Book review: The Party, by Richard McGregor

Hopes that prosperity and the web will release the communist grip on China are premature, says Howard Davies.

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Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

The Party: The secret world of China's communist rulers
Richard McGregor
Allen Lane £25.00

At the end of his lively The Penguin History of Modern China, Jonathan Fenby describes the People's Republic as 'an authoritarian state which increasingly lacks authority, an empire without an emperor'. The conclusion of Richard McGregor's book is rather different: 'In the absence of democratic elections and open debate, it is impossible to judge popular support for the party. But it is indisputable that support for the party has grown since Mao's death.'

Who is right? It is one of the most important questions in international relations today. Is the Chinese regime riding for a fall or can it adapt? The arguments for the 'fall' hypothesis are that no country in recent times has been able to combine the economic freedom the Chinese now enjoy - in particular the freedom to get rich - with such tight control on political activity.

Technological change, and the internet, will make it impossible to control information and thought as before. Chinese travelling abroad will be infected by western democratic notions. A monolithic communist party will not be able to master these trends.

McGregor cautions against this historicist analysis. His book is a clear-sighted and at times highly critical analysis of the party and its behaviour. He lays bare a long list of scandals, from concealment of the Mao-induced famine to the Sanlu powdered milk debacle. He is scathing about corruption and the highly selective approach to punishing the guilty. But he also has great respect for the party's ability to adapt and evolve.

It 'has proved itself to be a crafty protean beast'. The techniques used to tackle opposition are now more sophisticated: 'the party has realised it does not need to kill its critics any more.' Indeed, the Chinese 'have turned upside down the late US political scientist Samuel Huntingdon's argument that the middle class in developing countries is revolutionary first, before becoming conservative '.

Over time, we will discover if the party can continue to adapt. The main value of McGregor's book is that he shows how central the party still is to Chinese business. In all companies, whether state-controlled or private, there is a party hierarchy parallel to the management structure, making key decisions on personnel and strategy. The Central Organisation Department sits above, moving senior people between organisations to prevent the build-up of alternative power bases.

After six years in Beijing as the Financial Times's bureau chief, McGregor has amassed a fund of stories about this mysterious system. A chapter on the Shanghai Gang explains how the party boss, Chen Liangyu, was exposed and brought down. Why him, rather than similarly corrupt officials elsewhere? As McGregor sees it, the Shanghai clan pushed their luck. Anyone who has seen the scale of the Pudong development will understand his point. Shanghai became resented in Beijing and elsewhere and an attack on its leadership would be popular.

He is amusing, too, on censorship, which is now quite subtle. In Casino Royale, Judi Dench, as M, says to Bond: 'Christ, I miss the Cold War.' That was not acceptable to a party committed to China's peaceful rise and highly sensitive to the characterisation of its post-Cold War foreign policies. So Dame Judi rerecorded a single line of dialogue in English for the Chinese version. In Beijing cinemas she said instead: 'God, I miss the old times.'

And we learn of what are known as 'human flesh search engines', which allow Chinese bloggers (some semi-official) to expose local abuses of power. One official was photographed wearing a Swiss Vacheron Constantin watch, retailing at $15,000. That brought him down, even though he protested, probably rightly, that it was a fake.

McGregor has even penetrated the Organisation Department. He cites the 'four running races' ambitious cadres undertake to get ahead. 'Sprints' where officials opportunistically lobby seniors for promotions; 'long-distance' races, where juniors 'suck up to leaders and make emotional investments in their bosses'; 'relays' where the ambitious construct multi-layered recommendations from relatives, classmates, etc to get closer to the leaders; and 'hurdles', where officials go over the heads of their bosses and use retired cadres to act in their favour.

As an interested observer of the FT over the years, I would say this well describes the promotions process there. It takes one to know one, I suppose.

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