Will the Communist Party in China be able to reassert its influence on Chinese businesses or is it on the way out?
From the Beijing Print Edition of the Economist Magazine.
The long arm of the state
Where’s the party?
How the Communist Party is trying to expand its influence in the private sector
Jan 28th 2012 | BEIJING | from the print edition
WHEREAS many urbanites devour Chinese editions of Western magazines like Cosmopolitan, GQ, and Vogue, some officials still peruse weightier titles. In December a dozen Communist Party officials gathered in the eastern city of Hangzhou to celebrate the first anniversary of an alluring journal, Party Construction in Non-State-Owned Enterprises. In its inaugural year, said one of them, the magazine had “struck a beautiful pose”. The journal in question, as its title suggests, is engaging with the tricky issue of how the Communist Party can maintain influence within a growing private sector.
The subject exposes some of the deepest contradictions that now lie at the heart of Chinese society. How can the party maintain control over a place that, in ideological terms, is no longer communist? The closure in the 1990s of vast numbers of state-owned enterprises shattered the party’s grassroots base. Over the past decade a priority of the party’s secretive Organisation Department (it handles personnel issues for the 80m-strong party, yet has no listed telephone number) has been to form party cells in private businesses, or “new economic organisations” as the official literature calls them. In 1999 only 3% of private businesses had party cells. Now the national figure is nearly 13%. Coastal Zhejiang province claims all private firms with more than 80 employees have a branch.
As party officials see it, setting up branches in the private sector is about more than just proving that a once-revolutionary party is still in touch with the masses. At a time of rapid social change and outbreaks of unrest, officials hope the new party branches will reinforce stability and keep the party abreast of potential trouble. Some bosses of private firms encourage the formation of cells, in which at least three party members are required. They do so in order to curry favour with local officialdom. But others have misgivings. They worry that the “red-collar” workers, as party-member employees are sometimes called, might interfere in the running of the company.
In state firms, party committees once controlled workers’ lives, monitoring everything from their ideological rectitude to their reproductive cycle. Now the party appears less clear about exactly what the cells should be doing, though it often tries to present them as exemplars of do-gooding in a boy-scout vein.
Xinhua, the state news agency, reported without irony last July that Communist Party branches in foreign-invested firms in Shanghai had acted as a “red impetus” to growth in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008. It said one such branch in a British marine-equipment company wrote to the firm’s headquarters in London suggesting that the company take advantage of strong local demand by moving more of its operations from Britain to China. On receiving this suggestion, “light filled the eyes” of the top British management, and the firm carried out the party’s plan.
In practice, party cells are most unlikely to be debating ideology with company management. Even within the party, few people believe in Marxism any longer. The tension between an attractive private-sector career and allegiance to the Communist Party is always there for the new breed of party members: 20-somethings who tote iPhones and tweet furiously. Many of them joined the party in the first place only because they were top of their college class and they saw it as a way to earn a lot more money.
In some parts of the country, the government levies a tax, usually 0.5% of payroll, to pay for private firms’ party activities. Few openly complain, but some resist the party’s embrace. Non-governmental organisations—known in party-speak as “new social organisations”—have proved particularly difficult to penetrate. The party, fearful that some might evolve into opposition groups, tries to keep them small. But in December a report published by a government think-tank warned that “party leadership” over NGOs needed to be strengthened. Otherwise, the report warned, they might become tools of “hostile foreign forces”.
In a crisis, the party expects its grassroots cells to help dissuade people from staging public protests and to feed information to the authorities about possible unrest. In the far-western region of Xinjiang, where the authorities are on high alert against separatist unrest among Muslims, at least some party cells in private firms are expected to report on potential troublemakers. Last year the authorities in Jimsar county selected 39 party members from private firms to act as gatherers of public opinion and intelligence on “the enemy situation”. A local party report in August said nine pieces of “valuable information” had been collected this way. Clearly some red-collar workers are still putting the party first.
from the print edition | China