Exposing China’s murky moguls


THE PARTY: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, by Richard McGregor. Harper, 2010, 320 pp., $27.99 (hardcover)

The rise of modern China to economic giant and politico-military superpower has mesmerized politicians and business leaders and led to much wishful thinking about China’s future development.

Many observers hope that the new middle class spawned by economic growth will not be satisfied with increased wealth but will demand political freedoms to match their freedom to make money. Some think that the Internet and modern communications will force China to change.

Others think that corruption will get so far out of control that it will undermine the regime or that popular unrest caused by the widening gap between rich and poor will become endemic. But chaos in China can hardly be in the interests of other powers.

China watchers generally are not optimistic that China will in the foreseeable future cease to abuse human rights and adopt democratic institutions. They know the Chinese Communist Party still holds the levers of power and is not ready for radical reforms that would end its monopolistic control of Chinese politics.

A book by Richard McGregor, “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers,” provides a clear and well argued account of how modern China is ruled and sheds light on some of the murky dealings of party members.

McGregor, an Australian-born journalist working for The Financial Times in London, has done his research. McGregor’s conclusion: “The Chinese communist system is, in many ways, rotten, costly, corrupt and often dysfunctional. The financial crisis has added a dangerous mix of hubris to the mix. But the system has also proved to be flexible and protean enough to absorb everything that has been thrown at it, to the surprise and horror of many in the West. For the foreseeable future, it looks as though their wish, to bestride the world as a colossus on their own implacable terms, will come true.

McGregor asks how it became possible for the party, “locked in its ossified Leninist ways . . . secretive, corrupt, hostile to the rule of law and vindictive in the pursuit of its enemies,” to preside over one of the greatest spurts of economic growth and wealth creation in recorded history. His book shows how the party has succeeded in removing itself from many areas of the life and work of Chinese people, while maintaining its own secret political life, directing the state from behind the scenes.

Ideology has not been totally thrown out, but has been turned upside down. One instance cited is the remark by Guo Shuqing of the China Construction Bank that “the only way to put the latest communist principles into practice was to maximize returns for shareholders.” The largest shareholder in the bank was a central government agency controlled by the party.

McGregor looks at various corruption cases and notes that it was generally only when the scandal came too close to the party that effective action was taken. But “justice” was administered by the party before the courts were involved, and except in all but the most egregious cases, party members got off more lightly than ordinary citizens. The party was adamantly opposed to any suggestion of an independent body having any power to investigate or punish its members. The rule of law demands a division of powers but this is unacceptable to the party.

The Sanlu scandal involving contaminated milk was one of the worst examples of attempted coverup, but its ramifications were too great to be suppressed beyond the Beijing Olympics.

The party’s Politics and Law Committee, which is ultimately responsible for all legal matters, “had a delicate political process to manage. They needed to ensure that justice was seen to be done, without letting the legal process develop a life of its own.” They succeeded in getting the trial of the main culprits dealt with in a single day. “From start to finish, the scandal provided a lesson about the Communist Party’s subterranean exercise of power, against its citizens, and also against itself.”

The party’s manipulation of history is set out clearly. Mao Zedong, despite the fact that he was responsible for the deaths of many millions of Chinese citizens and was a “monster,” continues to lie embalmed in Tiananmen Square. He is still lauded as the Great Helmsman and the party’s assessment that he was 70 percent good and 30 percent bad remains unchanged. “The biggest legacy of Mao is the Communist Party of China” and it is hard to see how the party could survive without continuing to revere its founding father.

The Great Leap Forward, in which millions of Chinese died of starvation, is described in official histories as “three years of natural disaster.” The Cultural Revolution is recognized for disastrous mistakes, but it is asserted that “the party is the only organ that can prevent such instability in the future.”

“Tombstone,” a two-volume history by Yang Jisheng of the Great Leap Forward and the famine that ensued, was based on meticulous demographic research. It could not be published in China but was published in Hong Kong. Significantly the author was not arrested and has been allowed to continue to live unmolested in Beijing. The party preferred to ignore it hoping that silence would sink it.

The party gets very worked up about Japanese revisionist accounts of the Nanking massacre, but it will not admit that its account of Chinese modern history is at best hypocritical and at worst fictitious.

Anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of how China is governed today and about the Chinese Communist Party should read McGregor’s book.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.