Behind China’s ‘bamboo curtain’ is an amoebic God

(This review of two books on China was published in DNA edition dated November 28, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

Prince Charles, whose own personality is far from sparkling, once described Chinese leaders as “appalling old waxworks”. The validity of that judgment is borne out on the rare ceremonial occasions when the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s top-rung leaders appear in public, with uniformly coiffured and greased hair and determinedly dour facial expressions.

Yet, for all their lack of slick liveliness, China’s Communist Party leaders represent arguably the most powerful political force in the world today, with the capacity to project enormous economic and military power, both at home and around the world, and bend the arc of history to reflect Chinese might. But while every aspect of China’s ascent – particularly the engines of its economic growth and the symbols of its military muscle – has been clinically analysed by countless Chinawatchers, the workings of the Communist Party have remained, for the most part, behind an impenetrable Bamboo Curtain. That in large part is because the Party remains a deeply secretive body, unaccountable to anyone or anything other than its own internal tribunals.

In The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, journalist Richard McGregor offers a peep behind that curtain. What he reveals is an entity that, in the words of a Beijing academician, is “like God: he is everywhere. You just can’t see him.” The Party not only has an iron grip on every aspect of government, it is the ultimate bhagya vidatha – the dispenser of (China’s) destiny – with a hold on the media, military, judiciary, and virtually any lever of power and influence that counts for anything.

But as China changed over 30 years of supernormal economic growth, so too did the Party evolve: from using coercion as the sole weapon to pacify the population, it now slickly “co-opts” people to sub-serve it; today, it relies on seduction rather than suppression to perpetuate its ‘Heaven-mandated’ one-party rule. Today, its propaganda machinery is also more “street-wise”. The Party’s genius, notes McGregor, has been its leaders’ ability to maintain the political institutions and authoritarian powers of old-style Communism, while dumping the ideological straitjacket that inspired them.

While there are countless textbook ‘coming-collapse-of-China’ scenarios under which the Party could lose its grip on power, McGregor reasons that, despite mounting evidence of a decaying system, it will endure for the foreseeable future at least. As he points out, the Party has so far proved to be a “sinuous, cynical and adaptive beast in the face of its multiple challenges.” In other words, the Party is as much an amorphous amoeba as it is God.

That transition of the elements of the Chinese state, and its implications for policymakers around the world, including India, is at the core of China’s Path to Power: Party, Military and the Politics of State Transition, authored by Jagannath Panda, a China-watching strategic analyst at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA). Pointing to two contrasting stereotypical perceptions of China – one that sees it as an “economic miracle” and the other as an authoritarian anachronism and a threat to the world order – Panda argues in favour of a more nuanced view that acknowledges the process of “state transformation” under way in China.

In particular, Panda focusses on the “systemic progress” in three areas in China: military modernisation, the evolving discourses of civil-military politics, and regime politics in the Chinese state. And although his commentary on China’s route to progressive “socialist democracy” perhaps overstates the marginal movements on this front, the case for rejecting a blinkered – and biased – view of China is well made.

As Panda notes, the risk to nursing outdated impressions of China’s progress as a state is that they will lead to poor policy formulations. Narratives in the Indian media and strategic community space have tended to be shrill and unnuanced, leaving a vacuum for balanced, level-headed analyses. Panda’s exertion fills that vacuum.

Whether China’s model of authoritarian capitalism will eventually succeed or falter is impossible to say with certainty, although scholars on both sides of the debate have made persuasive arguments. But either way, whether it succeeds or fails, China will shake the world order in countless ways that is hard to foresee. In parting the Bamboo Curtain and enhancing popular understanding of the ‘amoebic God’ that presides over China’s destiny – and of the other elements of a Chinese state in transition – McGregor and Panda offer us insightful perspectives that leave us better informed about the evolving wonder that is China.


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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