China’s party for itself

Beijing, March 5, 2016: Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives during the opening of the fourth Session of the 12th National People’s Congress (source: dpa)
Beijing, March 5, 2016: Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives during the opening of the fourth Session of the 12th National People’s Congress (source: dpa)

The Communist Party of China (CPC) is 95 years old, has been in power for over 65 years and has more than 80 million members. It is difficult to decide which is most impressive, writes Chief Economist Henrique Schneider of the Swiss Federation of Small and Medium Enterprises.

But the party’s real achievement and the reason for its self-perpetuation is not shown in any numbers. The key to CPC’s success is its own pragmatism. One would hope it continues.

Sometimes the question is asked whether China is a communist or a capitalist country. One place to look might be the CPC platform, since the party has a local monopoly on ideology. However, the question is wrong, because the party has little use for abstract thinking. It is a pragmatic actor: the party’s philosophy is what it does.

Smart organization
The CPC’s strengths are in four basic skills. First, the party learns from the past, especially from its mistakes. Second, it absorbs and combines different schools of thought, from Marxism to capitalism. This ideological patchwork serves the purely instrumental purpose of keeping the party in power.

Third, the CPC incorporates different strata of Chinese society. What began as a movement of peasant soldiers rearranged itself as the vanguard of the working class and has since mutated into a kind of trade union for middle class technocrats. Over 22 percent of its members are enterprise managers and entrepreneurs.

Fourth, the party has the organizational skills to combine these material and ideological resources, mobilize the population and act.

In short, the CPC is a learning organization, with an utterly pragmatic learning curve. In the struggle to preserve its dominant power, the party keeps remaking itself – a skill that consultants call adaptive leadership.

True believers
After shedding its communist militancy to accommodate the new capitalist class (many of whose members transitioned directly from bureaucrats to corporate moguls), the party now appears to be searching for a new form.

As in most party states, the CPC’s core identity is centered on the persona and policies of its leader, General Secretary and President Xi Jinping. The reforms he initiated show the party is focused inwardly, seeking to build up strength as a well-oiled machine.

This self-regard explains the rise of political Confucianism and Neo-Marxism in China. The CPC is interested in ideological enablers to legitimize its pragmatic adjustments. Politically conservative Confucianism, paired with a Neo-Marxist nod to its communist legacy, serves this purpose well. Their combination creates a new traditionalism that can be used by the CPC to justify its rule.

The dilemma that President Xi and the CPC face is whether this ideology is compatible with the CPC’s core strength: pragmatism. How can one remain flexible once committed to traditionalism?

As long as this ideology is used strictly as an instrument, there is reason to believe the CPC’s self-adjusting mechanisms will continue to function. But there is always the risk that the party, for once, may actually believe what it says.

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