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Mao's 'Great Leap Forward' and the Power of History

Yet an important essay by journalist Ian Johnson, in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, makes the point that “today, the Party is arguably stronger than ever but few outsiders are aware of its enduring reach.”  It is at the center of events as varied as shifts in global currency markets, New York stock market listings, and clashes over North Korea.

While China’s economy may be a market communism and many of its policies cannot be called anything resembling traditional Communism, “the Party is still Leninist in structure and organization, resulting in institutions and behavior patterns that would be recognizable to the leaders of the Russian Revolution.” Johnson provides a particularly striking example showing how powerful the Party is. China’s new thriving giant corporations are not actually run by its board of directors, but by the Party:

All have Party secretaries who manage them in conjunction with the CEO. In big questions, such as leadership or overseas acquisitions, Party meetings precede board meetings, which largely give routine approval to Party decisions. The Party’s overarching control was driven home a few years ago when China’s large telecom companies had their CEOs shuffled like a pack of cards because of a decision by the Party’s Organization Department. It would have been like the US Department of Commerce ordering the heads of AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile to play musical chairs. For the Organization Department, which acts as the Party’s personnel department, it was normal; it often shifts senior Party officials every few years to prevent empire building and corruption.

A similar structure guides the political decisions that are made. The National Congress is nothing but a rubber stamp institution for the Party, which runs the government through what Johnson calls a “parallel structure of behind-the-scenes control.” Even in a high school, it is the Party leader, not the principal, who decides how the school is to be run.  The Party has 78 million members, which are led by the nine-man Standing Committee of the Party’s Politburo. In other words, it is not incorrect to call the regime one of “market Leninism.”

Rather than declining in power as the economy grows, the Party seemingly has perfected a mechanism to maintain control while it presides over a controlled capitalism. Those brave enough to demand real democratization, a multi-party system, and a weakening of control from above, face years in brutal prisons.

The Party presides over economic growth, and so far, the results of a better life for some -- especially in the cities -- have worked to curb mass demands for democracy. Johnson thinks the Party is not threatened at present, but that it “lacks the impetus to reform.” Thus he concludes, “With China on top of the world, the Party’s perch atop the country seems impregnable and yet more vulnerable than ever.”

Knowing this, it is not really surprising that China’s current rulers prefer that its people not learn the real history of the Party and the Maoist years, since its own legitimacy stems from the Revolution Mao and his comrades made. That is why getting this history to the people of China is so important. At times, true history itself can play a revolutionary role.