Book Review: A Look Inside China's Communist Party

It is easy to forget that China is a communist country. The leaders wear business suits instead of Mao jackets and give speeches at Davos. The business pages of newspapers are full of admiring stories about initial public offerings of giant conglomerates. People seem to go about their business making money without interference from the state.

Of course, everyone knows that China is some kind of an authoritarian, "one-party" state, and we're reminded from time to time of the state's ability to repress dissident voices, such as its behavior after the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Prize for Peace last year. There is a vague notion that Deng Xiaoping with his market opening moves set the communist party on the road to history.

Every few years when the Chinese Communist Party holds its regular congress in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, it is almost a shock to see the vivid backdrop of massed red flags and a huge hammer and cycle emblem looming over the proceedings, but it is easy to dismiss it as meaningless stagecraft.

I've found myself falling into this trap, blithely writing about China as being "nominally" communist. I was quickly and firmly disabused of that comforting notion by reading Richard McGregor's new book: The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers (HarperCollins, 302 pages).

McGregor, formerly the Financial Times bureau chief in Beijing, couldn't put his basic thesis more baldly than this: "If Vladimir Lenin were reincarnated in the 21st century Beijing . . . he would instantly recognize in the ruling Chinese Communist Party a replica of a system he designed nearly a century ago."

China's leaders are happy enough to play this down, both to the world at large and, to a lesser degree, to its own people. The principal means of communist control fall under such shadowy groups as the Central Organization Department headquartered in anonymous building with no name over the entrance, not even a listed telephone number.

Yet it is largely through this bureau, which has its tentacles spread throughout the country down to the smallest village, that the party extends its control. This is true even in nominally capitalist enterprises, where somebody, not usually the CEO, is answerable to the party and ultimately the party headquarters. Another element of party control is through the more aptly named Propaganda Department, which issues daily directives to the country's media on what to cover and what not to cover.

Of course, McGregor would concede the contemporary Chinese Communist Party does not function as it did in the bad old days of the cult of Mao Zedong, the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward (dark episodes that the party is happy to ignore or white wash in approved history texts). Deng's market reforms are not a figment of imagination; the command economy has been dismantled and replaced with a kind of state-guided capitalism.

The author is also happy to concede that the party has retreated in significant ways from its almost total supervision of individual lives. As many have noted, the average Chinese has more personal freedom in his private life than ever before – so long as he keeps out of politics and doesn't directly challenge the levers of the communist state.

The party has also found it convenient, for example, to allow relatively uninhibited reporting in certain spheres such as natural disasters or exposes into corruption (particularly of foreign-owned firms). But nothing that transpires behind the walls of the Zhongnanhai government compound in Beijing is ever reported that the party doesn't want reported.

Many in the West have been seduced by the comforting notion that as China prospers, it will become even more liberal and eventually evolve into a democracy. There is such a thing as an Asian path to democracy which goes like this: As a country prospers, and as more people enter the middle class, they will press for greater freedom and democracy. Not gonna happen in China, says McGregor.

That seems to be the path followed in such former military dictatorships as Taiwan, South Korea, and perhaps Indonesia. Many of these elements are in place in China. The country is undeniably prospering and creating an incipient middle class, although, because of its sheer size, the average per capita income is still low.

In point of fact, this new emerging "middle class" is, for the moment, highly supportive of the communist party. After all, it created the conditions on which they built their prosperity. None of the dictatorships in South Korea, Taiwan or Suharto's Indonesia had anything like the institutional architecture, going back 60 years and farther, that China's communist party leaders have to support their rule.

One of those instruments of power, of course, is the People's Liberation Army, which in 1989 showed that when push comes to shove the army will defend the party. That should not be a surprise, as McGregor reminds us, China's armed forces are an instrument of the party, not of the state, in keeping with Mao's maxim that the party commands the gun.

In 2008, the year America was holding its presidential primaries, China held its own "presidential primary" and elevated Xi Jinping to the inner sanctum of party the Politburo Standing Committee and signaled that he is the likely successor to President Hu Jintau, though he won't take office until Hu's second five-year term expires in 2012.

One of Deng Xiaoping's reform goals was to inculcate the notion of term limits for China's leaders, so that China's rulers did not cling to power to their death beds (like Deng). This has generally been followed for the past two decades. Assuming things run according to plan, China's leadership is already set until 2022, or after Barack Obama leaves office in America and after his successor leaves office.

So while it is true that the Chinese Communist party has evolved in many ways since Liberation in 1949 and especially since the market opening reforms of the late 1970s, it still remains all powerful. In Marxist terms, the party is not going to wither away.