“The Party” exposes China’s mysterious leadership

Americans love conspiracy theories. Even if you know man stepped on the moon and Bush didn’t cause 9/11, there’s something sickly fascinating about speculating that government has something to hide. At the very least, it makes for great fiction.

Conspiracy theories, so far as I know, aren’t popular in China. That’s a shame, because the people of China are living in the midst of a pretty spectacular conspiracy; one that’s anything but theoretical.

That’s certainly the impression I got after reading Richard McGregor’s “The Party,” a fascinating look at the inner circles of China’s elite. It depicts The Communist Party as bureaucratic, hierarchical and largely effective – though frequently hampered by its obsession with staying in power.

If you struggle to understand just what Beijing is thinking sometimes, this is the book you need to read. The motivations of the Chinese regime is laid out clearly, as are Western misconceptions about it.

Western scholars have long speculated about what lessons are to be learned from the fall of the Soviet empire; in China, the question is anything but academic. Such a fate must be avoided at all costs, and the Party staying in power can ensure this.

This lesson, along with the experience of the 1989 Tienanmen protests, define China’s government to this day. Capitalism, of a certain kind, was found to help the party stay in power by growing the economy and preventing collapse. It’s also made China the world’s second-biggest economy.

The Party isn’t the sort of conspiracy you find in the American imagination; it’s too imperfect for that. There is a surprising number of things over which The Party has no power. Regional politicians routinely ignore dictates from Beijing, for example. Taiwan remains very much independent.

Still, there’s not much about modern life in China not supervised by the Communist Party. The Internet is famously monitored, many families are permitted no more than one child, only approved religions can meet publicly, and corporate leaders can be fired by The Party at will.

Despite all this, however, an overwhelming majority of people feel the country is headed in the right direction, something that can scarcely be said about America. Whatever you think about The Party, you have to admire it at a certain level.

McGregor’s book doesn’t focus on this sort of admiration, however, focusing instead on the consequences of single party rule. A particularly morbid example involved tainted milk being covered up in 2008 to prevent negative press during the Olympics. Children died because of this, so The Party let the company take the fall in early 2009, when the Western media had gone home.

And, of course, speaking against The Party can get you locked up in a hurry. Just ask the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Overall, this book gives me the impression that life is better in declining American than in rising China. It also puts the petty arguments in America, in which Obama/Bush are routinely compared to authoritarians, into context. A highly recommended read.

What Impact Will The Peace Prize Have In China?

When President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, seemingly for no particular reason, the American media went crazy. Regardless of what a particular analyst thought about the matter they were all quick to state their point of view.

Not the case in China. A week after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo it’s unclear what impact the news will have. People there largely don’t know who Liu Xiaobo, a long-time pro-democracy activist jailed in 2008 for speaking out, is. This is the product of an insanely expensive censorship campaign; one that has China filtering the entire Internet.

All mention of the prize was scrubbed from the media and the web last week. Major news outlets, from BBC to CNN to The New York Times to Al Jazeera, were all wiped from the net in China; some sites are still blocked. So far as people there know the sites are simply not working, because China doesn’t acknowledge its “Great Firewall” exists. Blocked sites appear to be mere 404 errors.

That’s internally. Externally, the Chinese government was quick to condemn the award. The initial statement? The award going to Liu Xiaobo would hurt China’s relations with Norway. Shortly after the award was announced Chinese officials demanded to speak with the Norwegian ambassador.

Given that the winner is selected by a committee of Norsemen, not the government, this is a rather odd thing to say. Norway is to be punished because an independent group of citizens are celebrating the bravery of a particular Chinese dissident? The implication here is that Norway should, like China, have total control over its people’s statements; that if Norway’s not willing to suppress freedom of speech about China, that will damage relations.

This is, of course, absurd. China wants to become a more integral part of the international community without the scrutiny that comes with. American leaders are hated abroad, for many reasons, but America doesn’t cut relations with France when they burn Bush effigies in the streets. Freedom means The People can say what they want.

China, not respecting its own people’s freedom of speech, apparently extends that lack of respect to other nations’ people as well.

A nation aspiring to be a global power really can’t afford to think that way.

But what happens inside China? Chinese students I’ve spoken to here in America seem to think it’s good for China to look at issues from multiple points of view, which seems consistent with what I know of Chinese philosophy. The problem is the people simply don’t know what’s going on.

Can this censorship of information last forever? It’s already lasted longer than most people expected it could.

But this is a unique moment in history. Since 2008 a public discussion about Universal Values is becoming increasingly open, with some Communist Party members even taking part. Liu Xiaobo is today in prison, but may well live to see a day when all mention of him isn’t wiped from the Chinese media.