Mao Inc. China's Terribly Successful Communist Party Turns 90
Part 5: Growing Influence for the Rich
The wealthiest individuals are to play a prominent role in the Communist Party, which is astonishing when one considers that businessmen, the former "class enemies," were not permitted to join the party until 2002. One in three of China's 189 dollar billionaires is now a party member, one in eight of the country's super-rich holds a "significant" political advisor post, 83 are members of the National People's Congress (a number that is likely to rise), and 38 Chinese "parliamentarians" are wealthier than the wealthiest member of the US Congress. They include delegate Zong Qinghou who, with assets of $12 billion, is the richest man in the People's Republic of China.
Zong meets with visitors in his native Hangzhou, which, with its idyllic setting on West Lake, is nothing short of a paradise. He is wearing an ordinary blue shirt, basic dark trousers and inexpensive linen shoes. His office is also plainly furnished, with almost nothing but management books from around the world on the shelves.
This much modesty is demonstrative. Zong's mantra is not to show off with one's wealth. The 65-year-old multibillionaire, who made the roughly 30,000 employees at his 58 production sites shareholders long ago, tries to set an example with his own work ethic. He works 14-hour days, smoking and drinking tea are his only luxuries, and he spends no more than $20 a day.
Zong started life at the very bottom, the son of poor parents, and had only a middle-school education. He worked on a salt farm as a teenager. Together with two retired teachers and 14,000 in loans, he finally managed to produce milk-based soft drinks.
The business eventually blossomed into Wahahah, which later entered into a joint venture with the Danone Group. When the French accused Zong of undermining the joint venture with parallel products, his employees came to his aid with strikes and protests. In one campaign, which had strong nationalist overtones, the protesters berated the foreigners with their signs until they were so unnerved that they gave up and allowed the Chinese to buy them out.
Does Zong, a member of the Communist Party, see himself as more of a communist or a capitalist?
'If There Is Anyplace in the World Where Socialism Prevails, It's Europe'
He smiles. "That's a very German question," he says. "I'm a pragmatist." As such, he says, he fights for the rights of business owners and workers. "If there is anyplace in the world where socialism prevails, it's Europe," he says. In Zong's opinion Europe, with its high taxes and welfare states, is a dead end. "People in your country should work harder," says the richest man in China, sounding almost sympathetic.
American political scientist David Shambaugh's recent book about the Chinese Communist Party is subtitled "Atrophy and Adaptation." The astonishing thing is that the party's atrophy and adaptation are opposing tendencies, and yet they move forward at the same time. "Some observers predict a collapse of the system in the long term, some predict a prolonged stagnation, and others are convinced that they are seeing signs of a real reform process." Shambaugh believes that a successful cleansing of the party is the most likely future development.
If that happens, however, the Communist Party will have to move well beyond the current nostalgia for Mao. It is possible that heightened patriotism could be used to develop a new, but hardly controllable ideological cement for society. The country's leaders seem themselves confronted with entire new problems following the saturation with consumer goods. They will have to provide a population whose age structure is dramatically changing with services that were practically unknown until now: adequate pensions, insurance, healthcare.
Whether they are prepared for this seems very questionable. However, the skeptics, who never thought the Chinese Communist Party was capable of the impossible, have been disabused again and again. The party leaders still manage to pull off every sleight of hand and Mao paradox. The Great Chairman of communism is simply being repurposed, and turned into a role model for globalization, into the Great Board Chairman.
What is the closest comparison to this strange Chinese party, this admirable but despicable institution with its quasi-religious aspirations, partly ossified and partly willing to reform, fluctuating between total repression and the recognition of pluralism?
The Catholic Church, at least to an unofficial envoy of the Chinese Communist Party during a visit to the Vatican in 2008. "We have the propaganda department, and you have the Heralds of the Gospel. We have our organization department, and you have the College of Cardinals," China expert McGregor cited the envoy as saying in his book "The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers". When the Vatican representative asked the Communist Party envoy what he thought the differences were, he replied: "You were sent by God, but we were sent by the devil."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan