Review: Linda Jaivinon The Chinese Communist Party

A complex beast: Party Time & Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is arguably the single most powerful organisation in the world. It is also one of the least transparent. High walls conceal its well-guarded headquarters within Zhongnanhai, west of the Forbidden City in Beijing’s old Imperial Precinct. Anyone peering through its gate on Chang’an Avenue will see nothing beyond the giant ‘spirit screen’ that blocks the view within. On the screen, in the calligraphy of Mao Zedong, are written the words wei renmin fuwu: ‘Serve the People’. Here, it translates: ‘Keep Out!’

The servants of the people do not come or go by this gate: they have special entrances and tunnels that allow them to avoid any accidental meetings with ‘the people’. In fact, they rarely meet them at all, except in highly choreographed and carefully vetted situations, relying instead for their understanding largely on internally-circulated reports and opinion surveys.

A former Party General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, was purged for an unauthorised visit with the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in May 1989. Another leader, Wen Jiabao, had accompanied Zhao that day. Zhao disappeared into house arrest; Wen survived to become premier in 2003, and to win popular acclaim for his relatively unscripted and emotional visits with victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. If you are scratching your head at the logic behind this, you are in good, or at least large company: most Chinese people are equally uncertain as to the precise rules by which the Communist Party’s game of Snakes and Ladders plays out.

The habits of rule in China today reflect the underground and clandestine origins of the Communist Party itself. They took shape in the decades between the Party’s founding in 1921 and its coming to power in 1949. During this period, the CCP was blooded in violent suppression by the ruling Nationalist Party, its epic Long March, its guerrilla actions against the Japanese and the battles of civil war. While facing all these external threats, it was also mired in factional strife, resulting in purge and counter-purge. By the time Mao Zedong became its chairman and it declared China ‘liberated’, the Party had already established a modus operandi of violent struggles for power, constant internal and external surveillance, and freewheeling, opportunistic reinterpretations of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping put the Party and China on a new course that he called Reform and Opening Up. Since then, the Party has increasingly ‘rebranded’ itself as modern and global, forward and outward looking. Yet it continues to hold up Mao as an exemplar. At the same time, it now also officially reveres Confucius, whose notion of social harmony is antithetical to most of Mao’s core beliefs, including that of continuous revolution.

The CCP, in other words, is a complex beast. Yet like China itself, it has never been strictly inscrutable: it simply demands intelligent, informed scrutiny. In the closed and isolationist decades under Mao, the study of Chinese politics was a branch of Kremlinology in which analysts pored over official photographs of the leadership to see who might be missing and studied the tea leaves of People’s Daily editorials, searching for signs. The Hungarian Jesuit László Ladány was the doyen of the old-school ‘China watchers’ and his China News Analysis, published out of the University of Hong Kong from 1953, was both the must-read and most-read publication on Chinese affairs and Party politics for many decades.

Today, China is far more open, yet the Party itself is not much better understood outside specialist and academic circles. I recently had a conversation at a gathering in Los Angeles with a well-travelled businessman, who had experience dealing with China. He used the pronoun ‘they’ in ways that suggested that the Chinese, their government and the Communist Party were not only indivisible, but that ‘they’ acted as one – and with largely malicious intent, at least so far as the US and its interests were concerned. It later emerged that he was an avid watcher of Fox News, and thought Bill O’Reilly a terrific authority on just about everything. Brainwashing is not unique to communism; it’s just that in some countries, it is voluntary.

We are better served by our popular media here in Australia. Proximity, the depth and breadth of the mutual ties that have developed since Gough Whitlam’s far-sighted decision to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1972, and world-leading China scholarship in our universities lifts our game. When the Australian Centre for China in the World at the Australian National University published its first annual China Yearbook: Red Rising, Red Eclipse (2012), the Los Angeles Review of Books said both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama ought to be reading it. (I am a member of the yearbook’s editorial team; the 2013 China Yearbook is due out in October.). Recent books by Australian journalists include some deep-drilling, specialised fare. David Uren’s The Kingdom and the Quarry (2012) and The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rules (2010) by the Financial Times correspondent Richard McGregor are two recent examples.

Rowan Callick, the Asia-Pacific editor and veteran China correspondent for the Australian pays tribute to what he calls McGregor’s ‘ground-breaking’ work in his own superb contribution to the pile, Party Time: Who Runs China and How. Intelligent, dispassionate, impeccably researched and well-written, Party Time is also packed full of deft word portraits and voices from both within and outside the CCP.

Party Time begins, in effect, with a warning: of all the many ways in which China can be misunderstood, Callick asserts, the ‘most common misreading’ is ‘to praise China’s economic development while claiming such material success as a victory for capitalism or for Western technology.’ It is a mistake to believe that ‘modernity automatically displaces communism, as a rock thrown into a pool displaces water.’ The CCP, for better or worse, has been and remains integral to China’s rise. To ignore or deny this is to be the foreign businessperson in Callick’s opening anecdote, who attends a banquet and fails to recognise the person who is really running the show, even though he has been there all along, right before his eyes. The Party has more than eighty-two million members. Four out of ten new members are still drawn from the urban and rural working classes; an equal number are university students. They are not all officials. But those who are effectively run every government office and official institution in China; Party members are the key decision makers in every major business, association and enterprise.

The CCP’s leading role in the nation’s governance is entrenched in the Chinese Constitution. It is the Party, not the state, that commands the army. What’s more, as Callick notes, China is ‘the only country of its size to be ruled in a unitary manner without devolving power.’ All other nations of similar or approaching size are federations; the Chinese Communist Party does not even permit different time zones.

And yet there are deep divisions in this unitarily managed nation. The gap between rich and poor has made China, according to a Chinese economist quoted by Callick, ‘far less egalitarian than Japan, the USA, or even Eastern Europe’. Somewhere between 128 and 150 million people must subsist on about one US dollar a day; whereas there are at least a million US dollar millionaires. A significant percentage of China’s über-wealthy, perhaps a third, are members of the Communist Party.

In certain regards, the Party behaves today in a more paranoid and fearful way than it has for decades, despite its power and reach. When in 1985 the nation celebrated the 35th anniversary of its founding with a big parade and fireworks in Tiananmen Square, someone slipped me a pass and I spent the evening circle-dancing on the square with steelworkers during the official festivities. When the Party’s 60th anniversary rolled around in 2009, the entire city was put under lockdown. Foreigners and Chinese residents alike were warned against even trying to watch the rehearsals. Emerging from a subway near Tiananmen a few days before the event (and on my way to see the propaganda film Founding of the Republic), I walked straight into the middle of a Chinese SWAT team armed with submachine guns. They told me to keep on walking, and I did. There was no dancing for me that year.

The 1980s in China was a time of remarkably lively intellectual and cultural debate that played out in newspapers, novels, non-fiction, film and even television. Today, the CCP enforces strict clamps on publishing and media. The livelier debate has shifted onto the internet. The Party deploys battalions of censors to pursue and stamp out feral online opinion and reporting, but the internet is a fast-moving target. Among the Party’s goals here, as with publishing generally, is to maintain control over history, for it relies increasingly for legitimacy on its glorious past, and so it must bury not only such potentially destabilising subjects as examinations of the bloody suppression of student-led protests of 1989 and ongoing ethnic strife in Tibet and Xinjiang, but such tarnished episodes as the three-year, largely man-made famine of 1959-1961 that claimed up to 40 million lives and the murderous decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). As Callick tells us, ‘Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, warns those who seek Cultural Revolution sites: “Your search word could violate laws.”’

The media must similarly uphold the idea that China has only begun to engage deeply and broadly with the rest of the world since the advent of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. Yet as Callick points out, in the first decades of the twentieth century China was tremendously engaged with the world, to the extent that by 1930 ‘Chinese students outnumbered all other foreigners at US universities’. The inconvenient facts that Chinese judges sat at The Hague and that a Chinese delegate helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights challenge the official line that the ‘Western view’ of justice and human rights is irrelevant to China.

It is not just history that must be scoured and controlled. When the United Nations’ 2012 World Happiness Report ranked China the 112th happiest country out of 156, the Party forbade Chinese media to report on it. Nor were the media allowed to mention the fact that Barack Obama answered questions at a 2009 forum in Shanghai – the Chinese people might start wanting to ask questions of their own leaders. A Party historian acknowledges to Callick that while there may be different views on events, ‘there is only one correct and accurate interpretation’ of them, and insists that there is no need to debate issues that are ‘quite clearly defined’. With ‘stability maintenance’ as the current Holy Grail, the media must not present, in the words of Callick’s informant, ‘absurd opinions that disturb people’s minds’. It is here that the CCP begins to sound like its most embarrassing relatives: those wacky folks running North Korea.

But for all its efforts to ‘harmonise’ history and public opinion and present a unified ‘Party line’, the CCP is no monolith. The riveting case of former Politburo member Bo Xilai, a neo-Maoist whose red star was on the rise until he was implicated in serious corruption, abuse of power and (via his wife) the murder of an Englishman, exposed some of its fault lines to the world. Its critics, too, are a diverse lot. Callick speaks with a number of these, including the ‘gutsy individuals’ who pursue social justice aims in the face of government and Party indifference or hostility. Prominent dissidents Callick has spoken to include the now-imprisoned Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo. A former cultural critic, first arrested after his participation in the student-led protests of 1989, Liu continued bravely to advocate for democracy and human rights, even after several long and punishing stints in prisons and labour camps. From the CCP’s perspective, Liu’s greatest crime was to agitate for a separation of Party and state. This is the ultimate heresy, as attested by the eleven-year sentence imposed on Liu on Christmas Day 2009 for ‘inciting subversion of state power’. (In fact, one could argue he was advocating the strengthening of state power by removing from under the thumb of the Party.)

Callick also speaks with the artist and activist Ai Weiwei. In 1980, I attended the path-breaking exhibition at the China Art Gallery by the independent artists’ collective, The Stars, of which Ai Weiwei was a founding member; he was a near-iconic force on the cultural scene even then. Some years later, Ai Weiwei left China for New York, returning early in the nineties. His early work was highly influenced by Duchamp’s concept of the ‘ready-made’ and included such works as ‘Hanging Man’, a coat hanger bent to the shape of Marcel Duchamp’s profile.

The English journalist Barnaby Martin first met Ai Weiwei in London in 2010, at the time of his monumental installation of porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Gallery. Ai Weiwei’s international reputation was growing. At the same time, his work was becoming more overtly political and confrontational. He infuriated Party leaders with an artwork that commemorated the thousands of children killed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake when their jerry-built schools collapsed – a result of the pervasive corruption that is the CCP’s cancer, curse and the single greatest challenge to its legitimacy and continued rule. Even official statistics point to a ‘grey economy’ worth, as Callick tells us in Party Time, ‘a breathtaking US$686 billion’ – some 24 per cent of China’s gross domestic product in 2010.

In 2011, Ai Weiwei was boarding a plane to Hong Kong, and then he was not. Removed from the flight by security forces, he was held and interrogated for eighty-one days and slapped with what one might call the ‘ready-made’ criminal charge of tax evasion. Martin arrived in Beijing to seek out Ai Weiwei after his release, in defiance of an official ban on the artist speaking with foreign journalists, and his extended, free-ranging conversation with Ai Weiwei in the artist’s Beijing compound is the core of Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei. In his opening pages, Martin tells us that he ‘felt that Ai Weiwei’s experience at the hands of the Chinese secret police could throw a unique light on the psychological state of the Chinese Communist Party itself’ and that Ai Weiwei might well have gained ‘insights into the state of mind of the leaders of the world’s most populous nation’. In pursuit of these insights, he presses Ai Weiwei on the question of how the decision to arrest him would have been made. Martin hypothesises that ‘there would have been elements at the very highest level who would have not wanted you to be arrested because there is all this investment in soft power by China, and to arrest you meant all this effort was wasted’. Ai Weiwei gives him a shrug of a response: ‘Yes. But who would calculate this? I have no idea.’ Martin does, however. ‘They would calculate it round a table,’ he speculates. ‘Someone would say, “I don’t think we should do this, the whole world is watching,” and someone else would say, “But he is stirring up trouble.”’

Not to put too fine a point on it, the reader can safely glide past Martin’s suppositions on how the CCP operates and stick with Callick on this question. Peppered as it is with errors of fact and misspellings, Martin’s recitation of Chinese political and cultural history may also be taken with a grain of salt. He correctly has the Great Leap Forward beginning in 1958 on page 34, and incorrectly in 1959 the page after. Tan Dun is not ‘one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century’ but rather one of the greatest contemporary composers, who writes for a wide range of classical Western and Chinese as well as improvised instruments. The names misspelt include that of the first president of the republic, Yuan Shikai, and prominent Hong Kong art dealer Johnson Chang.

In his excitement at having gained access to the closely guarded compound and the unguarded mind of his subject, he also sometimes fails to engage more critically with what he is told. For example, Ai Weiwei, speaking in English, claims that an artwork he created in the early nineties was China’s ‘first conceptual art’. I would have asked if he meant his art was among the first works of conceptual art. It would be interesting to know if Ai Weiwei, who had already gone to the US by that time, did not know about the work Xu Bing and Wu Shanzhuan, among others, were doing in the 1980s. It seems unlikely. Had he forgotten them or dismissed them for some interesting reason? Martin lets this pass, as he does Ai Weiwei’s assertion that art schools in China impart little more to their students than how to copy French classical paintings, teaching ‘no concepts. No concept of art history.’ Ai Weiwei is a very intelligent man, a complex thinker and a tireless provocateur; I will not speculate about why he said this. But a two-minute survey of the website of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts reveals courses ranging from ‘experimental art’ and flash animation to the history of Latin American art and the aesthetics of contemporary environmental sculpture.

Martin is himself prone to sweeping and at times rather odd claims, such as his assertion that ‘It is only more recently, since 1995, that Chinese art has really managed to dissociate itself from its Chinese roots and, like a tributary, join the great river that is the tradition of global contemporary art.’ Really? Is that what it has been trying to do? Is that what it is doing? And what exactly is ‘the tradition of global contemporary art’?

Still, Martin does elicit some fantastic anecdotes and intriguing ruminations from Ai Weiwei about his life and art, and particularly his experiences in detention. Referring to the artist’s recreations of bronze zodiac animal head sculptures crafted by eighteenth century Jesuits for a Manchu emperor’s garden palace, one of Ai Weiwei’s interrogators shouted at him: ‘Why do you think the twelve animal heads from Yuan Ming Yuan are your work?’ Ai Weiwei tried to explain, but postmodernist appropriation was clearly not part of the policeman’s theoretical repertoire. It is a darkly funny story at the expense of Ai Weiwei’s interrogator. Yet it would be a mistake to draw from it a conclusion that underestimates the collective intelligence, tenacity, power or, crucially, appeal of the Chinese Communist Party. I would wager that Ai Weiwei understands this better than his interlocutor.

‘Outside,’ Martin writes at one point,

it is pouring with rain. The courtyard garden, the office, the police car outside, the whole of Beijing seems utterly unreal. The only things that have any meaning at all are the monstrous, lowering presence of the Chinese Communist Party and Weiwei’s determination … to force the secret policemen, the Chinese Communist Party, the whole country even, to change.

The atmospheric ‘monstrous, lowering presence’ recalls the sort of Cold War rhetoric that inspired all those great Martian invasion films of the 1950s. Nearly everyone who has spent time in China, particularly around those people who have been on the receiving end of the dictatorship of the proletariat, has had days like that. Yet it does not help to explain why the Party today is so popular that nearly seven times as many people seek membership than are admitted, and why its membership is drawn more and more from the highly educated. The desire for success, power and access to scarce resources is only part of the explanation. As Callick observes, idealism and belief still play a role, though this is linked less to traditional communist ideology than to nationalism, a sense that it is the Party that will continue to guide China’s rise. There is also a widespread belief, held beyond members of the Party, that China is so fractious that only communism can hold the country together. As one Chinese academic quoted in Party Time puts it, ‘It’s as if a group of people seized control of the plane called China sixty years ago, and they’re still flying it around. We’re not all happy about how we’re being piloted, but no one else on board knows how to fly a plane, so we just carry on looking out the window.’


China Yearbook: Red Rising, Red Eclipse (2012)