Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Party

The Chinese blogosphere has been a buzz recently with reviews of the new book - The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor. The book has been getting very favorable reviews (and has already been banned in China). I just finished the book and agree with what most everyone else is saying; The Party is a great read.

Richard McGregor was the Financial Times' China bureau chief for most of the past decade. The goal of his book is to give his reader a vivid picture of the shadowy organization behind the scenes in almost every facet of Chinese life. The Party is an ambitious project. Getting a meaningful picture of the CCP as a foreign journalist is nearly an impossible task.

McGregor writes about this difficulty in the prologue:
An old adage in journalism, that the best story is often the one staring you in the face, holds true in China. The problem in writing about the Party, though, is that, much as the Party might be staring you in the face, you can't easily glare back. The Party and its functions are generally masked or dressed up in other guises. When it interacts with the outside world, the Party is careful to keep a low profile. Sometimes, you can't see the Party at all, which makes the job of reporting how China is governed maddeningly difficult.
McGregor succeeds in his gargantuan task of painting a picture of the Party for his readers. So much useful and little-known information is highlighted. I have a much deeper perspective and knowledge of China after finishing The Party.

The book is broken down into eight chapters and shows how the Party dominates every aspects of Chinese society. I took notes as I was reading. There are dozens of things that I'd like to talk about from this book. But I'm going to limit my thoughts to a couple.

Chapter three in the book is titled, "The Keeper of the Files: The Party and Personnel." The chapter paints a picture of the CCP's "Central Organization Department." From p. 69 in the book:
The party body with ultimate power over personnel, the Central Organization Department, is without a doubt the largest and most powerful human resources body in the world. Barely heard of outside China and little known inside the country itself, beyond official circles, its reach extends into every department of state. Much like the Party itself, the department is a fearsome, secretive hulk, struggling to adapt to a vastly more complex world which has grown up around it in the last three decades.
Delving into the Party's inner political structure that is still largely based on a Leninist-Soviet structure and seeing how they run 10%-GDP-growth-a-year-China is fascinating stuff. McGregor highlights the rotating of CEOs at large Chinese companies to keep them in their place, the administering of personality and lie detector tests for potential cadres, and the myriad of other techniques the Party uses to make sure that their strangle-hold on power remains strong.

Chapter five in the book is titled, "The Shanghai Gang: The Party and Corruption." The "Pearl of the Orient" is painted in a light that I was ignorantly unaware of. From p. 150:
Streams of foreign visitors have been dazzled by the view of Pudong, usually while clikning glasses on the terraces of the upmarket eateries housed in the colonial-era buildings that line the riverfront strip opposite, known as the Bund. The image this view conveyed - that Shanghai had returned to its entrepreneurial heyday - was far from reality. Unlike southern China and the Yangtze delta region, where Deng's policies had bred a risk-taking, private economy, Shanghai was developed as a socialist showcase. Few visitors admiring the skyscrapers realized that most of them had been built by city government companies. Far from being the free-wheeling market place that many visitors believed, Shanghai represented the Party's ideal, a a kind of Singapore-on-steroids, a combination of commercial prosperity and state control.
Deng Xiaoping had chosen southern China instead of Shanghai as the place to build up China's market economy. Things opened up in Shanghai in the early 1990s and the past twenty years has seen the metropolis turn into a major powerhouse. McGregor shows that Shanghai is a different sort of economic center than what most think when they see the glass skyscrapers though.

I would love to go on and continue to highlight more passages of the book. All eight chapters are worthwhile. But I'll just refer you to the book instead.

I'll leave with one final thought. McGregor has an over-arching theme that he comes back to over and over again: the most important thing to the Chinese Communist Party is the Chinese Communist Party. Staying in control of China is the organization's one and only objective. Economic growth, developing the military, carefully-crafted nationalism - everything stoked by the Party, really - is to ensure that it stays in power. Seeing the many positive things going on in China, I often forget this. McGregor has reminded me in a very convincing and scathing fashion of what's going on though.


Ramesh said...

No doubt a must read as every one of your book suggestions have been spot on. This one is intriguing - how did he get under the skin of one of most opaque of organisations . Ordering it online - Ah the joys of picking up a book just like that ! I had forgotten the feeling over the last three years !!

Mark said...

Having access to book stores, at reasonable shipping rates, and libraries is one of the best things about living back in the US. Dealing with the contents of Xi'an's foreign language book store was never very exciting!

I hope everything is going well for you back in India, Ramesh. You've made international moves a few times before, so I have no doubt that it's all good. Hope you're not having too much reverse culture shock.