China's Never-Ending Party
You think the 2012 Republican field is lackluster? Check out these party animals.
The "party" in that last sentence is of course the Chinese Communist Party. The gents in the picture are the Standing Committee (changwu weiyuanhui, lit. "everyday affairs committee") of the Central Politburo (zhongyang zhengzhiju, lit. "central political bureau") of the CCP. They are of course not animals, except in the most strictly taxonomic sense, but human beings, or very lifelike simulacra thereof. These are the people who run the affairs of the world's most populous nation, and will continue to do so for another year or so. The picture was taken in October 2007 and they serve five-year terms.
The members of the Standing Committee are so lacking in luster, one feels that the guy wearing a blue tie and with his hands folded in front of him — it's Wu Bangguo — might as well have gone the whole distance and worn a clown suit. The current ages, left to right, are 68, 55, 57, 68, 68, 69, 71, 57, and 67.
Technocrats? You bet. From the left again: Numbers one and four trained in geology, number two in economics and law, all the rest in engineering — electrical, hydraulic, electronic, electrical, chemical, chemical. They have "rarely appeared in public together again," we are told. I should think so: that much dullness all in one place might collapse spacetime.
The Party is also the name of a book, the one from which I took that picture, and the quote in the previous paragraph. Published last year (I'm behind on my reading), The Party was written by Australian China journalist Richard McGregor. It brings home to the reader the miracle of China in recent years.
Not the ten percent annual growth figures: any fool nation with a billion people could have done that, starting from such a low base. No, the miracle of China this past quarter century has been a political miracle: the survival of the communist system in all its lawlessness and control-freak brutality. You might almost say "half century": I was hanging out with Old China Hands in the early 1970s, when the Cultural Revolution was in full flood. General opinion among the OCH's was that the regime had committed suicide and would be gone before the end of the decade.
Forward to 1989 and the nationwide demonstrations that culminated in the massacre at Tiananmen Square. The regime seemed indecisive. There were rumors that a senior military commander was balking at Party orders to move on the demonstrators. (Those rumors were correct. McGregor gives the details: it was Lieutenant-General Xu Qinxian, commander of the 38th Army. He was court-martialed and sentenced to five years for his insubordination.) Wellnigh everyone — including me, and including veteran dissident Wang Bingzhang thought the game was up for the ChiComs.
Forward another 12 years to 2001, when Gordon Chang brought out his book The Coming Collapse of China. Chang said it would all be over for the CCP in five years. (Ten years on, he's still saying it.) As it happens, I spent the summer of 2001 in China with my family. I came back convinced that the Communist Party could go on indefinitely, and wrote articles saying so (e.g. for National Review). How come Gordon Chang's speaking fees are so much higher than mine? It's an unjust world all right.
And they're still there. They'll still be there next fall, though the line-up will have changed somewhat. Xi Jinping, second from the right in that photograph, will almost certainly take over the top spot from Hu Jintao. (The CCP, like our own beloved Republican Party, adheres to the next-in-line principle of leadership selection.) Whatever: there'll be nine 60-ish gents with dark blue suits, red ties, and degrees in engineering.
Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four is told that the world of the future will be a boot stamping on a human face for ever. China's future will be a well-polished pair of black Oxfords padding diffidently across the deep-pile carpets in the Great Hall of the People for ever, the guys with the boots kept discreetly out of sight except when needed.
The Chinese Communist Party has it figured out. After 62 years of blunders, horrors, and reversals, they have pulled off a miracle of statecraft, a Staatskunstwunder. With their 75 million members distributed in hundreds of thousands of cells, they have turned Lenin's crude power-cult into a robust, adaptable apparatus of total control that, like God in the universe, is everywhere present but nowhere visible — or is visible only, as with that photograph, in a form so bland the eye turns away in search of something recognizably human.
They have their place-men in every bank and company, every school and college, every church and drama club, every military unit and research institute. When the Party says "jump!" the organization jumps, however theoretically independent it is supposed to be; as the banks jumped, against their better judgment, in the financial crisis of early 2009. The Party has it all figured out. They will go on for ever.