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China, the party-state's test

A new leadership in China will govern a system devoting huge resources to controlling its people and preserving its power. But the needs of the future require different tools and thinking, says Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown
3 November 2012

The state in China is an integral part of just about every major issue in the country, from its stock market and outward investment to its domestic economic development and social ferment. It's clear that exploring any of these matters in detail requires study of the state's role. Yet as soon as the point is raised, things start to become confusing. For what is the Chinese state?

It would be convenient to imagine that some mighty brain exists in the centre of Beijing, dictating all parts of the country’s internal and external policy. But that notion is hard to square with the existence of so many contradictions, where (for example) one part of the machinery adopting an aggressive stance towards Japan over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) islands and another a placatory one. How can such messiness be reconciled with the idea of a unified central mind or network? Perhaps the latter is playing games with itself, or trying to confuse, or is it just that outsiders are simply failing to divine its deeper intentions?

A more prosaic answer to the original question is that the true face of the state is in fact the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - and more precisely, the current nine-strong standing committee of the politburo. We know, somehow, that these men (as they all are at the moment) personify and guide the state, insofar as anyone does. We don’t know clearly how they guide it - how, for example, they instruct government or executive organs, but we sense that there is enough noise and bustle around them to confirm that they are the ones in control, insofar as anyone is. We can try to look into the shadows round them, as well - but these are, after all, shadows, and once beyond the politburo we move quickly into even more speculative territory.

But this party-state is also a mystery to those working for it. It empowers and fells people in ways which are hard even for its intimates to unravel. They too must speculate, and read the atmosphere - as when on the final day when Bo Xilai, hitherto one of the elite's most powerful figures, must have known that the air around him was poisoned and that the very entity he had worked most of his life for was about to abandon him. There is an echo here of the Mao Zedong era, when those desperate to beg for the leader's intercession knew there was no hope when calls were not taken and doors were closed in their face. But in that period, everyone knew the state and Mao were in effect the same thing. These days, the powers of the state - and the variety of unwritten rules - are more elusive and dispersed; when you have fallen foul, there is no way to appease them all. The greatest task of a modern leader in China is to try to enlist to his side enough of these influences to be able to do the job.

A legitimacy problem

Now, with the imminent party congress in Beijing, the process of leadership succession which has unfolded over several years is reaching its climax. From within, it was probably far harder - in its lobbying, struggles, pressures and feuds - than those outside the inner sanctum can ever know (though the Bo Xilai affair gives a dramatic taste). Behind the froth of highly orchestrated mass meetings and (the few) public events and pronouncements, this has been overwhelmingly a campaign conducted in private meeting-rooms and closed sessions.

That fact alone, however, poses of the process and its outcome a huge legitimacy issue. Elections, in the end, answer complex, even tedious questions in an easy way: who gets the most votes wins. In this opaque Chinese version, the emergence of the next party-state leadership leaves everyone else wondering: why and how were the contenders and the winners chosen, what are their qualifications and qualities?

On the one hand, the party-state wants to surround itself with as much mystique as possible in order to preserve its monopoly on power. On the other hand, it needs to tell some sort of story about why the new leaders have arrived in their position, and what distinguishes them. It can’t, moreover, just answer by saying they are the best-networked people in the party or have the most support from this or that faction. The party-state has to spread out its arms and show - or pretend to show - that the new leaders are there not just for the party, or for the state: they are there for everyone.

An epic challenge

It is almost seventy years since Karl Popper published his great work, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). The operation of the party-state in modern China exemplifies its theme in raw form. If modern China is about anything, it is about the fight for control - information control, social control, political control. The Communist Party has won this battle so far by pouring huge resources into all of these areas. It has been able to continue doing this because of the country's vast gross GDP growth, which has meant it can pursue every other area of activity at a discount.

This is bound to change, in that growth will increasingly come through greater efficiency - and that will require both better governance and management, and core political choices. There will need to be more consensus not just in the political elite but in society. To use or allow violence to quell disputes or protests, for example, will become counterproductive. The party will need to persuade people’s hearts as well as capturing their bodies. It will wrestle with the same issues of meaning, value, lifestyles and expectations as developed societies. It will need a new vocabulary beyond the idea of economic success as the summit of human existence. It will have to look at the world beyond GDP, and deliver more to its citizens than the possibility of becoming richer.

These are great challenges, arguably bigger than any the CCP has faced before. It's hard to imagine the controlling figures that will appear on the stage in mid-November either being bold enough or having the capacity to meet them. And yet, the future of this great country, with its energy and complexity and dynamism, also seems to demand an effort on the same scale.

Chinese people are like people anywhere. In the end, they want to live in a country where they feel secure, fulfilled, hopeful; a country where they can aspire, perhaps even dream, and strive for a better world. That might at present be more a proposition than a detailed programme, but an open society - a society with less restraint and fewer controls - is the only way to make it happen. That is why the development of China is such a critical part of the story of humanity and its fight for openness, justice and equity.

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