To know China, one must understand the Communist Party
(This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on May 26, 2015)
By Robert Lawrence Kuhn
On Thursday, the Communist Party is publishing in English an unprecedented series of books, titled Understanding the CPC. The launch, at BookExpo America in New York, where China is the “featured country of honour,” is a milestone, marking the party’s dual commitment to domestic renewal and international outreach.
China is at a crossroads, and the outcomes will affect the entire world. The only way to grasp its current conditions and anticipate its future prospects is to understand what the party is and how it works.
These books are the Communist Party explaining itself — philosophies and policies, organisation and governance, vision and challenges. These are not dispassionate, academic critiques, but real-life expositions of how the party interprets itself. It is good to know what the party wants the world to know. Understanding the CPC is the story of the party, told by the party. This is how the party thinks.
President Xi Jinping’s “Four Comprehensives”, his overarching political theory, elevates “strictly governing the party” to the highest rank (along with building a moderately prosperous society, deepening reform, and governing according to law). It has become Xi’s transformative hallmark. Although previous leaders have stressed party discipline, none has done so like Xi.
Wang Qishan, the party’s anti-corruption chief, declared that one cannot understand China without understanding the Communist Party. The essential characteristic of “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he said, is “the leadership of the Communist Party.” Building a moderately prosperous society would be impossible, Wang continued, without party rule.
Understanding the party addresses three fundamental questions. First, why has China opted for one-party rule; by what right does the party hold perpetual rule? Second, what is it about party structure, organisation and governance that enables it to endure as the ruling party; how has it brought about China’s remarkable development? Third, what challenges does it face in the future, amidst increasing domestic complexity and international volatility?
For the world to understand the party, the heart of the matter is to explain why and how it avers that its one-party system, under current national conditions, is optimum for China.
All systems of governance have trade-offs. The benefits of a one-party system include the capacity to implement critical policies rapidly, such as the stimulus package during the financial crisis of 2008 that insulated China from the worst of the recession. A one-party system can also assure that strategies which require long-term commitment have long-term commitment (for example, China’s western development).
The costs or dangers of a one-party system are that society is much more dependent on the quality of its leaders, and much more vulnerable to their vicissitudes and excesses. While China’s one-party system has had great success during the period of reform, in decades prior, when leftist ideology was enforced with oppressive zealotry, waves of political mass movements decimated the country and impoverished the people.
There are trade-offs, too, in public restrictions, particularly in the media. Although some believe China would be more stable with a multiparty system, such a forecast seems wishful thinking, disconnected from Chinese realities.
While I agree that China today is best served by its one-party system, for the party to retain its ruling status, it has a higher obligation to enhance standards of living and personal well-being, which includes increasing democracy, transparency in governance, public oversight of government, various freedoms, rule of law, and human rights.
If the world does not understand the party, it is its responsibility to reach out to the world. That’s what this series of books is all about. Foreigners may disagree with the party, but all who need to know China, all who think they know China, must understand it.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn is an international corporate strategist and political/economics commentator. This article is based on a keynote speech he will give at the book launch.
Reprinted with the permission of the South China Morning Post.