The Party, the Power and the Praxis

Mike Cormack reviews China’s Dream by Kerry Brown


Kerry Brown’s productivity puts the rest of us to shame. Just in the past few years the Professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London has published CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping (2016), China’s World: What Does China Want? (2017), which I reviewed in these pages, The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China (2018) and The World According to Xi (2018). All have received strong plaudits, too, making Brown a one-man cottage industry informing, educating and entertaining us about modern China.

Last year he published China’s Dream: The Culture of Chinese Communism and The Secret Sources of its Power. Looking at the title, I wondered if the book might perhaps retread parts of CEO, China and The New Emperors. (How else could he maintain this output?) But I was wrong. China’s Dream is a deep analysis of the culture of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and how it uses this to maintain power. If the renowned The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (2012) by Richard McGregor established the skeleton of the CCP and its links to the broader Chinese state, Brown’s book is an attempt to put flesh on those bones. It does this by a deep-bore examination of the party’s moral and ethical stances, as well as its use of culture to maintain a remarkable hold on power and sustain its appeal to Chinese citizens – whether urban or rural, Party members or the broader masses.

This is no small topic. The Party has maintained power with an iron grip – apart from one brief moment in 1989 – for over seventy years. This is despite extraordinary tumults, disasters and changes in direction that would see most governments kicked out by protests or coups, or torn apart by dissent or internal splits. Yet somehow, under Xi, the Party is more to the fore in Chinese life than at any time in the last thirty years. Its appeal to the general population remains strong; its narrative of itself as the redeemer of China retains popular support; and its monopolisation of available political space remains all-encompassing.

What to make, then, of the Party’s culture and its praxis? In his introduction, Brown relates the story of a seminar on ‘The Chinese Communist Party and the World’, with a Chinese delegation including members of the International Liaison Department and Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan. Inevitably there is some disagreement over terms. As Brown relates:

From Liu’s words, it was easy to conclude at least some things about the views of members from within [the Party] about how they saw the organization they belonged to. The Party for them is pragmatic, unifying, diverse, and hybrid. It is exceptional to China, but highly inter-linked to the outside world and they are aware that their country’s problems all have an international dimension. The pragmatism of the Party means it constantly makes tactical space available to change its direction, move into different areas … when it needs to. 

There is obviously a disconnect between the usual western concept of a communist party – a Stalinist monolith, with granite-faced bureaucrats – and the dynamic, pragmatic, diverse party of Chinese conception. Thus a close analysis of how the Party thinks and behaves is highly welcome, so that we can learn from the facts.

The Party has maintained power with an iron grip for over seventy years. What to make, then, of its culture and its praxis?”

Brown’s analysis takes on four distinct topics. First he examines the party’s use of history, positioning of itself as redeemer of China and means of winning the “historic mission” of modernization and development. Second, he looks at the ethical basis of the party, first through its current moral narrative and then considering how the party fell into a “moral crisis” during the Hu era. (Like the British Labour party, to draw a slightly absurd parallel, the Party is “a moral crusade or it is nothing” – although what that crusade may be changes greatly according to current needs). Third, he examines the party’s use of ideology and then the counterstrike of the party Weltanschauung (worldview) under Xi. And finally there is an account of the use of art and aesthetics by the Party to undergird its rule and its appeal.

The key section is the chapters on ethics. For if the party is a moral crusade, its claim to be improving the ethical nature of Chinese society is one of its key claims to power. Though Hu-era China now feels oddly distant, many will recall the abeyance into which the Party’s ethics fell (perhaps peaking with the fall of Bo Xilai) and note the popularity of Xi’s “tigers and flies” anti-corruption campaign amongst the general population. In two chapters (‘Being a Good Chinese Communist’ and ‘Back to Basics’), Brown examines the “moral narrative” in Xi’s China and the moral crisis into which it fell in the Hu-Wen era.

The moral narrative is an overriding concern, a leading claim to power in China: according to its historiography, the CPC “is an organization which has delivered justice to and reawakened a country that has been victimized, subjugated and brutalized in its modern history. The teleology of this history is towards a point of retribution and redemption.” The party’s ethical basis draws upon two traditions: classical Confucianism and Marxism-Leninism, according to need. Hence “it is not surprising that it has appeared inconsistent over what fundamental principles it uses to justify its actions and its rights to rule.” You can see this moral zig-zagging as Party and government spokesmen justify their actions with whatever argument lies to hand. So, Brown suggests, this “lies at the heart of the confusion of outsiders towards an entity which one moment speaks the language of service, selflessness, and seeking good outcomes for all, and the next allows its agents to violate human rights norms, commit fundamental crimes and be brazenly unashamed of belonging to a tradition tainted by immense moral failure”. Perhaps so, but it might just be the merest brass-necked pragmatic use of any argument to suit the occasion. Xi’s sedulous adoption of Davos Man rhetoric (and the astonishing willingness of some to be taken in by it) likewise suggests the Party’s skill at using arguments in which it does not believe. Its power flows from such mastery.

The key moral dilemma is another area of hybridization. Brown notes: “The quandary faced by the Xi leadership has been how to marry the traditional socialist values the CPC still needs to adhere to with the completely different values that have driven the successful introduction of a market economy and have enabled it to remain in power”. There is always a dynamic, always a ferment. This means that “as the Party… fights over its moral position and tries to handle the tensions outlined above, this lack of consensus over what people believe constitutes the basis for good action and honesty, integrity, and other virtues has created gaping spaces to be filled by individual agency.” No Stalinist monolith here, then – and that space for individual agency, of course, is precisely that which enables corruption.

China’s Dream is a deep dive into some of the deepest and complex issues on the psychology and sociology of the Party”

A key concept in the ethical conundrum is that of ‘Deep China’, which Brown describes as “the China of inner lives and individual narratives and life stories,” as opposed to the physical realm, which he calls ‘Real China’. Deep China is “an emotional China, a place where people can seek self-expression and spaces to validate their agency […], where people try to answer the fundamental questions of meaning, faith and ultimate belief in their lives”. With the collapse of Maoism, Chinese people have therefore endured the loss of two organizing belief systems in the space of a century, after the initial collapse of the imperial Confucian system. Since 1978, the Chinese government has mostly spoken to Real China: scientific and material progress, and physical reconstruction of the nation.

But Deep China matters, and so following the endemic corruption of the Hu era, Xi launched the ‘China Dream’ policy. People still need something in which to believe, as Ian Johnson has documented on the return of religion following the decline of peak Maoism. The moral narrative under Xi includes purges of the corrupt, nation building, national greatness and efforts to link this to its past. Notably this last includes efforts to reach out to foreign countries. The leadership feel China’s “most significant source of appeal to the wider world is through reference to the great past as a civilization – a past lamentably little appreciated in the outside world, but one which at least gave some distractions from the less palatable aspects of China’s recent history, and the role the Party has played in that.” This backwards-looking appeal is remarkable for a country whose diplomatic narrative is very much on its rise. But that also suggests how China’s leaders are willing to use any rhetoric that does the job.

China’s Dream is a deep dive into some of the deepest and complex issues on the psychology and sociology of the Party. It is more analytical than Brown’s previous books, most of which developed a historical narrative on a particular area, whether foreign policy or the career of Xi. The relative lack of story makes the book densely argumentative and less expository, which means it has rather less verve to it. Only the final chapter on aesthetics – art, literature, theatre and festivities (such as the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics) – relates to a broader historical period and thus has some narrative.

The remaining six chapters do not escape a certain tedium, a matter not helped by Brown’s writing style, which is always clear and sensible, but without flourish. Examples from JK Galbraith to Eric Hobsbawm prove that academic or intellectual writing need not be a stranger to vigour, verve and vim. Galbraith notes in The New Industrial State (1967) that “the note of spontaneity comes into my writing in the fourth or fifth draft.” Brown is, it would seem, a more productive if less painstaking writer than Galbraith.

This is perhaps quibbling, for China’s Dream is yet another fine effort: greatly informative, hugely thought-provoking, and consistently well-argued. The range of Brown’s output on China is remarkable, ranging across political leaders, foreign policy and Party culture, where most experts have only one field. But considered across his body of work, China’s Dream is, in musical terms, Pink Floyd’s Animals as opposed to Dark Side Of The Moon: dense, long, slightly difficult, but ultimately very rewarding. ∎

Kerry Brown, China’s Dream: The Culture of Chinese Communism and The Secret Sources of its Power (Polity, October 2018)

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The Party, the Power and the Praxis