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The Party is Infallible

The Party is Infallible
The Party is Infallible
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Interview
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Tony Saich

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Professor | Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Tony Saich

|
Professor | Harvard Kennedy School of Government
Interview

Tony Saich

|
Professor | Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Tony Saich

|
Professor | Harvard Kennedy School of Government

The Party is Infallible

'The Hong Kong demonstrations can never be because of policy mistakes by the Communist Party itself.’

During our interview, Tony Saich of the Harvard Kennedy School told me:

  • ‘Hong Kong, with its responses to the demonstrations, and the Coronavirus are both illustrative examples of how the culture of the Communist Party and the traditions it's built up over almost a hundred years reflect the way it behaves when it's confronted by certain crises.’

In Hong Kong, you start with the Party’s belief that it is infallible – it can never make a mistake.

  • From this, two things follow.’

‘The first is the demonstrations can never be because of policy mistakes by the Communist Party itself.’

  • So the Party believes it must be a small band of people who are creating this trouble - it can never be a broader general population that's inciting trouble.’
  • ‘It's very hard for the Party to believe that these movements can be generated with a wide response to Party policy without some cell, without some organization operating secretly, really pushing these forward.’

‘That really derives from other aspects of its own history.’

  • The Party itself originated as a secret, clandestine organization - and it was a cellular structure.’
  • That creates a conspiratorial mindset in Party leaders.’

The second recourse mechanism is, because the party is infallible, looking for scapegoats.

  • ‘In the case of Hong Kong, it was blame the foreigners (which again, we see continually).’
  • “It's the foreigners; it's people from Taiwan who have been instigating this; it's the U.S.; it’s the various democracy organizations in the West that have been pushing this as a part of their attempts to constrain and ultimately overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.’

The Vertical Reporting System

‘This reporting up and down means that there can be considerable delays before people realize what is going on and to get messages out.’

‘We again see some of those legacies influencing the way the Party dealt with the Coronavirus outbreak.’

‘First, the Party has a vertical reporting system -  vertical silos - that eschews any kind of horizontal engagement.’

  • ‘This reporting up and down means that there can be considerable delays before people realize what is going on and to get messages out.’

‘And related to that is the pressure on local officials not to admit mistakes.’

  • ‘As a result they often bury things until really there is no alternative but to recognize them.’

Here’s an anecdote. ‘I was in Beijing in 1999 when 10,000 practitions of the the Falun Gang [a Chinese religious practice] gathered near Zhongnanhai [the central government compound where the leadship lives].’

  • ‘Afterwards I was talking to Party officials who told two things shocked them.’

The first: "How did our intelligence systems miss this?"

  • ‘Well, that’s because the Falun Gang organized itself like the revolutionary Communist Party - in small cells. You could break one cell, but you couldn’t find out about the others.’

‘The second thing, one official told me, “Do you know what worried me most?"

  • "There was no trash on the ground when they left."
  • "Could you imagine 10,000 of our soldiers gathering and not leaving loads of trash? That shows they're organized.”
  • ‘And that frightened him.’
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