5 Myths about the Chinese Communist Party

By McGregor, Richard | Foreign Policy, January-February 2011 | Go to article overview

5 Myths about the Chinese Communist Party


McGregor, Richard, Foreign Policy


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(1)

"China Is Communist in Name Only,"

WRONG. If Vladimir Lenin were reincarnated in 21st-century Beijing and managed to avert his eyes from the city's glittering skyscrapers and conspicuous consumption, he would instantly recognize in the ruling Chinese Communist Party a replica of the system he designed nearly a century ago for the victors of the Bolshevik Revolution. One need only look at the party's structure to see how communist--and Leninist--China's political system remains.

Sure, China long ago dumped the core of the communist economic system, replacing rigid central planning with commercially minded state enterprises that coexist with a vigorous private sector. Yet for all their liberalization of the economy, Chinese leaders have been careful to keep control of the commanding heights of politics through the party's grip on the "three Ps": personnel, propaganda, and the People's Liberation Army.

The PLA is the party's military, not the country's. Unlike in the West, where controversies often arise about the potential politicization of the military, in China the party is on constant guard for the opposite phenomenon, the depoliticization of the military. Their fear is straightforward: the loss of party control over the generals and their troops. In 1989, one senior general refused to march his soldiers into Beijing to clear students out of Tiananmen Square, an incident now seared into the ruling class's collective memory. After all, the army's crackdown on the demonstrations preserved the party's hold on power in 1989, and its leaders have since worked hard to keep the generals on their side, should they be needed to put down protests again.

As in the Soviet Union, the party controls the media through its Propaganda Department, which issues daily directives, both formally on paper and in emails and text messages, and informally over the phone, to the media. The directives set out, often in detail, how news considered sensitive by the party--such as the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo--should be handled or whether it should be run at all.

Perhaps most importantly, the party dictates all senior personnel appointments in ministries and companies, universities and the media, through a shadowy and little-known body called the Organization Department. Through the department, the party oversees just about every significant position in every field in the country. Clearly, the Chinese remember Stalin's dictate that the cadres decide everything.

Indeed, if you benchmark the Chinese Communist Party against a definitional checklist authored by Robert Service, the veteran historian of the Soviet Union, the similarities are remarkable. As with communism in its heyday elsewhere, the party in China has eradicated or emasculated political rivals, eliminated the autonomy of the courts and media, restricted religion and civil society, denigrated rival versions of nationhood, centralized political power, established extensive networks of security police, and dispatched dissidents to labor camps. There is a good reason why the Chinese system is often described as "market-Leninism."

(2)

"The Party Controls All Aspects of Life in China,"

NOT ANYMORE. No question, China was a totalitarian state under Mao Zedong's rule from 1949 until his death in 1976. In those bad old days, ordinary workers had to ask their supervisors' permission not only to get married, but to move in with their spouses. Even the precise timing for starting a family relied on a nod from on high.

Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has recognized that such intensive interference in people's personal lives is a liability in building a modern economy. Under the reforms kick-started by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, the party has gradually removed itself from the private lives of all but the most recalcitrant of dissidents. …

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