Mao Inc. China's Terribly Successful Communist Party Turns 90
Part 2: A Dinosaur Which Has Learned to Adapt
The membership of the Chinese Communist Party is almost as large as Germany's population. Its 78 million members make it the largest political party in the world, and a very successful one at that -- a terribly successful party, say many anxious Western observers. Soviet communism ended up in the dustbin of history. The parties in North Korea and Cuba led their people to economic downfall and are considered discredited. Communist parties stood -- and continue to stand -- for an incurable sclerosis, while their leaders are viewed as dinosaurs. The outcome of the socialist idea has served as ample proof that it cannot work in practice.
In China, this quasi law of nature seems to have been suspended. The dinosaur has learned to evolve, and adaptation instead of agony shapes the picture, as Beijing rushes from one economic success to the next. In the last 30 years, China has increased its gross domestic product by about thirty times and has overtaken Germany and Japan as an economic power, and it will likely leave the United States behind by 2020, becoming the world's largest economy. No other country has amassed such large foreign currency reserves as the People's Republic. If it wanted to, Beijing could buy up all the companies listed on Germany's DAX index with only one-third of its $3 trillion (2.1 trillion) in reserves.
Politically and militarily, China is becoming increasingly self-confident in its role as the only superpower next to the United States. Beijing intimidates its Pacific neighbors with new land and naval weapons systems, making territorial claims in waters from Japan to Vietnam to the Philippines.
The Biggest Challenge of Our Time
The party has come a long way in the last nine decades. It consisted of all of 57 members when it was founded as an underground organization in Shanghai in 1921. In 1927 its brigades, worn down by a superior adversary and on the run, were on the verge of demise. In 1949, they triumphed on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and united the giant country. Today, as the only force that can take on the United States, the Communist Party is understandably bursting with self-confidence. At 90, and (at least) a little wiser, the party now strives to permanently correct China's economic course without diverging from the rigid one-party system.
Can this balancing act across all ideological Grand Canyons even work? What are China's communist functionaries doing right and what signals have they heard -- signals that have remained hidden from other nations? How is the world's largest party faring internally? Is it run by a meritocracy in which the best make it to the top, or are family relations more important? And why can it be so flexible and modern and yet so thin-skinned vis-à-vis its critics, often operating with Stalinist harshness?
A few countries in Asia and Africa have stopped treating Western democracy as the measure of all things, and are instead trying to imitate the "Beijing model" of a capitalist economy combined with authoritarian policies. China is the biggest challenge of our time and raises central issues, such as whether the party can maintain the giant country's position at the top of the global economy in the long term without opening up politically. Or whether the communists will eventually fail because of the contradictions produced by a rapid rise to power unimpeded by any opposition: the extreme differences between rich and poor, rampant corruption, environmental destruction and brutal clashes with Tibetan, Uighur and Mongolian minorities.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored the contradictions in a recent interview with The Atlantic, in which she was highly critical of Beijing. The Chinese system is doomed, she argues, adding that Chinese officialls are "worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand."
The United States has the White House, France has the Elysée Palace, Germany has the Federal Chancellery -- and the People's Republic has a secret.
China is ruled from a mysterious location that very few foreigners have seen from within. The country's leaders operate from a shielded complex behind high, red walls. Some of the buildings date back to feudal times, while gray, utilitarian structures were added following the Communists' victory and the proclamation of the People's Republic in 1949. The secluded and well-guarded district in the middle of Beijing is called Zhongnanhai, or "Middle and Southern Sea." Formerly part of the Forbidden City, Zhongnanhai was a place where emperors, concubines and eunuchs once concocted courtly intrigues.
The Top Nine, or Permanent Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, the most powerful group in China, meet in the southern part of this refuge. Their meetings are businesslike and completely off-limits to the public. They are never called upon to smile for news cameras, they only appear in public together on very special occasions, and they rarely appear for more than a few minutes.
They are nine men in dark suits, muted ties so similar that they could have been bought together at a group discount, and obviously dyed hair. No one within the ranks of China's stiff technocrats is known for his charisma. They even clap in unison at official events. President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, 68, has a degree in hydraulic engineering, and all but one of the members of the Permanent Committee are engineers. They have all been professional politicians for several decades, with careers that seem almost as interchangeable as their physical appearance.
For some, their path to the top was facilitated by the fact that they had been born as "princelings" into influential families. But to make it to the very top and hold their ground there, they also had to prove their worth as capable bureaucrats. They learned to forge coalitions within the party and anticipate positions capable of producing consensus. According to leading experts on China, the view of a monolithic Chinese Communist Party widely held in the West is wrong. In fact, they say, the party's leaders are often sharply at odds over the right approach. But once internal compromises have been reached, all senior leaders usually form a united front in championing these decisions in public.
According to US diplomats whose secret cables from Beijing were published by WikiLeaks, the expanded Politburo, consisting of 24 men and one woman, is characterized by a "consensus system in which members can exercise veto power." In fact, the cable continues, "true democracy" prevails in the Politburo.
- Part 1: China's Terribly Successful Communist Party Turns 90
- Part 2: A Dinosaur Which Has Learned to Adapt
- Part 3: Record Figures for Red China Inc.
- Part 4: The Renaissance of the 'Whore of Asia'
- Part 5: Growing Influence for the Rich