Four Observations about the Fate of the Chinese Communist Party
Today, only a few communist parties remain in power around the world. China, of course, is the largest country still ruled by a communist party, and the Communist Party of China (CCP) is the largest party, with 64 million party members. Yet, what is its future? In the aftermath of the Sixteenth National Conference of the CCP, I visited China and concluded that, while the CCP is still in control of the country, its power is diminishing, its reputation is declining, the party branch at work units is paralyzed, Chinese elite are escaping from the party and the communist faith is disappearing. Even through the party has managed to survive into the 21st century, few Chinese people even within the party truly believe in communism. The majority of the Chinese people see the potential for a serious crisis ahead.
Observation One: The Party is Disappearing From Sight
Before the reform movement, the CCP was the supreme power, controlling all aspects of Chinese society. The authority of the party was not only reflected in its organizations, but it was made visible as well. There were posters at roadsides and in public places; signboards proclaiming the location of party branches were displayed at the front of every work unit. They were as common in China as the signs for McDonalds and gasoline stations are in the United States . TV and movies were filled with images of the CCP at work. The Party was everywhere.
On this trip, my first stop in China was Shanghai . It was about 20 miles from Pudong International Airport to my hotel. On the way, I kept a close watch on the roadside, yet found no monuments or billboards concerning the party; in fact, I saw nothing except innumerable commercial advertisements. I traveled by bus from Shanghai to Nanjing through Zheng Jiang, Changzhou , and Suzhou , the most developed regions in China , and then took the train coming back from Nanjing to Shanghai . Throughout my travels, I found that the visible signs of the party have been completely replaced by commercial buildings, housings, shopping malls, and commercial signs and advertisements. In these cities, I spent at least two days walking on the street and trying to find visible signs of the party's existence, but failed. All signboards of the party at the front of work units, companies, factories, hospitals, schools, universities, department stores, grocery stores, and residential committees had disappeared. (The only exception was signs advertising the offices of the party committees at the district level or higher.)
If I were not native Chinese, I might not realize that China is still officially a communist country. Whether termed "socialist" or "capitalist," the market economy in China is greatly expending. And, as the market expands, the party loses territory. If China continues its rapid pace of marketization, the time will soon come when the party's monopoly on political power will be over as well.
Observation Two: Party Cadres Are Working Second Jobs
In the past, the main cadres of every party branch at a workplace took full-time positions, engaging in so-called political and ideological work. In previous years, many people were eager to get this kind of appointment because these jobs were easy and came with great privileges. An acquaintance of mine, a Mr. Tang, was a faithful party member and joined the party at 18 years old (according to the Constitution of the CCP, the age of 18 is the minimum age to join the party). He had risen through the ranks to become the party committee (chair) at a factory. I remembered that his office was the most luxurious one, symbolizing his authority over the factory's operation. I followed the well-remembered path to his office, but I arrived to discover that Mr. Tang no longer occupied that office; he had been displaced by the general manager of the factory. (My assumption is that given the economic reforms, the manager was now truly in charge of the factory's operation.) I went in search of Mr. Tang and finally located his office--the last door on the third floor. Knocking on the door and waiting for a while, he finally opened the door and led me in. He told me that he "asked" for this office, as it was quiet. "What are you doing?" I asked directly--in the past, his office would have been open and filled with visitors, petitioners and so on.
"You can figure out what I am doing, even if you haven't lived in China for a long time."
"You must be doing something for yourself, I guess."
"Yes, I am doing my second job, chao gu (playing stock)." He continued, "I have no choice. I try my best, but I am preparing for the worst before my position is eliminated. You know that gai zhi (the change in ownership of enterprises) has been going forward on a large scale. The government requires all small and medium-sized enterprises to go private. This reform will be completed by the end of this year. Nobody knows what roles the party will have to play in work units. So my job is unstable and my future is unpredictable."