Richard McGregor's 'The Party' reveals the secret world of China's communists

At a dinner party in Beijing more than a decade ago, Rupert Murdoch, the boss of New York-based News Corp. and a hard-headed arbiter of global opinion, declared that he hadn't met a single communist during all his visits to China.

With all the noisy debate over China's gargantuan trade surplus with the United States, its currency policy and its censorship of the Internet, one truth seems self-evident: China may do lots of things Westerners don't like, but at least it has dumped communism in all but name. After all, how can a country that so often seems to beat the United States at its own capitalist game be considered communist in any meaningful way?

Yet for all the dizzying change in China over the past three decades, the modern Chinese state "still runs on Soviet hardware," argues Richard McGregor in his illuminating and important new book, "The Party." Unlike the glittering skyscrapers, Starbucks cafes, sprawling factories and soaring GDP figures that so easily catch and dazzle the eye, much of this hardware lies hidden from view. "The Party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can't see him," a professor at People's University in Beijing explained to McGregor.

At first glance, a book about the Communist Party seems curiously old-fashioned, a throwback to a time when scholars and journalists scoured the People's Daily for hints of who was up or down in the Politburo and competed to decipher party gobbledygook. The red flags, the portrait of Mao overlooking Tiananmen Square and the occasional retro-slogan about "workers of the world" can sometimes seem as quaintly removed from present-day reality as the portraits of Queen Elizabeth that grace the offices of British civil servants working for what is, in name at least, "Her Majesty's government." However, it is a measure of how much China has changed that McGregor has been able to write such a lively and penetrating account of a party that, since its founding in Shanghai as a clandestine organization in 1921, has clung to secrecy as an inviolable principle.

Since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China's ruling party has pulled off an extraordinary Houdini act, shaking off the horrors of Mao-made catastrophe -- including the death by starvation of 35 to 40 million people in the so-called Great Leap Forward -- and disentangling itself from the ideological chains that doomed the Soviet communists. Highly flexible on matters of economic doctrine but fiercely rigid in its commitment to political control, the party has not only survived but thrived. It now has 78 million members, including many multimillionaires. "We are the Communist Party," said Chen Yuan, a senior Chinese banker and the son of a Long March veteran, "and we decide what communism means."

But McGregor points out that "Lenin, who designed the prototype used to run communist countries around the world, would recognize the [Chinese] model immediately." Case in point: the Central Organization Department, the party's vast and opaque human resources agency. It has no public phone number, and there is no sign on the huge building it occupies near Tiananmen Square. Guardian of the party's personnel files, the department handles key personnel decisions not only in the government bureaucracy but also in business, media, the judiciary and even academia. Its deliberations are all secret. If such a body existed in the United States, McGregor writes, it "would oversee the appointment of the entire US cabinet, state governors and their deputies, the mayors of major cities, the heads of all federal regulatory agencies, the chief executives of GE, Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart and about fifty of the remaining largest US companies, the justices of the Supreme Court, 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."

The central role of the party is hardly news to aficionados of Chinese-style Kremlinology. It has long been known, for example, that foreign policy is ultimately crafted not by the foreign ministry but the party's Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, and that military matters are decided not by the defense ministry but by the party's Central Military Commission. These and other party groups meet in secret. But McGregor adds flesh to dry bureaucratic bones through interviews with Chinese who know the system from the inside, though those who agreed to talk shed little light on the personal and political dynamics at the apex of the party. It is remarkable how little information has leaked from its upper echelons.

Nonetheless, McGregor provides many revealing nuggets, such as the existence of a network of special telephones known as "red machines," which sit on the desks of the party's most important members. Connected to a closed and encrypted communications system, they are China's version of the "vertushka" telephones that once formed an umbilical cord of party power across the vast expanse of the Soviet empire. All governments have their own secure communications systems. But China's network links not just ministers and senior party apparatchiks but also the chief executives of the biggest state-owned companies -- businessmen who, to outside eyes, look like exemplars of China's post-communist capitalism.

As a reporter for the Financial Times, McGregor -- who, incidentally, attended that dinner party with Murdoch -- has a firm grip on economics. Some of the most revealing parts of his book involve what he describes as the party's shadowy role in corporate decision-making and the overlap, as well as tension, between party and business interests. At times, the party's often hidden but decisive hand has served China well, as during the 2008 financial crisis when big Chinese state banks -- all of whose bosses are party members vetted by the Organization Department -- moved swiftly under instructions from the party leadership to pump out loans. But McGregor also relates how the party's orders can trump commercial good sense and even decency. When a dairy company called Sanlu discovered just before the opening of the Beijing Olympics that its milk products, including baby formula, were dangerously contaminated, the head of the company -- and of its party committee -- ruled against a recall and kept selling tainted goods. To announce a recall would have violated a party diktat that nothing should disturb the feel-good pre-Games mood.

The Chinese Communist Party's great success, despite the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and across Eastern Europe, has obliterated Western wishful thinking about the "end of history" and the world's inexorable march toward liberal democracy. "The Chinese communist system is, in many ways, rotten, costly, corrupt and often dysfunctional," McGregor observes. "But the system has also proved to be flexible and protean enough to absorb everything that has been thrown at it, to the surprise and horror of many in the west. For the foreseeable future, it looks as though their wish, to bestride the world as a colossus on their own implacable terms, will come true."

McGregor's analysis does not preclude the possibility that the party might one day evolve into a more open and less secretive organization, as happened to its old enemy in Taiwan, the KMT, a once rigidly Leninist outfit. Indeed, since the publication of this book, the Chinese Communist Party has made a big show of greater transparency, inviting journalists to visit the Central Party School in Beijing and announcing the appointment of spokespersons for previously media-phobic party bodies, including the Central Organization Department.

But there is no sign of the party surrendering its core prerogative: immunity from independent scrutiny of its actions or checks on its authority. Chinese judges, police officers, journalists and others are no longer mere cogs in a vicious totalitarian system. But, for all the relative freedom they now enjoy to act as professionals, not simply as political hacks, they remain firmly subordinate to what has become the Chinese Communist Party's only real ideology: its own survival.

Andrew Higgins, a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post who has reported in China and the former Soviet Union.