logic Bingfeng with a parallelism: China is still ruled by the party that killed tens of millions of IT’S OWN people a few decades back,….and slaughtered people at Tienanmen (after Mao was long gone — to counter your above argument), and still locks people up for good on a whim (among other crimes). I guess that means that CHINA “as a nation is a bunch of ruthless butchers who have slaughtered tens of millions of Chinese citizens…”

By your logic, you should agree with the above statement.

Sorry Bingfeng…your Japan analogy is still false.

August 31, 2005 @ 6:52 am | Comment

thomas, thanks for agreeing with me

August 31, 2005 @ 7:08 am | Comment

What about if the ‘evil regime’ delivers the goods to the people? I agree that the current regime rules by brute force but, at the moment in China, the CCP are (at least partly) delivering the economic goods.

Well, I’m not Chinese, so perhaps my answer is no good. From my perspective, however, this represents a double standard. If the US government were to deliver the economic “goods” to you, but fail miserably in delivering basic freedoms, you would scream your head off and rightfully so.

It’s very difficult to accept the premise that certain foreigners don’t aspire to the same freedoms that we do in the US. Somehow, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness just seems universal, not cultural.

If the Chinese people really want a government that delivers the economic goods, but offers only a fraction of the personal liberties that western democracies offer, I’m fine with that. But it has to be their choice. Anything less should be unacceptable to free people everywhere.

August 31, 2005 @ 8:34 am | Comment

The meme is priceless. I was thinking of casting it in Khmer Rouge terms, but everyone else has done better. But it is interesting that no one has mentioned Taiwan. China had two choices up until 1949. And the world has had fifty years to compare the two systems. If the Taiwan model had been applied to China, it should be both far more prosperous and democratic today than is the case. No doubt sessions of the Chinese Assembly would be as boisterous as Taiwan’s, but the point is that if the Taiwan model held true for China it would be far better off than it presently is. I have always viewed this issue as sparking a more emotional reaction from the mainland, but now wonder if the emotion isn’t really a cover for the damning fact that by winning the war, the Party set China back in its economic and political development.

August 31, 2005 @ 10:01 am | Comment

That’s a very interesting analysis lirelou. I like it. The only problem is that there is no guarantee that if the CCP had lost the war that things would be any different in China. Of course the Great Leap Backward and the Cultural Revolution would not have happened, but who is to say what way history would have turned out? Perhaps better, perhaps worse.

For years, the KMT-dominated Taiwan government was no better than the CCP-dominated China government. And I suspect that there are many codgers in Taiwan who long for the days when their rule was unchallenged (it’s actually my opinion that the current KMT is only so opposed to DPP-sponsored legislation only because they can’t get used to the idea that they are not the ones calling all of the shots anymore…the weapons bill is the perfect example…the KMT armed Taiwan for years….yet suddenly they are opposed to an arms bill that the DPP initiates). In short, just because Taiwan is such an open society today, there is no guarantee China would be open had the KMT retained power.

However, I agree that those who actually know of Taiwan’s prosperity within China would harbor a certain sense of embarrassment. Although most don’t know of this prosperity. Case in point: Right before I left the mainland, a rather average man in Lanzhou, a poor city, asked me why I would ever want to move to Taipei. “Life is so difficult there!” He said.

Ignorance truly is bliss.

August 31, 2005 @ 10:48 am | Comment

To Thomas,

Don’t be so harsh on the KMT. If it weren’t for the KMT, Taiwan would have long ago been invaded by the PRC. Certainly, the KMT kept an iron-fisted rule over Taiwan for some 40 years, but still what do you expect from an island which at any point in time be invaded by the Chinese communists from the other side? You needed to have emergency laws and martial law in place to prevent infiltration and enemy take-over. Taiwan’s transition to a democracy was also a big part of the KMT legacy. If there were not a Chiang-Chin-kuo and other KMT members who tolerated poltical dissent in the 1980s and early 1990s, there would not be a democratic Taiwan today.

The role of the KMT today is to preserve the peaceful status quo of the Taiwan straits. The situation today is this: The PRC is not so intent on invading Taiwan if Taiwan does not declare permanent separation from China, a very different policy from that of the Maoist years. Hence, the KMT is not so keen on buying military arms as it used to.

Rather, the PRC has made it very clear that it will invade Taiwan if Taiwan declares independence. The clamor to buy military arms is in reality put forth by the DPP secessionists to achieve exactly this aim. That is, buy the arms and declare statehood, provoke the PRC to attack, and use the newly acquire weapons to fend off the PLA. The problem is this is a wild fantasy. A PLA attack would mean catastrophe for Taiwan, and the United States, should it also be dragged into it. Two nuclear powers dueling over Taiwan is definitely a dangerous situation.

The KMT’s responsibility is great.

August 31, 2005 @ 4:26 pm | Comment

Why do they want to hold onto power?!?!?!
Ummmm….
So they don’t get hauled up to a tribunal and risk conviction for crimes against the state/people
So they can keep their kickbacks, bribe money, perks, ability to drive as they see fit
For the respect and adulation of the ignorant masses
Better they have power than someone else?
Why do I want power?
What a stupid article…

August 31, 2005 @ 7:10 pm | Comment

AC,

Don’t lecture me on Taiwan’s current political situation. I live here and follow it.

1) Taiwan has not been under a real threat of invasion for much of the last 50 years. For most of that time, the CCP has not had the capabilities to launch an invasion of Taiwan. The iron fist of the KMT had nothing to do with protecting the island….rather it had everything to do with protecting their power. But I can see how mainland brainwashing would lead you to misread this point.

2) While it is true that some members of the KMT allowed political dissent, it does not free the way for a whitewashing of the party image. Far from it.

3) The KMT oppose almost all bills proposed by the DPP for ridiculous reasons. The arms bill is only one of them. Keeping the peace is perhaps a tiny fraction of their reasons. Bitter Lien Chan and James Soong and their cronies are the ones who have made it a peace issue (despite the fact that Taiwan’s purchases of defensive weapons have been lagging for some time and it is a well-known fact that the army badly needs an upgrade whether China is a threat or not)… As I said, the KMT purchased weapons for years. It is significant that Ma Yingjiu has now declared that he is not necessarily opposed to purchasing the weapons. And that now that there has been a leadership change in the KMT, the next legislative session might see some progress. It is also significant that the men who are now out of power are quite cold to Chairman Ma. Was it Soong (yes, he’s still in power, but most people laugh about him these days instead of take him seriously) who said the other day that meeting with Ma “would happen in time?” (The chairman of one pan-Blue party snubbed the new chairman of the other.) This suggests that much of the opposition is due to petty egos.

As for Ma himself, if his party has enjoyed a recent rise in popularity, polls show the main reason is that people are optimistic he will be able to finally clean up the party and make it into a no-BS organization. It is still scleratic and corrupt. Taiwanese know that. If it weren’t these things, it would not be the SECOND largest party in the legislature and would still control the Exexutive. Will Ma change that? Maybe. But until I see them stop behaving like spoiled rotten kids that have had their ball taken away, I reserve the right to be as hard on them as I wish.

August 31, 2005 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

Jing is quite right, they are not butchering anyone, at leastnot now. Which is why I was careful to add this phrase to my post:

Is there more to the story, and has there been progress? Of course. But they have slaughtered millions, although today they no longer do so and no one claims they do. No one.

Which is that makes ESWN’s original allusion to “the CCP meme” even more maddening — the meme doesn’t even exist. No one today accuses the current regime of mass butchery. Cruelty, occasional murder, corruption, lots of very naughty things, but nothing like the good old days. So why does he start the post with this assertion that such a meme exists and is in fact so entrenched he needs to “get it out of the way” before going any further? That’s what bent me out of shape.

Bingfeng, keep trying. But you’re on very thin ice with your Japan analogy, as Thomas aptly demonstrates.

August 31, 2005 @ 11:44 pm | Comment

Has anyone ever seen the FLG demonstrators in NYC or other big American cities. It’s sick stuff, really. They do full-dress mockups of prisoners being horribly tortured by Chinese police officers, with fake blood and everything.

September 1, 2005 @ 9:00 am | Comment

Thomas, Point taken, there are never any guarantees. Yet in Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, and Singapore, prosperity also brought a more vibrant middle class (or what passes therefor) which eventually pressured reluctant governments to liberalize politics. Certainly, it is too early to tell if these changes (for the better) are permanent, or illusory. And I’m certain a case can be made that the move to Taiwan cut away some of the baggage that made the KMT government as corrupt as it was in China. But, Taiwan did develop into a more pluralistic and (still developing) democracy once it had achieved that minimum of economic progress. The difference may lie that the road for economic progress was open to many players in Taiwan, whereas in China and Vietnam, efforts are still being made to direct this development so as to avoid the creation of a class antagonistic to the Party’s monopoly on power. And that once competing economic players existed, the entrenched parties were more or less forced to make parallel openings in the political
sphere.
ps. We’ll be in Taipei on Sunday to visit family, provided that a second typhoon is not about to savage the island.

September 1, 2005 @ 9:16 am | Comment

Matt, no one ever accused the FLG of being overly subtle.

September 1, 2005 @ 9:19 am | Comment

“1000 RMB per person?”
NO,U guys are totally wrong, 1000RMB per DISH(or MORE) would be more appropriate, judge from the banquets I’ve been to……

I can’t agree more with Thomas’ take on Taiwanese politics

September 1, 2005 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

typo “judging

September 1, 2005 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

Anyone who finds unsatisfying, the explanation that the powerful seek to hold onto power for the sake of holding onto power, knows nothing of either history, human nature or power.

September 1, 2005 @ 11:13 pm | Comment

Did you even read my book?

May 10, 2006 @ 7:31 am | Comment

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