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The Secret World of Chinese Communism?

by Thomas Riggins Tuesday, Sep. 14, 2010 at 2:59 PM
pabooks@politicalaffairs.net

Commentary on New York Review of Books article on the Chinese Communist Party by Ian Johnson



The opinions, views, thoughts, and ramblings of editors of PoliticalAffairs.net – and other stuff worth reading or viewing.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2010

The Secret World of the Chinese Communist Party?

Thomas Riggins

The New York Review of Books for 9-30-10 has an interesting article by Ian Johnson, former Beijing bureau chief for the WSJ, reviewing Richard McGregor's THE PARTY: THE SECRET WORLD OF CHINA'S COMMUNIST RULERS. I don't know how secret it can be if there is a whole book about it.

There are some interesting facts revealed in this review that readers of our sites will find useful. We are told that the CPC is basically the heart and soul of contemporary China and that the views of some, that the party is becoming irrelevant, are dead wrong. Johnson informs us that while many polices of the party are not actually "communist" it is still "Leninist in structure" and its organization and workings "would be recognizable to the leaders of the Russian Revolution." Coming from a WSJ reporter I don't know if this a compliment or not. McGregor's book also shows that despite its "secretive tendencies" the CP "can be usefully analyzed." Maybe the secret world is not really so secret after all.

Johnson says one big misunderstanding about China, and it is a BIG one, is that China "has been privatizing the economy." There is a stock market to be sure and many shares have been sold to investors around the world but "almost all Chinese companies of any size and importance remain in government hands." This is a socialist sine qua non I would think.

This fact is relatively unknown to outside investors due to "ignorant or unethical Western investment banks and lawyers." It seems that ultimate decision making in all really important Chinese companies is made by the Organization Department of the CPC and the NOT the board of directors of the company-- i.e., the party remains "in control of all personnel decisions." CEOs and directors thus dance to the tune of the party.

What about smaller companies, those not belonging to the commanding heights of the economy? Here too "government control still remains pervasive" if less direct. What Johnson means is that "the manager is often a former official or close to Party circles." Johnson is wrong to call this "government control" since even he admits "that these companies are run as the manager sees fit." What he really means is that there is a climate of shared values and aspirations between middle management and the party.

The party also has control of the government as the party, through the medium of "leading small groups" of experts and senior party leaders that have been set up to advise each of the ministries. These groups exist from the top "down to the grass roots." Westerners object to this system, especially in the legal system because judges are not independent and merely "translate court decisions made by Communist Party legal affairs committees into rulings." This objection is based on the Western notion that the only free and democratic organization of government has to be based on bourgeois notions of democracy and any other notions of democracy, especially socialist or people's democracy is bogus. This overlooks the fact that most bourgeois democracies are themselves bogus.

While many Western "experts" on China write off the CPC in the long term, Johnson shares the view that "the West has consistently underestimated the Party's ability to adapt and thus might be excessively negative about its future."

Johnson has some criticisms of his own but they seem to be motivated by his WSJ background. He thinks China needs more reform efforts and while he says "reforms haven't quite ground to a halt" nevertheless the state sector is making a comeback because the CPC has a policy "of recentralizing control." But this is what you would expect a socialist state to do.

He also faults Chinese foreign policy for being concerned with only two "narrow concerns." The first is territorial (Tibet and Taiwan) and the second is "resource extraction in Africa and Central America." Well the first is a concern with the territorial integrity of the country, which is actually being threatened, and is hardly a "narrow concern." Nor is the second, which deals with China's relation to the Third World and its trade policies. By all accounts most African and Central American countries have had better and fairer deals with the Chinese than with the West. Johnson doesn't even mention the CPC's push to increase the unionization of its workforce, which is in complete harmony with socialist principles.

All in all this is an interesting article which should be read by anyone interested in contemporary China and certainly by anyone contemplating buying and reading Richard McGregor's THE PARTY.

Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs online
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