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by Malcolm Riddell

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From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party by Tony Saich
From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party by Tony Saich
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Chinese Communist Party: Five Themes

July 1, 2021

Malcolm Riddell: ‘Would you please tell us a little bit about who you are and about the new book that you've just put out in time for the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party?’

Tony Saich: ‘I'm Tony Saich, and I'm working at the Harvard Kennedy School. I've just published a book, Rebel to Ruler, which is an analytical history of the 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party.’

  • ‘What I try and doing the book is not only go into the entrails of that history, but also try and tease out some of the general themes that we see in terms of the behavior of the party, its consequences, and the way it shapes the thinking of General Secretary Xi Jinping in the current era.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘In our discussions, you've identified five themes that have been more or less consistent throughout the history of the party but have oscillated between different points on a continuum:’

  1. ‘Establishing a world order to fit China’s needs’
  2. ‘Ambivalence toward foreigners’
  3. ‘Ambivalence toward the private sector’
  4. ‘Putting the collective over the individual’
  5. ‘Control of society, the economy, and governmental practices.’

Theme 1 | Establishing a World Order to Fit China’s Needs

BIG IDEA |  ‘Just think of Deng’s key phrase that we keep going back to about “hiding your strength and biding your time.” Hiding your strength for what purpose and what are you biding your time for?’
‘Well, it was until China could become powerful enough to be able to reassert its authority on the global stage, which is what Xi Jinping has picked up.’

Tony Saich: ‘First, world order. From its origins, the Chinese Communist Party has always been committed to establishing a world order that is more conducive to meeting China's aims and interests.’

  • ‘Now what that is, of course, has changed over time.’
  • ‘While there's continuity in Chinese Communist Party approach, there's also a tremendous adaptability and flexibility over time.’

‘In 1921, it was a bunch of proletarian revolutionaries who were going to engage in global revolution to overthrow capitalism, get rid of the rapacious landlords and capitalists, and create a free China, which would march forward together with its comrades from Soviet Russia.’

‘The period under Deng Xiaoping we tend to think of as being one of where China was integrating into the global order.’

  • ‘Yes, of course that is true. But what was the objective?’

‘Just think of Deng’s key phrase that we keep going back to, about “hiding your strength and biding your time.” ’

  • ‘Hiding your strength for what purpose and what are you biding your time for?’
  • ‘Well, it was until China could become powerful enough to be able to reassert its authority on the global stage, which is what Xi Jinping has picked up.’

‘And although Xi Jinping has no intention of overturning the current global order in its entirety, he certainly wants to shape it, so as it favors China's core interests more directly and more effectively.’

  • ‘Of course, now it has the tools, the power and the capabilities that neither Deng nor Mao could have dreamed of, to meet those objectives.’

Theme 2 | Ambivalence Toward Foreigners

BIG IDEA | ‘That means that foreigners can be used when they're beneficial to help China meet its objectives, but they can easily be removed or criticized when they do not.’
‘China wants the foreigners, but it only wants the foreigners entirely on its own terms.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘What about the second theme ambivalence toward foreigners.’

Tony Saich: ‘That ambivalence has been there from the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.’

  • ‘When the party was founded in 1921, it was going to do away with the dastardly capitalists and the landlords. It was going to get rid of the foreigners who were working in China and investing in China.’
  • ‘And that's pretty much what it did after 1949. It got the foreigners out of China.’

‘China now needs global engagement to meet its own objectives.’

  • ‘That means that foreigners can be used when they're beneficial to help China meet its objectives, but they can easily be removed or criticized when they do not.’

‘We see, if you run afoul of Chinese policy, you will be hammered.’

  • ‘Look at what's been happening to Australia, for example, when it decided to raise its head above the parapet, only to be shot at by the Chinese authorities.’
  • ‘What about H&M, the store, when it came out somewhat critical about using cotton from Xinjiang?’

‘So yes, China wants the foreigners, but it only wants the foreigners entirely on its own terms.’

Theme 3 | Ambivalence Toward the Private Sector

BIG IDEA | ‘Where China has a need, it will let the foreign enterprises come. It will let them grow. It'll let them invest.’
‘At the same time, it tries to set up its own competitive businesses to rival them.’
‘And if it feels it can compete, slowly but surely, it will squeeze down the space that the foreign businesses have to operate within China.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘What about ambivalence toward the private sector?’

Tony Saich: ‘After 1949, the party exterminated the private capitalist class.’

  • ‘But it found it still needed the private sector.’

‘You see a continual pattern with Chinese politics and Chinese practices.’

  • ‘If the communist party and the government doesn't have the capability itself, it outsources to society.’

‘For example, it didn't have those capabilities in the tech sector.’

  • ‘So essentially, to start with, outsourced that to many of those coming back from overseas.’
  • ‘It built protective walls around them. It banned Facebook, it banned Twitter, it banned Google, so those enterprises could develop within China unhindered.’

‘But then of course, once they became very powerful and began to accumulate kinds of information that went beyond the state's capabilities, you saw that the party would move to reign it in again.’

‘You now see the reassertion of party committees in the private sector.’

  • ‘You see the party taking a much more direct role in decision-making.’
  • ‘And we see the prime example of that most recently, of course, with Jack Ma and the whole end financial, where the state has clearly moved to reassert its control over that sector.’

‘I think one can extend that also to foreign engagement in China.’

  • ‘Where China has a need, it will let the foreign enterprises come. It will let them grow. It'll let them invest.’

‘At the same time, it tries to set up its own competitive businesses to rival them.’

  • ‘And if it feels it can compete, slowly but surely, it will squeeze down the space that the foreign businesses have to operate within China.’

Theme 4 | The Collective Over the Individual

BIG IDEA | ‘If you look at its ideology and its practices, the party has always preferenced identities related to a collective over that of the individual.’
‘While you might see over time, oscillations in terms of how much license, how much freedom is given to the non-state sector, it's never going to give up control entirely.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘How about the fourth theme, the collective over the individual.’

Tony Saich: ‘If you look at its ideology and its practices, the party has always preferenced identities related to a collective over that of the individual.’

  • ‘What does that mean in policy terms?’

‘Well, it usually means that the state is preferred over the private, for example.’

  • ‘It means if we look at the economy more specifically, we see an ongoing preference for the state-owned sector or the collective sector over that of private business or individually run business.’
  • ‘While you might see over time, oscillations in terms of how much license, how much freedom is given to the non-state sector, it's never going to give up control entirely.’

‘The experiences under Xi Jinping have been, when he's tried to move to reform, it hasn't worked out very well.’

  • ‘You see this pulling back, to rally the party around the core of the system, which is the state and the collective and the party organizations.’

Theme 5 | Control of Society, the Economy, and Governmental Practices

BIG IDEA | ‘The party abhors space that it can control.’
‘The party will exerting control, in as far as it can, over your business, over your practice. And t's not only what you do in China, but also what you do outside of China.’

Malcolm Riddell: ‘The fifth thing that you mentioned in our discussions was control of society, the economy, and governmental practices. What are your thoughts there?’

Tony Saich: ‘I think that extends from what I just said. One senior Chinese Communist Party member said to me many years ago, "Tony, the party cannot abide space and it abhors a vacuum. And every time we see something like that, we can't stop ourselves. We just have to move in to fill that space, to get rid of the vacuum. Even if we know it's wrong, it's a knee jerk reaction. We just can't stop ourselves." ’

  • ‘That resonates through: The party abhors space that it can control.’
  • ‘And as I said earlier, it might source things out to society to develop up to a certain point, but once it becomes influential or it becomes potentially a threat, the party will move to pull it back in, to reassert its control over that particular area.’

‘One's seen that, as I said, with the high-tech sector. You saw it earlier, for example, with coal production.’

  • ‘When the sector needed more energy, it allowed a lot of these local mines, local state-run mines, private mines to expand their business, of course, with a whole range of increases in the number of people dying from coal mining accidents.’
  • ‘But once that need in the sector began to decline, you saw it moving to shut down those local mines, or you saw them merging those local mines with state enterprises.’

‘It goes beyond that to what we see now under Xi Jinping, a much stronger approach to controlling the discourse and what is discussed in China and what is acceptable things to say and acceptable ways of behavior.’

‘Again, we see that impacting on the private sector. It comes up in different ways.’

  • ‘Do you have a map which shows a mistaken identification of Taiwan, for example, in terms of the way Beijing would see it? Have you made an unfortunate comment about some internal practice within China?’
  • ‘And then those are all game for the party exerting control, in as far as it can, over your business, over your practice.’
  • ‘It's not only what you do in China, but also what you do outside of China.’
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