In his 1950 memoir, Peking Diary: A Year of Revolution, American sinologist Derk Bodde issued a warning to U.S. policymakers. He had just returned from Beijing, where the People’s Liberation Army had marched into the city and easily toppled the ruling Guomindang (Nationalist) government. The lack of popular opposition to the coup was hardly surprising. Constant blackouts, runaway inflation, and rampant corruption had made even ideological opponents of communism eager for the arrival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, or simply “the party”). It would be a mistake, Bodde cautioned, to assume the Chinese people felt “enslaved” by an illegitimate regime. It was the CCP, not the Guomindang, that was responding to the needs of the people.
Seventy years later, the West still hasn’t learned Bodde’s lesson. Fortunately, Bruce J. Dickson’s The Party and the People offers a needed corrective to the American misconception that the CCP lacks popular support. Hardly some inflexible, iron-fisted regime that governs through fear and repression, the CCP is fairly responsive to the Chinese people and the changing times. As Dickson points out, the party’s adaptability is precisely what has enabled it to maintain its grip on power for over seven decades.
Books written for “China novices,” or readers with little background on the country’s history and culture, tend to overemphasize China’s ancient past as a way of understanding its present. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Dickson mostly limits his analysis to the post-Mao era (1976 to the present), with each of his book’s eight chapters answering one specific question. Dickson has beginners in mind, but even veteran China watchers will learn something, too.
The first three chapters (“What Keeps the Party in Power?,” “How Are Leaders Chosen?,” and “How Are Policies Made?”) examine the CCP’s inner workings. One important element is the party’s Leninist structure. “If Marx provided the ideology of communism, Lenin provided the organization,” Dickson writes. Under a Leninist party state, the government is indistinguishable from the party; every government position has a corresponding party post, making it easy for the party to enact its policies into law. Also integral to a Leninist party state are the workplace and neighborhood party cells. They directly intervene in people’s daily lives by providing ideological education and enforcing assent to the party line. This Leninist structure—and the party’s complete dominance of politics and society—practically guarantees that the CCP and its policies will always remain in control.
But, Dickson shows, the CCP has also created a promotional structure for its members that encourages attentiveness to the people’s demands. In many authoritarian governments, political promotion is based solely on personal connections. In China, merit plays more of a role. Connections are certainly important, but local party officials have an even stronger incentive to achieve the party’s twin goals of economic development and “social stability.” To keep their posts, they must keep the people satisfied.
But how can a Leninist party even know what the people’s needs are? Dickson attempts an answer in the book’s next three chapters (“Does China Have a Civil Society?,” “Do Political Protests Threaten Political Stability?,” and “Why Does the Party Fear Religion?”). As Dickson demonstrates, the provision of some space for civil society and political protests is essential for the party’s success. Both inform local and central party officials of the people’s demands so that they can adapt policies accordingly. But, as Dickson cautions, civil society and political protests are only permitted to exist within a party-defined space. The party harshly suppresses any unsanctioned organizing activity.