- The Washington Times - Friday, October 22, 2010


By Richard McGregor
Harper, $27.99, 320 pages

Given the daunting odds against their success, the men who met on July 1, 1921, to found the Chinese Communist Party - the gongchangdang - rank among history’s greatest optimists. Just eight were present in Shanghai’s French quarter proposing a plan for a communist revolution, even though the proletariat working class was a measly 2 percent of the population. After harnessing the galloping steed of anti-Japanese nationalism among peasants to win power in 1949, that same party now numbers 78 million members - history’s largest political organization.

Richard McGregor, the former Beijing correspondent for the Financial Times, offers little new in his account of the party’s founding and rise, but his consistent realism and knack for incorporating dramatic anecdotes and revealing quotes render his book a skilled overview and smooth read. As China takes its place on the world stage as a rising superpower, his analysis of the party’s enduring grip on power will engross - and perhaps unnerve - Westerners hoping for democracy here in China.

The author notes that yes, Mao Zedong promised an “iron rice bowl” of socialist welfare, but it was fatally empty. Yes, he adds, the sometimes fraternal, sometimes adversarial Soviet Union collapsed, which isolated China. “But after each catastrophe, the party has reconstituted its armor [and] outlasted, outsmarted, outperformed or simply outlawed its critics.” Mr. McGregor astutely concludes that the party studies the suicides of other socialist polities to avoid taking a spot in history’s graveyard.

Some Western China experts predicted the party’s demise after the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 - but it became stronger. In fact, one telling incident (not related in the book) concerns a young Chinese editor who ran a statement calling for a proper investigation. When his superiors flayed him, he retorted that he had no idea what had happened in 1989. Behind this enforced amnesia, Mr. McGregor notes, is the party’s smart use of propaganda.

In short order, preparations were under way for the Olympics, a move that distracted - and inspired - a people who seek global prestige. Stirring up nationalism is another buttress, with Beijing adamantly insisting on reunification with Taiwan while ensuring it maintains control of the military, an issue Mr. McGregor reviews.

So much for the optimism of Westerners in 1989 that a “sophisticated, dignified, civilized” China would loosen its grip. Was it the latest instance of the West romanticizing China, a phenomenon that spans the latter’s failed socialism and its politically dictatorial, corrupt and environmentally devastating modernization, now under way?

Mr. McGregor offers compelling insights regarding the party’s spies and informants, a control operation that maintains extensive files on members and others. Mr. McGregor quotes an unnamed college professor who says, “The party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.” But its dark powers encompass “illegal surveillance, home searches, forced repatriation, detention, re-education through labor, being locked in psychiatric asylums, phone tapping, harassment … and let’s add forced abortions and executions.”

So why do party members remain dedicated? One factor is money. Mr. McGregor cites an official who explains that a powerful party member “paid 300,000” Chinese yuan for his position, “but within two years, netted in five million. Is there any other profession as profitable as this under heaven?” Ironically, a new class of baohufu - the suddenly rich - supports the party because it is generating wealth.

Overall, as the book observes, Chinese officials have placed velvet leashes around the necks of their people, who enjoy the right to travel, attend college, worship at temples and become rich. They are able to discuss public affairs and even protest to some extent - as individuals. But if the dissent becomes widespread and, especially, if resisters formally organize (e.g. an alternate party), the soft tether becomes a noose committed to maintaining “Chinese democracy with socialist characteristics” - the official slogan.

While some party elders this week called for more freedom of speech, this reviewer urges caution. The worms infesting the political apple, notably vicious cheating for money and power, the advancement of one’s clique and reliance on personal connections and networks to flout the law, are deeply embedded and many. It is more than a little telling that Mao, who extolled socialism, moved into the imperial palace after seizing power and is sometimes called a Red emperor.

Access to Internet sites that reference this book, including Amazon, are blocked here. In an exclusive post from London, Mr. McGregor asserts that this confirms “that the [party] is very secretive and sensitive about its inner workings. The Chinese officials I have spoken to directly are aghast. Second-hand, I am told the [party] is doing an internal report [to] circulate within party organs. But it still cannot speak to me … directly because such issues [are] not to be shared with nonparty” or low-ranking members.

Mr. McGregor concludes somberly - and rightly - that China will “destabilize” the world whether it collapses or succeeds. “It is bound to unsettle the existing order. The rest of the world will have to adjust to compete, be it for dominance of the sea lanes or oil in Africa.” Clearly, the West faces a serious competitor that has impressively - sometimes worryingly - become a resilient giant far removed from the tiny organization that originated during a Shanghai summer.

Victor Fic is a Canadian analyst of China studying Mandarin in Beijing.

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