With 73.4m members, the Chinese Communist party does more than just rule a country. Besides having a grip on every arm of government, the media and the military, the party now also presides over large and cash-rich state businesses, a control exercised by monopolising the selection of senior executives.
The party’s dominance of both the political and business landscape has made it more powerful than ever. On the eve of its five-yearly congress, which opens in Beijing on Monday, Chinese leaders sit atop not only the biggest political party in the world but the richest as well.
As recently as a decade ago, much of the state sector was moribund and lossmaking. Its transformation since then has produced Fortune 500 behemoths such as China Mobile, Sinopec and Bank of China. Many have listed their shares abroad, giving the party a seat at the table in global capital markets.
In the past five years, the party has sought to add another set of strings to its bow by bringing the private sector, the most dynamic part of China’s economy, firmly into its purview through the establishment of member committees inside non-state companies (see below). Entrepreneurs, in turn, have been officially welcomed as party members since the 2002 congress.
The party is not monolithic when it comes to the economy. State-owned companies and city and provincial governments all compete against one other. Different factions, clustered around personalities and policies, vie for power, as in any political system. But ultimately, they all report to a single master and must eventually come to heel.
The party’s control of the key assets of state business and its attempt to colonise the private sector have made the organisation “the world’s biggest holding company”, quips Ding Xueliang, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Beijing. Others joke that it is more like a chamber of commerce than a political party.
But such notions are taken seriously by the party itself, which is grappling with ways to merge an intensely hierarchical political culture with the demands of transparency and corporate governance.
The wealth generated by China’s economic boom has also bought with it a new set of problems: breathtaking corruption and huge incentives for the party, and its officials, to enrich themselves by taking over the role of government.
Although party members occupy virtually every key government position, the party as an organisational entity is theoretically separate from executive government positions and day-today decision-making. All Chinese cities and counties have a party secretary, who has primarily political duties such as supervising the media, appointing the heads of state companies and ensuring officials conform to the national line on key issues such as the renegade status of Taiwan...
But in recent years, says Prof Ding, “there has been an enormous intrusion of the party into the government administration” because of the huge amounts of money at stake. “The government bureaucrats are often rendered powerless, useless and irrelevant unless they are, at the same time, members of the standing party committee,” he says. “The level of corruption these days is shocking, not just for ordinary people but for senior party officials as well.”
The distinction between party and government is often less than clear. In big state enterprises, for example, the company chairman may be the party secretary. The make-up of the party committee may also virtually replicate the board. But the question is whether party groupings, unaccountable and out of sight, should be directly controlling government budgets...
Lu Weidong, who teaches at another party school – in Yan’an, an old revolutionary base – dismisses an internet presence as redundant. “All the important media are owned by the party, so we have no need to set up a website,” he says.
Such an answer is telling in itself. The party has an unparalleled ability to spread its message, through any information outlet in the country, but little real interest in coming out of its protective shell to engage more genuinely with the masses.
The difficulty the party faces in opening itself up to any kind of robust scrutiny should not be underestimated. The party already stands above the law, with its own internal police and legal system, which investigates and delivers verdicts on corruption cases before they are passed on to ordinary courts...
Mr Hu’s strategy rests on two legs: to maintain the party’s monopoly on power, while pushing to make officials more professional and accountable. The anti-corruption campaigns fit this strategy, as do the party schools, built at Mr Hu’s initiative.
The two schools, in Shanghai and Yan’an, which opened in 2005, are housed in dazzling newly-built campuses, both of which have won a string of design awards. Their curriculum, however, is somewhat more traditional. “The focus of the education is on revolutionary history and on China’s basic national conditions,” says Guo Chunle, a deputy director of the Yan’an school. “We want to make sure our leaders do not forget the best of our party.”
The school has had about 7,000 students so far, mostly mid-level party administrators and a few private business people, who do courses of a few weeks or sometimes just days. Classes include a “field study” to meet farmers, “to make sure our students get a personal feeling about our traditions”, says Mr Guo.
Shanghai, in keeping with its position as China’s gateway to the world, has a marginally more modern method, focusing on building “leadership qualities”, but also indoctrinating younger officials with the party lore. “At the last party congress, none of the new entrants into the central committee was born before 1949 [when the Communists took power] and only 140 out of the 2,000-plus delegates were born before 1949,” says Mr Xia. “Officials are becoming younger. They are well-educated people but lacking in knowledge of traditions and the party’s theories.”
The Shanghai school also includes a media training centre with equipment including a mock-up television studio and a device to simulate a mass of flashing cameras, as if an official has run into a horde of paparazzi. Yet the party schools (there are three, with a number of other “executive training centres”) are more about reinforcing networks and loyalty than they are about education and training.
♠ Posted by Emmanuel in China at 10/12/2007 02:08:00 PMThe title of this FT feature says it all: "More powerful than ever: How China’s Communist party is firming its grip." Contrary to expectations of many in the West that the CPC would relinquish some of its control as the masses demanded political freedom to go along with economic freedom, well, that hasn't really happened. In many respects, the phrase "only game in town" applies to the Communist Party or whatever it's become ideologically. I like the line from the story that it's the world's largest holding company [!] If you want to get ahead, your chances are improved significantly if you join the Party. The chart to the left makes somewhat of a forced comparison, but it does make the point abundantly clear that the cadres are steadily in increasing in numbers. And the comrades sing, "Tonight we're going to party like it's 1949..."