The Party by Richard McGregor, Reviewed

As the Chinese Communist Party goes from strength to strength in taking on Google and others, professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom considers a new book about how the party succeeds so well.

As the Chinese Communist Party goes from strength to strength in taking on Google and others, Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom considers a new book about how the party succeeds so well.

From 1990 until the turn of the millennium, a series of predictable things happened each year as the June 4 anniversary of the brutal crackdown that put an end to the Tiananmen protests of 1989 arrived. In the West, editorial writers, pundits, and newscasters would remind their audiences of the inspiring Chinese demonstrations that transfixed television viewers around the world, and of the killing of protesters and onlookers that horrified us. Many would also note that 1989 saw the Berlin Wall collapse and communist rule end in many countries, including Poland where Solidarity, ironically, won its first electoral victory on the same day that troops killed civilians in Beijing. They would go on to assert that the Chinese Communist Party’s days are numbered. In Hong Kong, the anniversary of China’s 1989 fiasco would be marked by rallies honoring the martyrs of what is often called, somewhat misleadingly, the “Tiananmen Square Massacre”—a problematic term not because there wasn’t a massacre (as the Chinese authorities insist), but simply because the main killing fields were near, not on that famous plaza. Finally, in all other parts of China, censors would strive to keep all references to “liusi” (6/4), the standard Chinese term for the crackdown, from appearing in print.

“Somehow, [the party] has outlasted, outsmarted, outperformed, or simply outlawed its critics, flummoxing the pundits who have predicted its demise at numerous junctures.”

This basic pattern, established when the first anniversary of the June 4th massacre was marked in 1990, continues to this day, so last month, we saw the 20th replay of the things just described. There have, however, been two recent modifications worth noting.

The first is that, within China, the battle between censors and their opponents over 1989 has increasingly moved online. Internet police now scour websites looking pairings of the numbers “6” and “4” (simply alluding to the crackdown’s date is treated as a subversive act). They also strive to keep Chinese websites as free as possible of any images that could be interpreted as alluding to 1989. The vigilance of these efforts was underscored this year when a cartoon showing a boy drawing a line of tanks (that may or may not have been intended to bring 1989 to mind) appeared in a mainland newspaper on June 1 and inspired some comments that referred to the world famous “tank man” photograph. Soon, the image (and the comments) had disappeared from the online edition of the newspaper. To circumvent this control, ingenious bloggers use creative methods to remind people of the traumas of 1989 via coded communications (such as referring to the events of “May 35th”) and keep banned images in circulation (the cartoon alluded to above showed up quickly in several other places on the Web).

The second noteworthy shift has been that we have been hearing less and less each June about the likelihood that the Chinese Communist Party is about to fall. Now, the arrival of June 4 often inspires reflection instead on the curious longevity of the Chinese Communist Party—a longevity that seems particularly surprising because anger at official corruption and other grievances that were voiced in 1989 have not gone away.

This latter change makes it particularly appropriate that the most significant book on China published in the last few months is Richard McGregor’s The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. As the Financial Times reporter stresses in his prologue, his book’s primary concern is with showing how exactly the Chinese Communist Party has stayed in power so long. “After each catastrophe,” such as the implosion of the Soviet Union, he writes, “the party has picked itself up off the ground, reconstituted its armour and reinforced its flank. Somehow, it has outlasted, outsmarted, outperformed, or simply outlawed its critics, flummoxing the pundits who have predicted its demise at numerous junctures.”

Each chapter that follows, all of which begin with clever epigraphs and many of which have shrewdly chosen titles, explores a different aspect of the Party’s survival strategy. Chapter One, for example, “The Red Machine: The Party and the State," focuses on formal governing arrangements at the top. It opens with a quotation by an unnamed university professor (“The party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.”) and examines the renewed emphasis on unity within the elite and enduring stress on secrecy of China’s top leaders. “The party’s genius,” McGregor writes, “has been its leaders’ ability in the last three decades to maintain the political institutions and authoritarian powers of old-style communism, while dumpling the ideological straitjacket that originally inspired them.” Later chapters concentrate on topics such the co-opting of capitalists and the continuing significance of state-run enterprises (“China, Inc.: The Party and Business”), the intertwining of civil and military hierarchies (“Why We Fight: The Party and the Gun”), and nepotism, backroom deals, and the selling of influence (“The Shanghai Gang: The Party and Corruption”).

McGregor foregrounds two things in his explanation of why the Chinese Communist Party (the largest political organization on earth) is still alive and kicking—and shows no sign of going gently into any good night in the near future. The first is its capacity for flexibility. This is evidenced by the fact that the party now embraces both the Confucianism and the consumerism that Mao Zedong despised and uses propaganda methods that are more “street-wise” and subtle than those it once relied upon.

The second secret to its survival is its refusal to budge in other domains. It has always insisted on a monopoly over organized political activity, for example, and now does so with renewed vigor. This is partly due to a conviction, based on close study of the fall of communism in Europe (McGregor stresses that this kind of diagnostic investigation has been given a high priority in post-Tiananmen China), that various forms of the “Polish disease” (a disparaging term for Solidarity) have been responsible for the undoing of many other authoritarian systems. This suspicion of all potential competitors helps explain the quick and harsh methods used against the Falun Gong sect as soon as it showed the ability to mobilize large numbers of adherents for a 1999 sit-in. It also shows through in the government’s willingness to show lenience when dealing with unorganized strike actions at factories (as was the case, most recently, when isolated walkouts began at Honda plants, while taking a much harder line toward protests that seem to be leading toward the forming of independent unions.

McGregor’s main thesis is not terribly novel. It complements rather than challenges much that academic China specialists have been saying, so what makes The Party valuable is not its novel arguments but the details it provides to back them up, and the fact that this information about people and policies is offered up by someone who is both a stylish writer and a determined reporter. McGregor is simply good at getting unusual people to talk to him (material from an interview with an entrepreneur who attended an official retreat for budding capitalists is the highlight of “China, Inc.”) and has knack for fleshing out big points with telling anecdotes and lively character sketches (his discussion of the key players involved in a corruption scandal in one of the country’s most important cities, including its “bumptious” and “loutishly” mannered former Party Secretary Chen Liangfu, makes “The Shanghai Gang” a particularly lively chapter).

The Party is not the best new book on China I’ve read during the past 12 months. I’d still give that laurel to Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey through China from Farm to Factory, which offers an unapologetically bottom-up portrait of the dizzying changes as they are affecting the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. If, however, you want a convincing, engaging, unapologetically top-down account of the country, McGregor’s book is the one for you.

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On June 3, 2009, reflecting on the oddity of timing that saw Communist Party rule unravel in Poland just as troops were killing students and workers in Beijing, Timothy Garton Ash made an intriguing suggestion in The Guardian. “Someone,” he wrote, looking ahead to the anniversary about to be marked, “should institute an annual June 4 review of the Chinese, European, and American models.” No one took him up on this suggestion this month, but if anyone does so in the future, The Party is definitely one book that all the participants should have on hand.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, published in April by Oxford University Press. A member of the UC Irvine History Department, editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and a co-founder of “The China Beat” blog, his commentaries and reviews have appeared in many online and print periodicals, including the Times Literary Supplement (London), the Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, the Nation, and Time Magazine.