China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files
, edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Bruce Gilley (Granta Books 2003).
On New Year’s Eve, I went to a Pizza Hut in Shenzhen, China, to read classified government documents in public. You get your New Year’s kicks your way, I’ll get them mine.
The Pizza Hut (which, along with McDonald’s and the Colonel, are the most popular fast food chains in China) was packed with about 50 adults as well as dozens of children and teenagers. This meant that, if the government’s numbers are correct, I was in the presence of about three members of the Chinese Communist Party, all of whom would have freaked if they knew I was reading leaked Politburo background reports of China’s top leaders while eating a Super Supreme.The Party Investigates Its Own Leaders
As the millennium approached, the Party prepared to transfer power from what was called the Third Generation of leadership, led by Jiang Zemin, to the Fourth Generation, led by its “core,” Hu Jintao. (The First Generation were Mao Tse-Tung and his revolutionaries, and the Second Generation were Deng Xiaoping and his modernizers.)
China is not a dictatorship; it is an oligarchy, and the oligarchs are the five to nine people who comprise the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC), the most powerful institution in the country. The PBSC makes all major decisions in every facet of Chinese public life. The state, the Party and the military – i.e., the three branches of the Chinese government -- are subordinate to the PBSC, which has unlimited jurisdiction and cannot be overruled. PBSC members labor under two procedural restraints: members serve five-year terms, and members who reach the age of 70 cannot seek another term.
Power at the highest level of China is transferred by changing the membership of the PBSC at the quinquennial Party Congresses. The membership of the PBSC is determined by the whole of the Politburo, the twenty-some highest-ranking Party members. To assist them in their selection, the Party’s Organization Department dispatches investigators to research and prepare background reports on all PBSC candidates.
In 2001, a Party source leaked the drafts of these background reports (which were being prepared for the 16th Party Congress scheduled for November 2002) to a journalist who writes under the pseudonym Zong Hairen. Zong used the reports as the basis for his Chinese-language book Disidai
and then approached Columbia University professor Andrew J. Nathan, an editor of The Tiananmen Papers
, to draft an English-language version.The Secret Files Reveal a Hidden World
The resulting book is China’s New Rulers: The Secret Files
, and its editors employ their knowledge of Chinese politics to contextualize the sometimes dry contents of the draft reports.
Despite the potential for sexual scandal inherent in background checks, the Party investigators do not examine the personal lives of members. Consequently, the only titillating gossip is the claim that former General Secretary Jiang Zemin allegedly used his position as the country’s top leader to bed a series of mistresses whom he rewarded with plum posts – a perk of office which, if true, he would share with almost every leader in world history.
The files discuss the Fourth Generation’s similar schooling. The three most powerful men in China have degrees in hydropower engineering, electron vacuum tubes and geomechanics. Other sons of fun in the PBSC spent their college years studying control systems, metallurgical pressure processing and automation. It should therefore be no surprise that these men see China as a machine that can yield the desired results if they design and operate it well. Of course, machines have no say in their governance, and neither do the Chinese people.
Because the files are written from the point of view of Chinese Communists, they contain information that the intended audience would perceive as non-controversial but that Western politicians would perceive as damaging if revealed about themselves. For example, while all PBSC candidates must demonstrate past administrative competence (often defined as not screwing up), patronage plays a more powerful role in career advancement than merit. The reports candidly detail the manner in which the careers of the Fourth Generation’s leaders were guarded and advanced by the Elders (sometimes translated as the Immortals), the most senior Party members.
The patronage system was instituted at the top. In 1980, China’s leader Deng Xiaoping ordered Party officials to identify and promote members who were “more revolutionary, younger, more knowledgeable, and more specialized.” Many senior officials added “more loyal” and selected dutiful and unthreatening acolytes to receive the affirmative action.A Company Man
One such cadre was Hu Jintao. The hydropower engineer was working for the construction commission in the backwater province of Gansu when the province’s Party Secretary, Song Ping, appointed Hu as the deputy head of the commission, promoting him over the heads of more experienced officials. Song then successfully lobbied for a series of promotions for Hu.
Hu was reportedly a lackluster administrator, but he did not make any significant mistakes, and he cultivated supporters among his superiors inside Zhongnanhai, the walled compound in Beijing from which the nation is governed. Hu’s next big promotion was to Party Secretary of Guizhou, China’s poorest province, where he did not make waves. In 1988, he was accorded the post of Party Secretary of Tibet, where pro-independence rioting forced him to make a high-stakes decision. Hu declared martial law and cracked down on the Tibetans, much to Beijing’s approval. (A new book, Chinese Politics In The Hu Jintao Era
by Willy Wo-Lap Lam, reports that Hu requested and received authority from Beijing to impose martial law but purposefully refused to make a decision regarding the use of force against the rioters. The frustrated local security chief unilaterally used force, thereby allowing Hu to receive the credit if the crackdown worked but avoid the blame if it failed.)
The Elders, including Deng Xiaoping, decided that Hu was “the core of his generation” and elevated him to the PBSC in 1992. Six years later, Hu’s status as the heir apparent was underlined with his appointment to the vice presidency where, like most vice presidents, Hu had little power and spent his time currying support for one final promotion. His loyalty was rewarded with the top job – which is actually three jobs that Hu acquired between 2002 and 2004.
A cadre’s rank within the Party is always the defining consideration, so the most powerful post in the country is the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. The armed forces are subservient to the Party, so a Party member is appointed as the Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission. (There is also a nearly identical state CMC.) Finally, the head of state is the President, a largely symbolic post with the important perquisite of granting its holder a democratic gloss. Hu holds all three posts, which has not always been the case in recent Chinese history. (I disagree with the decision by U.S. news media to refer to Hu as “President” when the presidency is the least important of his offices and the term inaccurately implies that he is elected. He should be referred to as “General Secretary,” the post from which his power emanates and a title which accurately communicates that he is the unelected leader of a Communist Party.)A Never-Ending Struggle
While much of China’s New Rulers
is the deepest inside baseball, details and patterns emerge about life in the strange world of the Party leadership.
China and its ruling Party are governed by consensus. If you want to advance a policy (for example, a liquidation of the assets of a bankrupt state-owned enterprise), you obtain agreement from your colleagues and superiors, allowing everyone to have a say and, if necessary, obtaining their acquiescence through horse-trading or other means. An unintentionally humorous aspect of the draft reports is the degree to which the Politburo members demand that PBSC members be “democratic” in their decision-making.
In order to be wired, a Party functionary needs to read constantly. The Party newspaper, People’s Daily
, has to be interpreted each morning like Scripture for what it says, implies and does not say. The Party – which controls all print media – may issue more than a dozen periodicals relevant to an industry. Entire departments exist to write reports, with which relevant cadres are expected to be conversant.
Status within the middle management of the Party is a guessing game. While some posts are inherently important and others are self-evidently Mongolia, many Party and government jobs are simultaneously vague and redundant – quite a feat when you think about it. This amorphousness may explain why, once cadres ascend to the top level, they act obsessed with rank and its trappings.
The battle for position is constant. There are weekly meetings of committees, sub-committees, plenums, congresses, assemblies and conferences. Reports need to be drafted and commented and revised and vetted. Officials must prepare and deliver “self criticism” speeches and attend those of others. Holidays in the coastal city of Beidaihe, the Hamptons of China, are dominated by politicking. It would be simpler and faster to hold elections.
I wonder how ambitious Party members find the time to eat at Pizza Hut.
Labels: Book Review, China, Chinese Communist Party, Non-Fiction