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The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Leaders: China's Open Economy and Authoritarian Government

Posted: 06/15/10 04:47 PM ET

It is widely understood, somewhat vaguely, that the Communist Party runs China, but few have any real sense of what it means in practice. Here is one example.

Just imagine a single body in the US that oversaw the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governors and their deputies, the mayors of major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies and the justices on the Supreme Court.

In addition, the same body would also clear the appointments of the chief executives of GE, Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil and about fifty of the remaining largest US companies; the editors of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post; the bosses of the TV networks and cable stations; the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities; and the heads of think-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.

Not only that, the vetting process would take place behind closed doors, and the appointments announced without any accompanying explanation about the basis on which they were made.

This body goes by the rather spooky name of the Central Organisation Department. Its imposing headquarters in Beijing, a modern office block a short drive west from Tiananmen Square, has no sign outside indicating the building's occupants. And the department has no listed phone number allowing the public to call and talk to its officials.

The operations of the department are detailed in my new book, The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Leaders. Like all institutions that underpin communist party rule in China, the Organisation Department is congenitally secretive. This would matter little, except that China is the world's rising superpower and the sole potential global rival to the US.

Much is made these days about asymmetric warfare, the kind of conflict that allows poorly-armed terrorists to humble a great military power like the US. In the case of the China, the problem is more one of asymmetric information.

For all its manifold flaws, the US governing system is remarkably open. In China, it is closed in ways that few understand, an imbalance my book seeks to correct. The Party's secrecy may rebound on China one day. But the moment, it hands Beijing a huge advantage in dealing with open, fractious democracies.

For all the glittering modernity of its coastal cities, the remarkable and largely overlooked truth about China is that it is still governed on Soviet hardware. Chinese citizens, particularly those who live in cities, have vastly more freedom than they did 30 years ago. They can their own homes, work where they want, marry their partner of choice and even get rich. The economy, at the same time, is open to the free market in a way that few thought would ever be sustainable in an authoritarian system.

The Party's genius has been its ability to maintain the authoritarian powers of old-style communism, while dumping the ideological strait jacket that originally inspired them. At the same time, they have somehow managed to hitch the power and legitimacy of a communist state to the drive and productivity of an increasingly entrepreneurial economy.

The Party has let go of a lot of what it once controlled. But it has stayed in power by keeping a vice-like grip on three areas, on all senior appointments, through the Organization Department; the media, through the Propaganda Department; and the military. The People's Liberation Army is the Party's army, not the country's.

Like communist parties throughout history, the Party in China lashes out at anyone who attempts to tries to organize a rival political force. Deeply paternalistic, it is also largely incapable of understanding what it looks like from the outside.

I spent many, fruitless years trying to talk to someone from the Organization Department, until I stumbled across an official who worked for the body in Hunan province. After an hour or so of pleasant discussion, I asked him why his department was so secretive.

The official seemed nonplussed by the question, as though the issue of secrecy had never occurred to him. "Government departments hang their plaque outside their buildings because they face the public," he told me. "The cadres all know where we are. It's a bit like knowing where your parents live."

Those who have predicted the collapse of the Party have so far been proved wrong. The Party has outlasted, outperformed, outsmarted or simply outlawed its critics. The end of history? It never finished in China.

Speculation about the Party losing power is wide of the mark for another reason. Party members are the only officials with the skills, know-how and networks to run the country.

Much like the Iraqi army after the second gulf war, if you disbanded the Party, you would eventually have to put them back together. Through the jealous guarding of their monopoly on power, its leaders have ensured that no one else is equipped to do the job.