First of all, if you aren’t following the Sinica podcasts on Popup Chinese, you are missing some excellent commentary on current issues in China. This one is from two days ago, and it complements this post. It is 100 percent must-hear.
A key contributor to the podcast, Gady Epstein of Forbes, now has an article on a topic that comes up a lot in that podcast, namely the staying power of the CCP and how it has maintained an iron grip on all aspects of life in China that it deems necessary to maintain control. Like the podcast, you simply have to read it.
The piece is based on the soon-to-be-released book The Party by Richard McGregor, which I’ve already pre-ordered. Judging from what Epstein writes, this is one scary book.
“The Party is like God,” a professor from People’s University in Beijing tells McGregor. “He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.”
The Party is not simply an account of how the party succeeds in ruling through its mechanisms of autocracy. The party’s Achilles’ heel–its lack of any independent check on its power–undermines at every turn its efforts to police corruption, vet its members, reform its bureaucracy and respond to crises.
The maneuvering required to conduct a high-level corruption investigation sounds like it is out of a mafia movie. Taking down a Politburo member, former Shanghai Party Secretary Chen Liangyu, required a side deal to keep hands off of the family of former General Secretary Jiang Zemin, whose consent for the takedown was required because he was the reigning kingpin of the Shanghai faction, despite the fact that he no longer held any official leadership posts.
The party’s apparatus of control dominated every stage of decision-making in the disastrous Sanlu milk powder scandal, from covering up melamine contamination that poisoned thousands of babies to censoring media coverage that could have saved lives to blocking legal action that could have given families some measure of justice and deterred future corporate misbehavior. At every stage where some check or balance might exist in a democratic system, the one-party system failed its people.
Well, I suppose it’s not like we didn’t know the party controls the media and everything else it wants to control, and that the big SOEs are simply part of the state apparatus. But reading this, you really have to wonder how real those signs of hope we all like to point to – the increased freedom to criticize the Party, the Glasnost approach we sometimes see in the Global Times and other media, the ability of public opinion to shake the party into action as it did after Sun Zhigang’s murder or in the case of the waitress who stabbed a menacing official – you have to wonder if these aren’t just escape valves that the party cynically uses to create a sense of democracy, a sham. Because no matter how touchy-feely China seems at times, if you really get in the way of the party in a manner it feels could undermine it, you will be crushed like a gnat.
It’s easy to forget that when we see the stories about Han Han standing up to the CCP (this was an especially delightful example and I urge you to check it out, I was laughing out loud). And it’s easy to forget that no matter how earnest those wonderful cadres we know are (and so many of them really are wonderful), their earnest attempts to bring about change can only go so far. As we all know, there are limits. For all the new freedoms and rising GDP, China remains a quasi-police state. Not a Nazi Germany or North Korea-style police state, which rule by sheer terror and fear, but a less visible system of control that’s no less insidious, should you end up in its bad graces. Like the children who drank the San Lu milk, who could easily have been saved if squelching the news hadn’t been in the party’s interest.
I’m ready for the usual comments, “Yes, but it’s just as bad or worse in the US.” And although some comparisons can be drawn between the party in China and the power brokers who rule in the US, the comparison doesn’t work; ours can be brought to heel, they can go to jail, they can be dragged in front of congressional committees. They can’t be party to the poisoning of babies and then block media coverage, ensuring that yet more babies die. They can try, as some drug companies have tried to keep secret their research showing their drugs had lethal side effects. But they’ll usually be exposed and punished, if not as severely as deserved.
As Epstein says at the close of his article, most Chinese are content not to look behind the curtain and ask questions – “times are too good.” But no good times last forever, and after the ball it will be fascinating to see how the party maintains the harmony and relative stability it so cherishes today. Will it work when springtime becomes the winter of discontent?
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.