On the occasion of its centenary, five authors assess the Chinese Communist Party
The Party and the People. By Bruce Dickson. Princeton University Press; 328 pages; $ 29.95 and £ 25
Rethinking Chinese policy. By Joseph Fewsmith. Cambridge University Press; 230 pages; $ 25.99 and £ 19.99
Coup d’état in China. By Roger Garside. University of California Press; 256 pages; $ 23.95 and £ 20
From rebel to sovereign. By Tony Saich. Belknap Press; 560 pages; $ 39.95 and £ 31.95
Chinese leaders. By David Shambaugh. Political regime; 416 pages; $ 29.95 and £ 25
“TIT WORLD cannot be safe until China changes. In many ways, China has changed in unrecognizable ways since Richard Nixon wrote these words in 1967. The country by then was rife with Maoist madness, hopelessly poor and cut off from the Western world. But for many Western leaders today, the warning rings as true as it did for Nixon, who was then preparing to launch a successful campaign to become President of the United States. Their only complaint might be his next claim: “The way to do this is to persuade China that it needs to change.” The West has tried this and failed. All he can do now is try to guess if, and how, China could possibly change itself.
For many observers, the omens look bad. On July 1, Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered a speech in Tiananmen Square to mark the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. He was tinged with resentment towards the West and defensive towards Chinese communism (“a new model of human progress”). He was looking forward to 2049, when the party will hold its next centenary celebration, that of 100 years of communist rule. By then, he promised, China will be a “great modern socialist country,” under the “firm leadership” of the party. How modern it will be compared to the rich world is debatable; his GDP per person can still be far behind. But unlike 30 years ago, when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Chinese party within a generation seemed plausible, if not probable, few would bet much on it now.
Some cling to hope. Roger Garside is a former British diplomat whose first book on China, “Coming Alive: China After Mao”, published 40 years ago, remains one of the best eyewitness accounts of the beginning of the Chinese era of “reform and opening”. His new, “China Coup,” begins and ends with a fictional account of a political struggle that topples Mr. Xi and sets China on the path to multi-party democracy and rapprochement with the West. The central chapters analyze the tensions likely to induce such a change. Mr. Garside underlined the elite’s dissatisfaction with Mr. Xi’s autocratic and Western style of government, as well as the “broad and deep currents” of support among ordinary people for reform.
A coup is not a far-fetched idea. Chinese politics have a long history of party struggles, including the arrest of Mao Zedong’s widow, Jiang Qing, and other members of the “Gang of Four” soon after the president’s death. Two years later, a takeover by Deng Xiaoping overthrew Mao’s anointed successor, Hua Guofeng. But then there were obvious divisions within the party over whether to persist with Maoist radicalism. Public contempt for it was clear even before Mao’s death. In April 1976, the authorities crushed the large mourning protests that had broken out in Beijing and other major cities for the late Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai. Many ordinary Chinese saw him as a pragmatist who had been unfairly attacked by the dogmatists of the Gang of Four.
There may now be leaders who want to oust Mr. Xi – he has certainly angered some, especially with his sweeping anti-corruption campaign. But it is far from clear that anyone at the top of the party would support a push for true democracy, or even if most Chinese people would support such a potentially destabilizing measure.
Bend the rules
Before Mr. Xi took power in 2012, there had been occasional signals that some leaders believed the party should relax its controls. In “China’s Leaders,” David Shambaugh of George Washington University describes the role played by a senior official, Zeng Qinghong, in promoting political reform under Mr. Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Mr Shambaugh says reformers of that time believed the main problem with Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies in the Soviet Union of the 1980s was that they were introduced too late and implemented too quickly. As Mr. Jiang’s right-hand man, Mr. Zeng has been keen to promote a minimum of openness and even a hint of democracy in the inner workings of the party. But, as Mr. Shambaugh notes, those efforts ended after Mr. Zeng retired in 2008. Conservatism reaffirmed itself.
Influential people like Mr. Zeng can wait, unseen, for a chance to restart such limited reforms. But it is likely that, under Xi, the more conservative wing of the party has grown stronger, reinforced by the feeling that many Chinese people approve of the way he is running the country, contrary to what they see as a western weakness. In “The Party and the People”, Bruce Dickson, also of George Washington University, argues that China’s withdrawal from liberalization “has not triggered a setback of large segments of society, at least not yet” .
Mr. Dickson envisions potential threats to the party, from an economic crisis or leadership split to a nationalist backlash against a perceived failure to defend the country’s interests. But what would follow the regime change? As he observes, the most common pattern in the world over the past 25 years has been the replacement of one authoritarian regime with another. “We should not assume that the outcome will be different for China,” he warns. Tony Saich of Harvard University makes a similar point in his book on the party’s last 100 years, “From Rebel to Ruler”. He suggests that “some within the party might be able to allow a return to a milder form of authoritarianism.” But there is, he believes, “no reason to expect China to follow its East Asian neighbors to South Korea and Taiwan and turn into a solid democracy.” .
Optimists could have hoped for a return to milder authoritarianism as early as 2022, when, if he were to follow a precedent, Xi would step down as party leader at a five-year party convention. But he made it clear that he plans to keep his jobs, including the presidency and, most importantly, the post of commander-in-chief of the armed forces, for at least five years after that meeting. For many, Xi’s efforts to stay in power have suggested an unwinding of what had been widely seen as the “institutionalization” of Chinese politics in recent decades: the gradual introduction of rules ensuring predictable turnover. and regular at the top.
Joseph Fewsmith of Boston University disagrees with this analysis. In “Rethinking Chinese Politics,” he argues that the system has never really become more institutionalized. On the contrary, the longevity of the party “has been produced by the manipulation and violation of the rules, and not by the creation of binding institutions”. Mr. Xi has proven to be a staunch defender of the rules; but, says Fewsmith, he is also trying to strengthen party machinery. Its aim is not to restrict its own power, but to amplify it by transforming the party into a much more disciplined force, which is totally subject to its will.
His accumulation of so much power can create a dangerous vacuum when he leaves the political scene. It should be noted, however, that the party has survived several stormy transitions since Mao’s death. The one that led to Mr. Xi’s own membership involved fierce political struggles.
Different and identical
Nixon’s warning reflected worries from another time and a different world. In America, China’s perceived threat was its support for world communism, particularly in Asia; Chinese troops were pouring into Communist North Vietnam to aid it in its struggle against the American-backed South. Today, China no longer conducts such proxy wars or supports insurgencies. But America is afraid again – these days of a China which is a wealthy world power, able to bend others to its will without resorting to arms, while also posing a much more serious challenge to the United States. on the military level. Nixon’s words have taken on “a new urgency,” as Mr. Garside puts it.
He wrote them at the height of the vicious conflict of the Cultural Revolution – a horror hard to imagine at the time Mr. Xi was obsessed with stability. But one key characteristic remains: the attachment to communism. The July 1 performance of tens of thousands of people chanting “socialism is good, socialism is good” in Tiananmen Square was a pageantry to Mao. The centenary celebrations in China have served as a reminder of how, despite all its weaknesses, the party is not only a remarkable survivor, but unabashedly over its illiberal ideology. The West can take little comfort in predictions of how China might change when the regime does fall. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Party on”