The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers 
by Richard McGregor.
Allen Lane, 302 pp., £25, June 2010, 978 1 84614 173 7
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Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes was a political act from which, as his biographer William Taubman put it, ‘the Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he.’ Although it was plainly opportunistic, there was just as plainly more to it than that, a kind of reckless excess that cannot be accounted for in terms of political strategy. The speech so undermined the dogma of infallible leadership that the entire nomenklatura sank into temporary paralysis. A dozen or so delegates collapsed during the speech, and had to be carried out and given medical help; one of them, Boleslaw Bierut, the hardline general secretary of the Polish Communist Party, died of a heart attack. The model Stalinist writer Alexander Fadeyev actually shot himself a few days later. The point is not that they were ‘honest Communists’: most of them were brutal manipulators without any illusions about the Soviet regime. What broke down was their ‘objective’ illusion, the figure of the ‘big Other’ as a background against which they could exert their ruthlessness and drive for power. They had displaced their belief onto this Other, which, as it were, believed on their behalf. Now their proxy had disintegrated.

Khrushchev was gambling that his (limited) confession would strengthen the Communist movement, and in the short term he was right: one should always remember that Khrushchev’s era was the last period of authentic Communist enthusiasm, of belief in the Communist project. When, during his visit to the US in 1959, he said to the US agriculture secretary, ‘Your grandchildren will live under Communism,’ he was stating the conviction of the entire Soviet nomenklatura. Even when Gorbachev attempted a more radical confrontation with the past (rehabilitations included Bukharin), Lenin remained unassailable, and Trotsky continued to be a non-person.

Compare these events with the Chinese way of breaking with the Maoist past. As Richard McGregor shows in The Party, Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reforms’ proceeded in a radically different way. In the organisation of the economy (and, up to a point, the culture), what is usually perceived as ‘Communism’ was abandoned, and the gates were opened to what, in the West, is called ‘liberalisation’: private property, the pursuit of profit, a life-style based on hedonist individualism etc. The Party maintained its hegemony, not through doctrinal orthodoxy (in official discourse, the Confucian notion of the Harmonious Society replaced practically all reference to Communism), but by securing the status of the Communist Party as the only guarantee of China’s stability and prosperity.

One consequence of the Party’s need to maintain hegemony is its close monitoring and regulation of the way Chinese history is presented, especially that of the last two centuries. The story ceaselessly recycled by the state media and textbooks is of China’s humiliation, which is supposed to have begun with the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century and ended only with the Communist victory in 1949. To be a patriot is to support the rule of the Communist Party. When history is used for the purposes of legitimation, it cannot support any substantial self-critique. The Chinese learned the lesson of Gorbachev’s failure: full recognition of the ‘founding crimes’ brings the entire system down: they must be disavowed. True, some Maoist ‘excesses’ and ‘errors’ were denounced (the Great Leap Forward and the widespread famine that followed it; the Cultural Revolution), and Deng’s assessment of Mao’s role (70 per cent positive and 30 per cent negative) is enshrined in official discourse. But Deng’s assessment functions as a formal conclusion that makes any further discussion or elaboration superfluous. Mao may be 30 per cent bad, but he continues to be celebrated as the founding father of the nation, his body in a mausoleum and his image on every banknote. In a clear case of fetishistic disavowal, everyone knows that Mao made errors and caused immense suffering, yet his image remains magically untainted. This way, the Chinese Communists can have their cake and eat it: economic liberalisation is combined with the continuation of Party rule.

How does this work in practice? How is Party hegemony combined with the modern state apparatus needed to regulate an exploding market economy? What institutional reality sustains the official slogan that good stock-market performance (high returns on investments) is the way to fight for socialism? What we have in China isn’t simply a combination of a private capitalist economy and Communist political power. In one way or another, state and Party own the majority of China’s companies, especially the large ones: it is the Party itself which demands that they perform well in the market. To resolve this apparent contradiction, Deng concocted a unique dual system. ‘As an organisation, the Party sits outside, and above the law,’ He Weifang, a law professor from Beijing, tells McGregor: ‘It should have a legal identity, in other words, a person to sue, but it is not even registered as an organisation. The Party exists outside the legal system altogether.’ ‘It would seem difficult,’ McGregor writes,

to hide an organisation as large as the Chinese Communist Party, but it cultivates its backstage role with care. The big party departments controlling personnel and the media keep a purposely low public profile. The Party committees (known as ‘leading small groups’) which guide and dictate policy to ministries, which in turn have the job of executing it, work out of sight. The make-up of all these committees, and in many cases even their existence, is rarely referred to in the state-controlled media, let alone any discussion of how they arrive at decisions.

An anecdote from Deng Xiaoping’s era illustrates the weirdness of the Party hierarchy. Deng was still alive, though retired from the post of general secretary, when one of the top members of the nomenklatura was purged. The official reason was that, in an interview with a foreign journalist, he had divulged a state secret: namely, that Deng was still the supreme authority and was effectively taking all the decisions. In fact everybody knew that Deng was still pulling the strings; it’s just that it was never allowed to be officially stated. The secret was not simply a secret: it announced itself as a secret. Thus, today, it isn’t that people are supposed not to know that a hidden Party structure shadows the state agencies: they are supposed to be fully aware that there is such a hidden network.

The government and other state organs, ‘which ostensibly behave much as they do in many countries’, are centre stage: the Ministry of Finance proposes the budget, courts deliver verdicts, universities teach and award degrees, priests lead rituals. So, on the one hand, we have the legal system, the government, the elected national assembly, the judiciary, the rule of law etc. But on the other – as the official term ‘Party and state leadership’ indicates: ‘Party’ always comes first – we have the Party, which is omnipresent but always in the background. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo was a recognition of the tensions and antagonisms that underlie the Chinese success story, but also a reminder that the simple transformation of China into a parliamentary democracy would be as likely to aggravate these antagonisms as to resolve them.

There are, of course, many states, some even formally democratic, in which a half-secret coterie controls the government; in apartheid South Africa, for example, it was the Broederbond. What makes the Chinese case unique is that this doubling of power between public and hidden realms is itself institutionalised.

Nominations to key posts – in Party and state organs, but also in large companies – are made first by a Party body, the Central Organisation Department, whose headquarters in Beijing have no listed phone number and no sign outside. Their decisions, once made, are passed to legal organs – state assemblies, managerial boards – which then go through the ritual of confirming them by vote. The same double procedure – first the Party, then the state – obtains at every level, including fundamental economic policy, which is first debated by the Party, and its decisions then implemented by government bodies. The gap between Party and state is most obvious in the anti-corruption struggle: when there is suspicion that some high functionary is involved in corruption, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a Party organ, investigates the charges unrestricted by legal niceties: suspects are liable to be kidnapped, subjected to harsh interrogation and held for as long as six months. The verdict eventually reached will depend not only on the facts but also on complex behind the scenes negotiations between different Party cliques, and if the functionary is found guilty, only then is he handed over to the state legal bodies. But by this stage everything is already decided and the trial is a formality – only the sentence is (sometimes) negotiable.

The irony is that the Party itself, its complex workings hidden from public scrutiny, is the ultimate source of corruption. The inner circle, comprising top Party and state functionaries as well as chiefs of industry, communicate via an exclusive phone network, the ‘Red Machine’ – possessing one of its unlisted numbers is a clear sign of one’s status. A vice-minister tells McGregor that ‘more than half of the calls he received on his “red machine” were requests for favours from senior Party officials, along the lines of: “Can you give my son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin or good friend and so on, a job?”’

At the Party congress, which takes place every eight years or so, the new central executive – the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo – is presented as a fait accompli. The selection procedure involves complex behind the scenes negotiations; the assembled delegates, who are not told ahead of time who will be put forward, are formally invited to vote on the selection, but invariably give it their unanimous approval. The most powerful figure in the Party as a rule (but not always) takes three titles: president of the republic, general secretary of the Party, and chairman of the Central Military Commission (the head of the military). The latter two titles are much more important than the first. The People’s Liberation Army is a thoroughly politicised entity, following Mao’s motto that ‘the Party commands the gun.’ In bourgeois states, the army is supposed to be apolitical, a neutral force protecting the constitutional order; for the Chinese Communists, such a depoliticised army would be the greatest threat imaginable, since the army is their guarantee that the state will remain subordinated to the Party. If it is to function, such a structure has to rely on a delicate balance between force and protocol. Because the Party acts outside the law, a complex set of unwritten rules govern how one is expected to follow Party decisions.

The notion of the Party-state cannot do justice to the complexities of 20th-century Communism: there is always a gap between Party and state, and the Party functions as the state’s shadowy double. Dissenters call for a new politics of distance from the state, but they don’t recognise that the Party is this distance: it embodies a fundamental distrust of the state, its organs and mechanisms, as if they needed to be controlled, kept in check, at all times. A true 20th-century Communist never fully accepts the state: he accepts the need for an agency, immune to the law, which has the power to supervise the state’s activities.

This model will, of course, be criticised as being non-democratic. The ethico-political preference for a democratic model in which parties are – formally, at least – subordinate to state mechanisms falls into the trap of the ‘democratic fiction’. It ignores the fact that, in a ‘free’ society, domination and servitude are located in the ‘apolitical’ economic sphere of property and managerial power. The Party’s distance from state apparatuses and its ability to act without legal constraint afford a unique possibility: ‘illegal’ activity can be undertaken not only in the interest of the market but – sometimes – in the interest of the workers too. For example, when the 2008 financial crisis hit China, the instinctive reaction of the Chinese banks was to follow the cautious approach of Western banks, radically cutting back on lending to companies wishing to expand. Informally (no law legitimised this), the Party simply ordered the banks to release credit, and thus succeeded – for the time being – in sustaining the growth of the Chinese economy. To take another example, Western governments complain that their industries cannot compete with the Chinese in producing green technology, since Chinese companies get financial support from their government. But what’s wrong with that? Why doesn’t the West simply follow China and do the same?

But China is no Singapore (neither, for that matter, is Singapore): it is not a stable country with an authoritarian regime that guarantees harmony and keeps capitalism under control. Every year, thousands of rebellions by workers, farmers and minorities have to be put down by the police and the army. No wonder official propaganda insists obsessively on the notion of the harmonious society: this very excess bears witness to the opposite, to the threat of chaos and disorder. One should bear in mind the basic rule of Stalinist hermeneutics: since the official media do not openly report trouble, the most reliable way to detect it is to look out for compensatory excesses in state propaganda: the more ‘harmony’ is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonism there is in reality. China is barely under control. It threatens to explode.

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Vol. 32 No. 21 · 4 November 2010

Boleslaw Bierut, who in Slavoj Žižek’s account appears to have died as Khrushchev was making his speech at the 20th Party Congress, in fact died on 12 March 1956, a full two weeks after Khrushchev’s turnaround, and much speculation surrounds the cause of his death (LRB, 21 October).

More important, Alexander Fadeyev shot himself on 13 May 1956, more than two months (not ‘a few days’) later. Nor is Fadeyev’s case quite that of a ‘brutal manipulator’ who lost whatever faith he had in the objective value of the regime. As it happens, authentic manipulators thrived in the heyday of Khrushchev’s ‘cult of personality’ because they knew how to turn the new rhetoric to their advantage. In contrast, Fadeyev’s final letter to the Central Committee spells out the reason he took his life: ‘Literature, this highest fruit of the new regime, has been humiliated, oppressed, exterminated. The self-satisfaction of the Leninist neophytes … earned them a complete lack of trust on my part. The things you can expect from them are much worse than from the satrap Stalin.’ The letter was published in 1990 in the 15th issue of a magazine whose name may strike many in today’s Russia as old hat – Glasnost.

Oleg Gelikman
Laguna Niguel, California

Vol. 32 No. 22 · 18 November 2010

Slavoj Žižek, in his review of Richard McGregor’s The Party (LRB, 21 October), seems to be suggesting that something new is happening in China. I can’t see it. To recover from the devastation of the Civil War, and to set the country on the road to economic modernisation in the absence of world revolution, the Bolsheviks turned to the capitalist market. At the same time, they tightened political repression for fear that the ‘alien class influences’ now to be unleashed might erode the Party’s monopoly of power. From there increased Party control over state and cultural institutions became necessary if market capitalism was to flourish. There would be no transition to political democracy, and if such a transition were to threaten, the only credible response would be a ‘left turn’, back to the future, as Stalin showed in 1929, when he felt the regime’s monopoly of foreign trade to be under siege.

Albion Urdank
Los Angeles

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