The Communist Party of China and the Idea of `Evil’ (Oxford Politics Review, April 24 2020)

Aug 4, 2020

Labelling an entity like the Communist Party `evil’  or bad might work polemically. But it ends up doing a massive disservice to the many Chinese still in China who are not members. Some  are deeply opposed to their government. Some are supportive. Some are in between. … But the idea that they are silent, suppressed, and without agency is profoundly condescending.

The Oxford Political Review is conducting a series of contributions from field experts and academics studying China. We are looking to platform a diversity of voices and opinions.

Over the last quarter of a century or more of thinking about, living in and engaging with China, it is a line I have often heard. The problem of the contemporary People’s Republic, it goes, is not with the country, or the people – it is with the ruling party. We love Chinese people, the holder of this line says, we have no truck with them. It is with the force governing them that we take issue.

This then goes in a number of different ways. The Communist Party is evil. Chinese people are good. They are oppressed, downtrodden. It is easy to progress beyond this to the heroic statement that we, outside of China, with our enlightened ways are those who will be key in delivering this salvation. We are on our way. Freedom is nigh.

The neatness of this approach is attractive. Binary, black and white systems are always easy to engage with. It also evades some of the pointier, more complex issues. We have located the single source of the problem – the evil Communist Party. Once that is out of the way, everything will be plain sailing.

Hermann Melville in his great novel `Moby Dick’ stated that the key point was not so much to think extensively, but with subtlety. When one sees such neat divisions between good and bad it should always arouse questions.  How comes things are so straightforward? The idea that the Communist Party of China is the source of all bad, that it’s removal would be the solution to all our problems, inside and outside China, belongs to this category of thinking.

Firstly, let’s start with what the Communist Party actually is. We may as well be clear about that before we condemn it. It is currently a membership organisation of 90 million people. It has existed since 1921. Over that period it has varied from a revolutionary party before 1949 to a governing once after that date, when the People’s Republic was founded. Even since 1949 it has changed. From a predominantly quasi-military group whose members were mostly from the countryside, it is now made up more of urban, and college educated people. That is not surprising. This is the general story of Chinese social development over the last seven decades. The Communist Party has simply reflected the society it is in.

Alas, for the great supporters of a neat division between Party and population, the thorny issue is that the Party is part of society, and its members are, unsurprisingly, more often than not typical Chinese people. The elite of 3000 or so powerful central and provincial leaders are a tiny, tiny minority. The rest of the membership are broadly representative of Chinese society. Many more people want to joint than get accepted – perhaps ten times more. That shows that a neat division between people and ruling party is not an easy one to impose. The lines are very blurred.

For sure, there are people in the Party who join for its network. Others may even have been coerced. But out of 90 million people, the safest thing to say is that broad generalisations about why people are in it have to be treated with great caution. There are a mixture of reasons. The Party deliberately sets out to integrate and reach deep into society. The most prudent thing one can say about the relationship between the two is that they are very complex. And if you want to start deploying language like `evil’ about the Party, then you are going to have to start labelling a good number of Chinese people that way to. Party members are Chinese people, after all – not some separate species!

Nor is the Party itself a uniform entity, despite the rigid image it can give to the outside world. In the past there have been deep divisions within it. These may still exist, though in Xi’s more regimented, disciplined era they are less easy to see. Liberals fought against the Leftists in the 1980s. Pro-globalisation figures slogged it out against more nativists ones in the build up to entry to the World Trade Organisation in 2001. There have been more recent fights over the role of rule of law, and even, in the final part of the Hu era up to 2012, a brief moment when democratisation, at least in the Party, was promoted by figures like Wen Jiabao, the premier then.

That lack of uniformity is clear looking back over the Party’s era in power. Under Mao, far from being the source of control, it was frequently more akin to an abused friend or ally, victimised in the Cultural Revolution from 1966 because the Chairman believed it was becoming bureaucratic and ossified. Mao was not just a dictator over Chinese society, but the Communist Party!

The anti-corruption battle under Xi has targeted Party actors more often than those outside. Does this mean we have to start dealing with qualifications like `good side’ and `evil side’ of the organisation? Once we do that, then the glorious neatness of the original line of attack starts to rapidly fade away. We are not talking about the evil Party, but the evil part of the Party – a far less arresting and dramatic claim.

Then there is the final issue. Labelling an entity like the Communist Party `evil’  or bad might work polemically. But it ends up doing a massive disservice to the many Chinese still in China who are not members. Some of these are deeply opposed to their government. Some are supportive. Some are in between. It would be hard to characterise what a standard view would be. But the idea that they are silent, suppressed, and without agency is profoundly condescending.

Many of them may know their rulers are problematic and often incompetent. They are in good company there with people in Europe and the US. But they are also averse to radical and disruptive change. They have seen enough of that in their own history. Maybe it is just a case of the `devil you know being better than the devil you don’t’. But to frame them as somehow cowed masses waiting for knights in shining armour to come from overseas is a colossal misjudgement. In any case, Europe and America need to save themselves now – not busy themselves fretting about the salvation of others!

In one of those tiresome Twitter clashes that sometimes occur these days, I was accused by someone some months ago of being into `nuance.’ This, they declared, with that lapidary style so common on social media, where so much is asserted, and very little explained, `was the sign of poor analysis. Every. Single. Time.’  Thinking about this afterwards, I concluded that in fact nuance was the point.

Especially with something as complex as the state of modern China, and its governance system. There are many things it can be labelled. Autocratic. Sometimes in its decision making inhumane. Too vast in scale. Too laden with history. But the idea that its millions of cadres and actors are busying their lives just working on doing harm is risible.

Like government everywhere else, the vast majority most of the time are trying to do their best, for the society they live in and the people they live amongst. Nuance might not be dramatic, but recognising this prosaic fact must get us closer to a better view of the truth. Every. Single. Time.

Kerry Brown

Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute, Kings College, London, UK

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