If one looks at almost every aspect of real life, Chinese people have higher standards of living than at any other time in the country's long history. China's vast population is finally free from famine, pestilence, homelessness, illiteracy, political movements and other social scourges.
Fast forward barely more than 40 years. China has become the world's second largest economy, lifting hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty – all under CPC leadership. What is it about CPC leadership that has enabled China to develop so rapidly?
One cannot understand China without understanding the CPC.
Author: Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Chairman, The Kuhn Foundation, U.S.
Recipient of China Reform Friendship Medal
The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will both look back at the achievements of the past ten years, and look ahead to 2049, the centenary anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, when China intends to become a great modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful — realizing the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.
Under the leadership of the CPC, China has become the world’s second largest economy; it has increased its annual GDP per capita from US$164 in 1962 to over US$12,000 in 2021, an increase of more than 70 times. Domestically, China has eradicated extreme poverty and is focusing on common prosperity among all its citizens as a long-range goal. Internationally, China is a major player in global matters.
If one looks at almost every aspect of real life, Chinese people have higher standards of living than at any other time in the country’s long history. China’s vast population is finally free from famine, pestilence, homelessness, illiteracy, political movements and other social scourges.
How did the CPC transform the country so dramatically? What is it about the CPC leadership that enabled China to develop so rapidly? The CPC has run China since 1949; it has almost 100 million members. Whatever the reasons, the veil should be lifted.
In the run-up to the 20th CPC National Congress, we examine the CPC from the inside. Foreigners do not understand the CPC — what it stands for, how it’s structured, how it functions, and why the Party asserts that its continuing political leadership is optimum for China’s development.
If the world does not understand the CPC, it is the CPC’s responsibility to reach out to the world. The best response to misunderstanding is not to blame foreign media but to engage in the global marketplace of ideas.
China has many challenges and outcomes will affect the entire world. The only way to grasp current conditions and anticipate future prospects is to understand what the Party is and how it works. How does the CPC govern the country? How does the CPC govern itself?
I here offer six parameters for assessing the CPC: legitimacy, leadership, core, personnel, strict governance and anti-corruption, and deepening reform.
How does the CPC claim legitimacy? How does it hold the status of leadership perpetually? The CPC began to run the country in 1949. Legitimacy was conferred, through a harsh civil war, by the support of the masses and by the CPC's overwhelming victory. After the resulting and ruinous Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping initiated the reform and opening up policy which takes economic construction as central task. Fast forward barely more than 40 years. China has become the world’s second largest economy, lifting hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty – all under CPC leadership. What is it about CPC leadership that has enabled China, since 1978, to develop so rapidly?
One cannot understand China without understanding the CPC.
The first point to understand is that the CPC is not like political parties of other countries. It is not an aristocracy based on birthright, but an organization based on merit and relationships — or more like a corporate holding company that manages much larger business subsidiaries.
What is it about the CPC that has brought about China’s historic development and enables it to endure as the ruling party? Reasons include the CPC’s structure (central, local and grassroots levels of hierarchical organization), the selection and training of CPC officials, and how the CPC guides the government.
Times change, and new questions arise.
For the Party, its future depends on substance and style. Substance means how well it faces future challenges, assessed by economic transformation and social development. Style means how well the Party tells its own story, measured by transparency, candor, confidence, sophistication, and wit. The Party must continue to earn its legitimacy.
“Party, government, army, society, education — east, west, south, north, central — the Party leads everything.”
Why has China opted for what it calls “multi-party cooperation under CPC leadership”? Would China be more stable with a multi-party competitive system? What innovations has Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CPC central committee, brought to the Party’s leadership role in the economy and society? Under the leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Xi at the core, how might the Party’s role in governing China develop over the next five or ten years?
In recent years, take the Party’s augmented role in the governance of commercial corporations, and the Party’s heightened impact on universities, exemplify the Party’s determination to strengthen its leadership of the country.
What, in China’s Party-led political system, does “Core” mean? Why is “with Xi at the core” deemed necessary? There is much to understand about the 20th CPC National Congress. The significance of “Core” is top of the list.
In October 2016, the Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, officially established Xi’s status as the “Core” of the CPC Central Committee, and indeed of “the whole Party”. At the time, he was already general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Chinese president and chairman of the Central Military Commission — the three top leadership positions. So how does “Core” affect the Party decision-making? What’s the relationship between the Party Core and the fundamental Party doctrines of “democratic centralism” and “collective leadership”?
At the time, in real time, I was told by experts that four factors related to the establishment of Core. First, strong leadership was needed to maintain stability, build unity and expedite reform — especially given China’s complex challenges, and “interest groups” that resist reform. Second, not only was Xi responsible for leading the transformation in China, but also he was accountable for it. Third, “Xi as Core” did not contradict the Party’s cardinal principle of “democratic centralism”. A fourth factor was to manage the Party more strictly, exemplified by the relentless anti-corruption campaign.
Overall, Xi must make decisive decisions and facilitate decision-making.
The Historical Resolution of the Sixth Plenum of the 19th CPC Central Committee in late 2021, certified formally the “Two Establishes”: (i) establishing Xi's core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole, and (ii) defining the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.
The deep significance of “with Xi at the Core” is that, for the foreseeable future, strong leadership and national unity are deemed essential.
How does the Party select, train, monitor, promote and discipline its officials? It mystifies foreigners that the CPC continues to be China’s ruling party for over seven decades, having led China’s dramatic development and rejuvenating the nation as a global power.
A partial solution to this “mystery” is the quality of Party personnel, brought about, in part, by the Party’s inner sanctum of personnel management. There is also another side – how the Party fights corruption, extravagance, and abuses of power.
The professionalism of Chinese officials is not limited to senior leaders. High quality public management is pervasive. From ancient times, China has a long history of recruiting its best and brightest into public service. Not much known in the West, the CPC’s “Organization Department” is responsible for selecting, training, monitoring, assessing and promoting Party and government officials — and when needed, for demoting or firing them. The process is rigorous, quantitative and continuous — with increasing transparency and broad-based participation. Training is intense and career-long. Senior officials go to the Central Party School for mid-career learning, which can last three months — studying market economics and business management as well as Marxist theory, all “with Chinese characteristics”, of course.
CPC rules of work style and personal behavior are now firmer. An eight-point regulation condemns extravagance and reduces ceremonial visits, meetings and “empty talk”. An on-going training system stresses strictness in morals, power and self-discipline, and rectitude in decisions, business and comportment.
For over 33 years I’ve been meeting Chinese officials at all levels – and, in general, Chinese officials are some of the most competent administrators anywhere.
There are challenges, of course. With all its advantages of rapid decision-making and continuity, a system that does not have open and competitive multi-party elections and a free media has greater challenges in preventing the formation of internal cliques and factions that trade favors within small circles, undermining political meritocracy.
CPC leadership is aware of these problems, which is the purpose of the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the National Supervisory Commission.
CPC Strict Governance and Anti-Corruption
The CPC’s relentless anti-corruption campaign, unprecedented under Xi, has won strong public support and it will certainly continue.
“Worms can only grow in something rotten”, Xi said. “Corruption is now raging; if it is not curbed, our Party and country will surely be doomed.”
Corruption was rampant in China; it involved all levels of commerce, government and politics, and it had proved intractably and maddeningly resilient. At best, corruption is a drag on the economy and a scourge on society. At worst, it threatens economic development, political stability, and the legitimacy of the State.
Why did corruption become such a problem? What are its root-causes? How does it relate to China’s single-party political system? What systemic mechanisms can control corruption in a system with a single leading party?
“The exercise of power without supervision will definitely lead to corruption”, Xi said. “This is an axiomatic law.”
Because of corruption’s corrosive and ubiquitous impact, fighting corruption also improves economic efficiency, reduces resistance to reform, and facilitates political and social stability. Xi calls for perseverance and severity in fighting corruption – rather than, he says, “starting off with tigerish energy but petering out towards the end.”
Xi’s solution is a system that checks the exercise of power, grants oversight powers to the people, and makes the exercise of power more transparent and institutionalized. Officials must have three attitudes toward corruption: “Don't want. Don’t do. Don’t dare.”
International media asks me to confirm that the only purpose of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is political struggle with opposing factions and suppressing political opponents. Chinese media asks me to confirm that the only purpose of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is to punish corrupt officials and it has nothing to do with political struggle with opposing factions and suppressing political opponents.
When Western analysts see Xi’s anti-corruption campaign as largely a weapon of political power, it reflects a superficial and one-dimensional perspective of China. Befitting the size and complexity of the country, for almost every decision of importance, China’s leaders have multiple motivations or reasons.
For the anti-corruption campaign, I can enumerate ten motivations or reasons. (There’s nothing magical about “ten”; there could be more.)
1.To state the obvious, officials who are manifestly corrupt are brought to justice. To manage China’s huge population and complex society, there must be respect for law and judicial impartiality.
2. By combatting corruption, the Party increases public trust, augmenting confidence in the Party’s continuing leadership.
3. By combatting corruption, the Party functions more effectively, making decisions for the general good, not biased by personal financial gain.
4. Corruption distorts markets, so that by reducing corruption, resources are allocated more efficiently.
5. Corrupt officials impede economic reform because change threatens their illicit profits, which depend on the status quo; the removal of corrupt officials facilitates reform.
6. Corrupt officials thwart rule of law for personal interests and prosecuting them strengthens rule of law for national interests; rule of law is exceedingly important for President Xi.
7. Some corrupt officials, in addition to enriching themselves, have non-standard, excessive political ambitions that could destabilize the system; removing these officials promotes national unity and political stability, which are essential for China.
8. Combatting corruption benefits China’s entire society, elevating morality and restoring Chinese civilization as a paragon of ethics and integrity.
9. For China to become a world business center, China must have world-class business standards and ethics.
10. For China to become a global role model, China must exemplify morality and rectitude.
Xi’s determination to root-out corruption — caging “tigers” and swatting “flies” — and cutting wasteful and “Three Public Consumptions” — has altering how Party officials in government, and Party executives in state-owned enterprises, work and even think.
CPC Deepening Reform
How has the Party adapted to changing conditions, kept up with the times? What can we learn from the Party’s history? More fundamentally, how can a system with a perpetually ruling party govern itself, establish credible checks-and-balances? What challenges does the Party face? What does the Party consider its greatest dangers?
The CPC, is a “work in process”. It will always be, and that is its strength.
One key is the Party’s adaptability, stressing experimentation and testing of new policies. Yet for the Party to continue to earn its perpetual ruling status, it has a higher obligation to enhance rectitude of governance, standards of living and personal well-being — which includes rule of law, competency in government, transparency in governance, public oversight, institutionalized checks and balances, increasing democracy, various freedoms, and human rights.
President Xi states that the CPC should be governed by standardized rules and procedures that are open to public oversight. Only by adapting continuously, focusing on real-world issues, can the Party construct a truly prosperous society. The Party claims a historic mission.
All systems of governance have trade-offs. The benefits of a system with a single leading party include the capacity to implement critical policies rapidly, such as stimulus and infrastructure packages to counteract economic slowdown and anti-COVID measures. Continuous political leadership can also assure that strategies that require long-term commitment have long-term commitment (for example, China's western development and the Belt and Road Initiative.).
Going forward in the “new era”, the Party faces challenges — furthering economic reform and transformation, promoting innovation and guiding social development and transition — while at the same time improving transparency and building institutions that are self-regulating.
The significance of Xi’s renewal of the Party will be on display at the 20th CPC National Congress. The Party must continue earning its leadership role.
(The article is collected by Bauhina Magazine October issue.)