A Great Leap Forward

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The Great Hall of the People, Beijing

Richard McGregor’s book The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, is yet another must-read book on contemporary China and probably the single best book on the CCP you can find.

I can’t say there was anything truly shocking to be found in its pages, but maybe that’s because there’s nothing the CCP can do that would shock me anymore. What McGregor does beautifully is demystify the CCP and its “relevant organs” through a masterful combination of anecdote and analysis that keeps the book taut, even exciting. His now-famous description of the “red phones” that sit atop the desks of 50 or so ueber-elite Chinese executives, and all that the phones represent – secrecy, privilege, control – is a great example of why this book is so entertaining, even when it’s scary.

I love the way McGregor writes.

China under Mao Zedong had much in common with other totalitarian systems. To borrow the oft-used phrase, terror was the system for extended periods of Mao’s rule. In the last three decades, the Communist Party has turned that formula around. Terror is just a side effect these days, used relatively sparingly and, in large part, reluctantly. In modern China, the system runs on seduction rather than suppression. It aims to co-opt, not coerce, the population. But even so, terror remains essential to the system’s survival and is deployed without embarrassment when required….[This resorting to terror] is evidence that behind the Party’s boisterous, boasting exterior lies a regime with a profound appreciation of its limited legitimacy and fragile mandate.

The book is rich in examples and clear-headed analysis of an array of (relatively) recent phenomena – the San Lu cover-up, the institutionalized corruption, SARS, the harassment of lawyers, the hyper-paranoia over public perception of the party. And it is remarkably balanced. McGregor never portrays the Party as evil, though it is certainly something to fear.

I’m not formally reviewing this book because there are many excellent reviews out there and I can’t add much to them. I did want to focus briefly, however, on one chapter that captivated me, titled Tombstone, about a book of that name written by a former Xinhua journalist, and one who was particularly high up, Yang Jisheng. For me, this was by far the most intense chapter in this whole intense book.

One of the most popular fenqing arguments, and one I’ve heard from Western friends as well, is that the estimated 30-40 million Chinese who died in the famine during the Great Leap Forward was a number pulled out of thin air by CCP-hating Westerners, and that the number bears little correlation to the facts. Sometimes I wondered myself; I had read that the estimate of 35 million dead was from Chinese sources, but it wasn’t until I read this chapter that I fully understood where the number came from and how it was arrived at.

This chapter tells a story of incredible bravery, and also one of hope. What Yang did would have been a capital offense under Mao, and probably under Deng. He performed more than a decade of research and meticulously chronicled the deaths from the famine, and he did something that in China can be dangerous in the extreme: he told the truth about history and challenged the Party narrative. McGregor spells out the risks:

On events such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the suppression pf the Tibet uprising in 1959, the pro-democracy protests in 1989 and so on, the Party simply announced it verdict after intense deliberations. Party officials are bound by these pronouncements on history, whatever they think as individuals…You either support the decision wholeheartedly or you are out. The Party’s verdict then, in theory, becomes the collective opinion of the entire country and its 1.3 billion people. Chinese who wish to agitate publicly for an alternative view do so at their own risk.

And yet Yang wrote and published Tombstone (in Hong Kong – two volumes, more than 1,000 pages) and he was not punished. Needless to say you won’t find many copies of it for sale in the Mainland, but Yang was never arrested or even harassed. China simply doesn’t do that anymore, McGregor explains. If you aren’t directly threatening todays CCP with threats,real or perceived, that might undermine its power, you can pretty much say what you want (and I know, there are some egregious exceptions).

The descriptions of what the peasants endured during the GLF, familiar as they are, are still heartbreaking. And forget about the line that it was simply another naturally occurring famine. No, not at all. It was a man-made event, and had it not been for Mao and his ego and his dogma it wouldn’t have happened.

I wrote in the margins of every page in this chapter. It was a scene of mayhem and death and cannibalism the likes of which we can never imagine. I had read about Tombstone last year, but never knew the full story behind it. Its publication highlights the Party’s increasing toleration. But always, of course, within limits.

I meant for this to be a very short post and seem to have wandered all over the place. Bottom line: Buy the book if you want to really understand how the Party manages to keep on going, and how its mind works, complex and secretive, yet almost always predictable.

One last quote:

China has long known something that many in developed countries are only now beginning to grasp, that the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders have never wanted to be the west when they grow up. For the foreseeable future, it looks as though their wish, to bestride the world as a colossus on their own implacable terms, will come true.

That should get each of us thinking. Like it or not, China continues more than ever to shake the world.

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