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The Crises of Party Culture

July 8, 2012

Generally, “culture” refers to those human behaviors and actions which are significantly different from and superior to those of animals and primitive peoples, namely, things that produce a sense of identity, belonging, honor, solemnity, morality, sanctity, or beauty in the members of a group. They include institutions, norms, ceremony, and customs, as well as literature and art. I frankly do not care for the concept of “Party culture,” especially when the culture of the Communist Party of China is put on a par with China’s traditional and folk cultures, or with its political and moral cultures. This is because, relatively speaking, the Party itself has no culture. At times, the Party has even blatantly—and with great fanfare—declared opposing, ruining, and strangling culture as its mission. While Confucius extolled the Xia (ca.  2070 – ca. 1600 BC), Shang (ca. 1600–1050 BC), and Zhou (ca. 1046–771 BC) dynasties for their cultural values, he was partial to the Zhou for its abundant literature, developed rites and music, and flourishing refinement. Confucius said, “How culture flourished! I follow Zhou.” Were Confucius to see the “socialist culture” of today, along with the gentlemen of Zhongnanhai—Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and the rest—he would probably say, “They are about to destroy the culture.” He would never say, “How culture is flourishing! I love the Party.”

Party and culture are a bizarre pairing of imbalance and discord. In order to grasp its true meaning, one needs to understand the concept of party culture in the same way as one would understand “honor among thieves” (盗亦有道). That is to say, even the gangs who steal as a way of life also need to be “cultured”— to the point that they also occasionally need to “stress political awareness and integrity.”[1] Every proper gang has its own flag, argot, code of brotherhood, rules, heritage, and “heroic” feats, to such an extent that even their hairstyles and the tattoos on their backs are all stylized and have hidden cultural connotations.

The godfather of a gang is usually not the one best at martial arts, nor the most wicked. He is certainly not the one with the ferocious, murderous look in his eyes, as he may appear in television shows. Rather, he is generally the person in the gang with moral authority and persuasiveness, who can represent the gang’s ideals. He is the one most able to make his underlings feel the gang’s raison d’etre, allowing them to have a clear conscience and feel that their work is not done in vain. Generally, he is none other than the healthy, energetic one with the demeanor of a great man. Take, for instance, Song Jiang in the Water Margin. Song was far more suited to be Chairman of the Party and Military Commission than Li Kui, Wu Song, and Li Chong. Regardless of the situation, “cultured” gangs are always more worthy of public trust than are thugs. A gang will usually take your money and not kill you, but thugs behave erratically and are hard to predict. Only with this in mind can we acknowledge that “Party culture” is also a meaningful concept, worthy of exploration. Xinhua Gate, main entrance to Zhongnanhai, headquarters of the CPC. Photo credit: Neo-Jay.

Regardless of taste or standards of beauty, the CPC has its own semiotic system, ideals and beliefs, value system, heritage of experiences, Party narrative, interpersonal relationships, institutional norms, ceremonies and rites, and official customs—all of which enable the Party to distinguish itself from other countries and political parties, and from China’s own non-Party general public. Thus, even though it is a party that has in the past promoted violence, incited struggle, and launched the Cultural Revolution, it also has its own culture. That said, I still do not care for Party culture, a concept that bring shame to culture as a whole.

In its character, CPC culture is vastly different from Western “political party” culture. As Wu Bangguo, Chairman of the National People’s Congress has repeatedly stated, there is an “intrinsic difference” between the Chinese and Western political systems, and that they cannot be discussed in the same terms. If Hu Jintao and Barack Obama were to hold a summit, topics such as trade, international cooperation, nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iraq, anti-terrorism efforts, and even human rights could all be discussed because these are common topics between the two of them, and because China and the United States are roughly on the same wavelength, so to speak, on these topics. But if they were to let their imaginations run wild and exchange their experiences managing their respective political parties—for instance, if Hu were to speak openly with Obama about how the CPC leads the Politburo or how it steers the Politics and Legislative Affairs Committee—I think it would end up like a chicken talking to a duck: it is unlikely that Obama, however smart, would understand Hu’s gibberish. Why? This is not because the politics of the CPC are profound, but because the CPC and the U.S. Democratic Party, despite both being designated as parties, are fundamentally not of the same breed. Strictly speaking, CPC culture cannot be categorized as a political party culture. And in fact, the Communist Party of China is not a true political party under the definition of a constitutional political party whose primary tasks are elections and congressional affairs.

As for what breed it is, CPC culture probably lies somewhere among organizational culture, bureaucratic culture, clique culture, wealth culture, mafia culture, and cult culture—or is some combination of those. First, the average Party member with neither power nor position has an extremely superficial relationship with the Party, and thus can only treat it as an organization. Those who want all of the special privileges and benefits that come from being members of the Party are likely to be disappointed: perks are set aside for only those who rise through the ranks. There are no shared values and benefits among the ordinary Party members and between ordinary members and senior cadres. The party culture baptism they have received is only at the superficial level of organizational culture. Should something happen to the CPC, in one night, 95 percent of the ordinary Party members would abandon ship.

Second, the bottom and middle tiers of the Party usually treat the Party as a mutual aid association for bureaucrats, and they may participate in some cliquish activities organized by factions within the Party. This is what officials do, because it is difficult for an isolated bureaucrat to have firm standing in official circles. For them, party culture is bureaucratic culture and clique culture. What party culture offers them is primarily a system of discourse and standards for handling things that are commonly used in the bureaucracy. These include how to handle official affairs, deal with the people, curry favor with their superiors, accept bribes, form factions, find a patron, and get promoted. These all involve skills, and there are baseline rules: one has to play the game nimbly, with high stakes and without stepping over the line. It is by no means easy and requires that one be “cultured.” This kind of culture has always existed throughout the world, but the CPC has brought it to new heights. Party cadres play bureaucrats so brilliantly that any one person taking office would bring luster on the entire family, and one position that offers opportunity for “grease” can attract hundreds of thousands of well-educated people competing for it.

Third, Party members at the highest levels view the Party mainly as a social club for the rich and powerful; a super-gang, a cult. They must, of course, serve as members of the Party and as government officials, but they operate completely differently from ordinary Party members and officials at the lower and middle ranks. Their main responsibilities are hobnobbing with the Party blue blood, socializing with the giants of industry and commerce, arranging and smoothing out various privileged relationships, and communicating with all power factions.

The CPC has long ceased being an underground, revolutionary party. Rather, it is the world’s biggest ruling party governing the world’s second-largest economy. But it has retained most of the organizational conventions of an underground party. It separates insiders from outsiders and puts factional rules over the laws of the state. It holds secret meetings and has its own jargon. The Politics and Legislative Affairs Committee and Central Commission for Discipline Inspection can replace the law with the Party, set up kangaroo courts, and browbeat the judiciary. At the highest level, the selecting officials for major positions, making major policy decisions, and convening major meetings all happen inside a black box. However rumors may fly, the Party will not operate in broad daylight. This is probably because the filth behind the scenes is so horrid that the Party needs to keep it out of view.

It is clear that changing from an underground party into a ruling one is not easy, and turning gang culture into party culture is even less so. So, with pen in one hand and gun in the other, the Party earnestly gives itself praises even when it has done bad things. With any kind of political achievement, it would present itself as “great, brilliant, and correct” (伟光正), as Mao used to say about the Party, as if it were really true. When appearing in public, officials would file out according to rank, as if getting the order wrong would destroy the Party and the country. Whenever they make formal speeches, they would dress them in clichés that stick to the Party line, as if telling anything but boldface lies would be blaspheming the Party and the country. The Party controls the cadres, the talents, the army, the propaganda, politics, law, and the united front. They hold tremendous power and control everything—except their own younger generations. All of the above clearly embody the characteristics of a cult.

CPC’s culture has a long history. It is the product of a bloody evolution over 90 years as a party and 60 as a country, with the totalitarian culture of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union as its core, and Chinese feudal dynastic culture as its method of operation. One can say that this culture did not come easily. Indeed, CPC culture is a part of Chinese culture today—and a key part of it because the CPC is the ruling party. This fact makes all enthusiasts of Chinese culture feel ashamed. However, fortunately, it is the part of Chinese culture that is rapidly losing its appeal.

The crises of Party culture become clear with a single glance. The CPC is called the ruling party, yet it operates according to secret party rules: this is an identity crisis. Its formal ceremonies and slogans are like those of an extremist church, and it has long lost its utopian doctrine that stirred the passion of the people: this is an ideological crisis. It tells beautiful lies while accepting bribes and keeping mistresses: this is a moral crisis. The totalitarian system is in the process of collapsing, yet political reform is not in the foreseeable future: this is a political crisis. It has corrupted traditional values and also rejected universal values, rendering Party members and government officials at a spiritual loss: this is a crisis of values.

Facing so many crises, Party culture is sure to wither away. One can see indications of its accelerated decline in Hu Jintao and Bo Xilai, and in how the Party handles the Bo Xilai affair. Hu and Bo can be called outstanding representatives of Party culture, high-quality products cultivated and molded in the golden age of Party culture.

High-ranking party-state officials like Hu and Bo—with their demeanor, official and personal conduct, and governing style—would absolutely have no place in other parties, cultures, and systems. These two men—educated and cultivated by Party culture—can only be officials in the CPC, and can become such high-ranking officials only in a China that is ruled by the CPC. What country or party would allow an official in such a high position as Hu Jintao to do nothing, or someone ambitious like Bo Xilai to run amuck? Today, Hu treads on thin ice, and Bo, fallen from power, has been totally discredited. With a different political and cultural background, Hu and Bo—as long as they are not born villains—could have led happier, more meaning political lives. They can be described as made by party culture, trapped by party culture, and also victimized by party culture. If Hu and Bo could turn out this way, one can imagine how others have turned out. And how can one say this is not the fault of party culture?

English translation by Human Rights in China.

Yang Guang (given name Wu Jun), was born in Songzi County of Hubei Province in 1965 and graduated from Huhan University with a degree in mathematics. From 1986 to 1989, he worked as a mathematics teacher before enrolling as a graduate student at Beijing Normal University. He soon lost his status as a student and was under investigation due to his involvement in student movements and the June 4th Incident. In 1990, he was sentenced to one year in prison for “anti-revolution propaganda” by the Shiyan City (Hubei) authorities. From 1991 to 2006 he worked in the private sector as a corporate manager. Since 2004, he has been a freelance writer, columnist, and independent scholar of political sociology and modern Chinese history.

Translator’s note

[1]    An allusion to former Party Secretary Jiang Zemin’s "Three Emphases" campaign that focused on study (of political theory), political awareness, and integrity.