The Myth of the Inflexible Chinese Communist Party

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 10/09/2011 10:43:00 AM
Some of you may be familiar with the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) that was created by the American congress in 2000 to do exactly what it says in its name: review the national security implications of economic ties--particularly in trade--with China. Most likely, it was formed with the upcoming accession of China to the WTO in mind on November 11, 2001--the most significant date for me in that year bar none. Even then, the Americans appear to have recognized who the rising power was. Still, it probably didn't expect that the US would stumble so badly, or that China would do so well in contrast since then.

Or has it, really? While the annual shenanigans surrounding a long-mooted China bashing bill that would impose more stringent penalties on PRC-sourced imports over currency undervaluation making the rounds yet again (which I believe will not make it past the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, but I wouldn't exactly mind being mistaken), Americans have certainly tried means both fair and foul to keep China "manageable." However, Daniel Blumenthal, AEI resident fellow and Bush Minor-era appointee to the USCC, begs to differ in a Foreign Policy photo essay. It would surprise me if someone from a libertarian think-tank alike the AEI would laud the PRC's example, and it should thus come as no shock whatsoever (zzzz) that he believes American perceptions of China border on the unreal.

While going through his points--many of which are questionable, to say the least--one thing that struck me is his insistence that the Chinese Communist Party is a brittle organization. Among gweilo (foreign devils), this refrain is quite familiar: the Party is insular, set in its ways, and overall cannot cope with a changing world. Says he...
Actually, America's greatest challenge will probably be managing China's long decline. Unless it enacts substantial reforms, China's growth model may sputter out soon...[a]nd its political system is too risk averse and calcified to make any real reforms.
While Chinese growth tapering off would be no surprise even to Chinese leaders, the
"calcified" political system is a favourite riff. Again, folks like Blumenthal do not give credit where credit is due. After all, China's communist leadership has already made several changes that have made the country the region's largest economy. Consider:

1. Having witnessed firsthand what changes Lee Kuan Yew had achieved in Singapore, Deng Xiaoping set into motion economic liberalization measures and irrevocably betrayed Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy by declaring that "to get rich is glorious" in 1979.

2. Nor does Blumenthal bother to explain how China managed to remain a single-party state while the events of the Global 1989 were occurring. For ostensibly socialist states, it was watershed moment in which the PRC's neighbouring Eastern European neighbours' communist parties collapsed in quick succession. It would not be fair to say that the Tiananmen incident alone put down whatever dissent there was in the country. Moreover, Chinese leadership since that event has not come out of the same group that ordered storming the square.

Rather, two well-researched and in-depth books by Sinologist David Shambaugh and a more recent one by FT alum Richard McGregor shed light on the amount of reinvention that has been occurring largely behind the scenes at the Party. Let us begin with Shambaugh's book:
Few issues affect the future of China—and hence all the nations that interact with China—more than the nature of its ruling party and government. In this timely study, David Shambaugh assesses the strengths and weaknesses, durability, adaptability, and potential longevity of China's Communist Party (CCP). He argues that although the CCP has been in a protracted state of atrophy, it has undertaken a number of adaptive measures aimed at reinventing itself and strengthening its rule. Shambaugh's investigation draws on a unique set of inner-Party documents and interviews, and he finds that China's Communist Party is resilient and will continue to retain its grip on power.
Similarly, Richard McGregor has investigated the labyrinthine structure of the Party to find that no small amount of tinkering has gone on. Although the hierarchy may seldom be in question, its ways and means of keeping this hierarchy intact are certainly subject to experimentation since the passing of Mao.

3. Channelling elite theory, it is particularly remarkable how consistent fealty by the movers and shakers among the PRCs' nouveau riche and others has not openly challenged the CCP. Unlike purportedly democratic Russia where challenging its current leadership arrangement increases the likelihood of one's imprisonment or untimely demise, you certainly don't hear of PRC billionaires trying to remake the system.

To the contrary, the Party has remained resilient in co-opting those who have the resources to mount challenges to its power. At this point in time and in the foreseeable future, there is no alternative. Perhaps more importantly, nor is there a particularly great clamour among those who can agitate for real change to do so.

My overall point is as follows: One-party rule confounds Westerners' perceptions of "change." But just as hopey-changey campaign-time Obama is, in reality, just a largely indistinguishable continuation of the Bush administration--running even larger deficits, keeping Guantanamo Bay open, worsening the economic marginalization of minorities and so on--what you have going on in China is largely the opposite of BushBama. American hyperactivity on the political side is largely smoke and mirrors--full of sound and fury signifying nothing. China's surface passivity on the other hand with its programmed successions and few outward manifestations of evolution is, in reality, more attuned to making meaningful changes that keep the public contented. It's the difference between "action-packed" pro wrestling with its staged brainlessness and "boring" chess where subtle, game changing moves can go unnoticed except by the most discerning of observers.

Why are there more optimistic Chinese than Americans, Blumenthal? Certainly citizens of both countries aren't suffering from mass delusions. For America's sake, I certainly hope factually challenged AEI man Blumenthal doesn't parade this same stuff to the USCC.