“We're seeing a step change in the role of the CCP in the economic system”
MERICS China Briefing spoke with Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, as part of a series of interviews about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at 100. He talked about the sources of the party’s resilience, its integration into Chinese society – and whether it has the wherewithal to make China a superpower by the middle of the century. Questions by Nis Grünberg, Senior Analyst MERICS
How has the CCP managed to stay at the center of Chinese politics for a century?
One important factor is the CCP’s ability to mobilize, aggregate resources and channel them towards objectives. These can be financial resources, or human capital. The CCP is able to channel resources in ways that market economies and democracies might not be able to do. The second attribute which has kept the party resilient is its openness to innovation and experimentation. This seems somewhat ironic because we tend to think of Leninist systems as rigid. But, partly because the CCP has been such a keen student of the Soviet Union's atrophy and decline, and also because of some of the unique characteristics about how the party itself evolved to its own unique exigencies, there has always been a willingness to try new things to adapt.
The final element of resilience is the integration of the party into society. As a Leninist party, it maintains an element of being elite and party membership is not open to everyone. Nonetheless, the party has long tried to integrate into almost all elements of society such that it feels omnipresent. That has allowed it to recognize risks early and innovate when it feels the need to.
You see a new type of system emerging in China. What’s the fundamental change?
From the early 1980s into the mid or late 2000s, the view of economic growth and the economic system was essentially about expanding the pie, building aggregate material wealth. Now, the paradigm is that Xi Jinping has purpose, a direction in which he wants the economy to go, one that is significantly more defined than under any previous leadership. This is clearly going to be the most challenging decade Beijing is confronted with since the death of Mao, so the Chinese leadership cannot afford to have essentially an Adam Smith-like invisible hand allocating resources.
The leadership needs the resources to be channeled towards critical technology sectors. As it perceives the international environment as becoming hostile, they cannot allow blind market forces to determine where Chinese corporates and outward investment go. That to me indicates that we are no longer operating under the same rules that were implicit in how previous leadership groups thought and acted. At the same time, we're seeing a step change in the role of the CCP in the economic system. It is of such magnitude that it is a new paradigm in terms of the explicit de jure role that the CCP is going to play in Chinese society. It is of infinitely greater strength and robustness that was not prior to 2012.
How far do you think the CCP will continue pushing into society go?
That’s the question on everyone's mind. Are we going to see a future in which every Chinese company has a corporate governance structure that elevates the role of the party cell and the party secretary? That has corporate decisions and political decisions moving in tandem? The answer is that we don’t yet know. However, it's important to remember that the underlying thrust of this party integration into society is not about having the party make all of the decisions in Chinese society.
I think it's quite the opposite – the integration of the party is seen by Beijing almost as a prerequisite for the future of complexity that China is heading towards. Installing, or re-empowering party cells within companies is not about some foolhardy central planning 2.0. It’s about concerns in the party about the country continuing to integrate and the world economy becoming more complex, more fractured, and more unpredictable. It’s about the party asking itself how it can make sure it remains aware of what's going on. The big challenge for external observers – including other political systems watching China – is how we are going to conceptualize and treat this evolving political-economic hybrid system.