July 1st this year marks the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai in 1921. It is a date worth commemorating as while the Party is not well understood, its positive achievements have been outstanding.
In 2004 I participated in a Labour Party delegation to China at the invitation of the CCP. In our formal meeting in Beijing, Vice-Minister Zhang Zhijun informed us that the CCP wished to learn from us about “party-building.” I remember thinking we have a known membership somewhere north of 10,000, you have a membership of 90 million, and you want to learn from us about party-building!
But the truth of the matter was that they did want to learn. We answered innumerable questions, many notes were taken, reports were given and we got to know a number of highly intelligent and cultured people. My first impression was that the Communist Party of China was a massive learning institution, and everything I have seen and heard since reinforces that impression.
As many historians of China have commented, the CPC is in many ways the latest iteration of the mandarinate, China’s millennial-old governance system. Just as in the past, admission is by examination. Singaporean scholar and diplomat Khishore Mahbubani in his book ‘Has China Won?’ says the CCP should rather be called the “Chinese Civilisation Party.” I think he has a point. Chinese entrepreneur and social commentator Eric Li describes it as ‘meritocratic governance,’ with a stress on competence.
Under Deng Xiaoping China opened up to the world in the 1970s but did not follow the mantras of the neoliberal west. It still believes in state control of the financial system, state-owned enterprises, and five-year plans. These plans are not just wish-lists, they are expected to be implemented. They are formed after extensive and intensive discussion at all levels in the learning system that is the Party, and promotion is dependent on proof of ability to see them delivered. And the evidence is that they work, which is why they pose such a challenge to the west.
Many eastern cultures, and this is certainly true of China, prioritise communal well-being rather than individual well-being. China’s goal in its 14th five-year plan is to deliver a ‘moderately prosperous society’ for all, rather than one where supposedly anyone can get ahead on their own. This appears to be appreciated by Chinese people. A 2016 survey by the Ash school at Harvard University found that 95.5% of respondents were either ‘relatively satisfied’ or highly satisfied’ with their government. Here we test the ‘right-track/wrong-track.’ The latest Roy Morgan poll has us at 62.5% ‘right-track’ and 28.5 ‘wrong-track.’.
At the inauguration of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 the very first campaign was one “to sweep away illiteracy.” One expert has described the rise of literacy in China to near universal in 2015 as “perhaps the single greatest educational achievement in human history.” Another great historical achievement of Communist party rule has been to lift 800 million people out of poverty, according to the World Bank. This year Xi Jinping announced that China has eliminated absolute poverty in the nation of 1.4 billion.
China’s modern infrastructure is stunning. Thirteen years ago I travelled by train from Beijing to Tianjin and watched the speedometer in the bulkhead climb to 350kph without a ripple on the surface of my tea. That was one of the earliest of their high-speed trains; now a total of 37,900km of such criss-cross the country.
In my opinion it is crucially important that we better understand and indeed come to appreciate the many positive and indeed unique elements of this millennial civilisation, the longest continuity on our planet by far. It has a turbulent history but a lasting culture, and its encounter with the Anglophone and European world in the last two hundred years, from the Opium Wars to the destruction of the summer palace in the aftermath of the Boxer rebellion, has not been peaceful. Its rise now is spectacular.
All of which is not to say that everything in China is perfect. And it is currently the target of a massive demonising psyop driven out of the US and supported by 5Eyes which I will comment on in subsequent posts. But because the CPC government is a learning institution dedicated to continuous self-improvement it has a capacity to rapidly learn from its mistakes, as its reaction to the corona-virus showed.
And we need to better appreciate not just China. Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” and Boris Johnson’s “Tilt to Asia” merely serve to signify that the world’s centre of gravity has shifted to the South and East. This is our region as well, but there are very few Asian voices in our media and we would do well to listen to some of them, such as this article from Sudheendra Kulkarni. Our intelligence sources might have five eyes but they only speak with one tongue.
One can steadfastly remain a proponent of ‘socialism with New Zealand characteristics’ yet know that there is much that we too can learn if we recognise the good and appreciate the scale of the achievements of the hundred-year old Communist Party of China, governing their country “with Chinese characteristics” to its people’s broad satisfaction for the past 72 years.