“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.