The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers Review

The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers
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The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers ReviewThrough a series of anecdotes and interviews, largely drawn from his eight years in China as correspondent for 'The Financial Times', Richard McGregor illustrates 'the Party', a remarkable social organization which subordinates 1.3 billion people.
It is a journalist's treatment rather than academic, so instead of explicitly offering analysis, Richard McGregor lets his interviews and stories largely speak for themselves. This provides a range of interesting characters, quotes and anecdotes. However, a side-effect is that many remarkable insights are either buried innocuously in the text or left to the reader's inference. The story is no less fascinating for it.
The picture that emerges is of a creative, adaptable, self-aware and resilient social network. Made up of 75 million party members, one in twelve adult Chinese, this self-perpetuating elite has no legal form beyond a mention in the preamble to China's constitution. The party exists outside the regular state apparatus and operates like a controller chip grafted into China's governing structures through party cells throughout government, the military, public companies and even private firms.
Grounded in its near ubiquitous presence in the state, military, public and private spheres, the Party maintains its grip via a number of interconnected and synergistic processes. Its personnel system allows any individual to be replaced, transferred or expelled at the will of the organism. Party control of the military provides ultimate coercive sanction. The Party's discipline system places members above the law even as it strengthens Party control of the behaviour of its members. The propaganda department uses sophisticated story telling to sculpt the narrative around events to conform to the Party's best interests.
Few join the party for ideological reasons. Rather, achieving party status is to gain membership into an elite club which, provided you stay within its unwritten bounds and contribute to the goals of the organism, gives a member a form of immunity from the law and other powers and abilities not available to the average citizen. In the corruption that is endemic in the system, everyone is guilty of something serious - from taking bribes, to tax evasion to sexual impropriety to failing to get proper permits. Members that stray out of bounds need not be punished for the real fault, but instead for one of the many more routine transgressions that hang over the heads of almost all party members. Were one not able to normally get away with routine transgressions, there would be little benefit to party membership. Yet simply knowing that straying too far will result in being punished for something entirely different is enough to self-censor unwanted behaviours, in particular the unwritten ones.
Self-reflexive and analytic, the party is alert to the internal and external dangers it faces and has proven able to respond to challenge with remarkable agility, creativity and effectiveness.
Though the book is very much about the Party at present, in 2010, glimpses of party history serve to illustrate the nature of the organism and its ability to adapt and reinvent itself.
For example, Richard McGregor declares a historic milestone the Party's peaceful and administrative transfer of power in 2002 to a new top grouping of apparatchiks. For the first time in over 2000 years of Chinese history, China was no longer ruled by a single individual seen as a sort of a god. Instead, the apex of China became a committee atop an organism which permeates into the whole society, with the next shifting of interchangable personalities at the top scheduled for 2012.
In 1992, only ten years prior to the 2002 milestone, again demonstrating forward looking pragmatic realism, the party transformed itself on entrepreneurs - the most extreme enemies of communism - not just by allowing them to join the party, but by actively recruiting them. Binding China's rapidly emerging entrepreneurial elites to the party provided benefits to both sides, allowing entrepreneurs more freedom from the stultifying strictures of state apparatus while reinforcing and renewing Party control on an element of Chinese society that may have come to threaten the Party's very existence.
Prior to that, the shock of Tiananmen square and the fall of the former Soviet Bloc caused a wave of realistic threat assessment and self-reflection within the Party. This lead to further creative and pragmatic changes, though not in the ways that analysts in the west might have guessed or hoped for.
Given the importance of the Party in China and the growing importance of China in the world, it behooves us to better understand it. Richard McGregor's fascinating and informative book is recommended reading for those interested in understanding not just the Party, but the modern China within which it operates.The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers Overview

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