Juxtaposed against Brexit and the election of President Donald Trump is oftentimes the Chinese embrace of globalisation, though the Chinese political system itself is not as well-understood. Richard McGregor’s “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers” outlines two reasons. The first – that it is incompatible with the conventional narrative of the liberal world order, anchored by both a democratic system and a capitalist economy – is more straightforward: “The rise of China is a genuine mega-trend, a phenomenon with the ability to remake the world economy, sector by sector. That it is presided over by a communist party makes it even more jarring for a Western world which, only a few years previously, was feating on notions of the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy”. The fact that the Community Party of China (CPC) has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty has therefore been unsettling for some in the West.
The second reason is more interesting, and it also forms the thesis of the book. “The [CPC] has made strenuous efforts to keep the sinews of its enduring power off the front stage of public life in China and out of sight of the rest of the world”, and in other words it is the ruling party and the secret party system which control the government. The party’s “pervasive backstage presence means the front-stage role of these bodies must be constantly recalibrated against the reality of the power that lies, largely out of sight, behind them”, and McGregor builds on this metaphor – this tension between what is reported by or about the state and the administrative or bureaucratic mechanisms in the background – in the following chapters.
Some of the related themes include the roles of the economy and market reforms vis-à-vis the political system (“on economic matters, relaxed controls; for political matters, tight controls”), ensuring the competence of officials and the significance of meritocracy (promising officials are stress-tested by rotation “through jobs in diverse parts of the country and in different administrative units”, before they are hauled back to the capital city “if they pass muster”), and allusions to the concept of regionally decentralised authoritarianism (a decentralised party and government system has led to Chinese successes, yet “when it gets out of control … the consequences can be fatal”, as well as how “Beijing has been smart enough to harness local dynamism to test new ideas, and then feed back the successful experiments into the national policy grid”). These points are then supported through anecdotes and appropriate case studies.
In general, the book gives a good overview of party dynamics and influence, though the subsequent chapters are a little more scant.
Even though “The Party” was published in 2010 – nevertheless – many of the themes still resonate in China today, especially the political reliance on economic growth and the evolution of political methods of control. With the former, “economic growth is the single most important pillar supporting the Party at home and the force behind the power that China now projects around the world”, and with the latter, terror is essential, but “in modern China, the system runs on seduction rather than suppression. It aims to co-opt, not coerce, the population”. Both still appear to ring true, and with China’s continued ascent greater scrutiny of the country will only continue.