What remains of communism in China?

Has the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), 100 years old this year, become a capitalist? Since the introduction of Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization reforms 40 years ago, more than 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty and the one-party state is now the world’s second-largest economy, the largest if calculated. in purchasing power parity, with 18% of world GDP. The introduction of the market economy and the acceleration of growth have been accompanied by an exponential increase in inequalities: the Gini coefficient, which measures the extent of inequalities, increased by 15 points between 1990 and 2015 (latest figures available)

These changes have facilitated private sector growth, but the state retains direct control over much of the economy – the public sector accounts for around 30% – making China a textbook case of state capitalism. Moreover, the CCP has largely succeeded in co-opting the elites produced by this liberalized economy. But if the communist ideology no longer informs the recruitment of the party, its Leninist organizational structure remains central in the relationship between state and capital.

The CCP, which continues to grow and now has some 95 million members (about 6.5% of the population), has gradually evolved into a “white collar” organization. In the early 2000s, then President Jiang Zemin lifted the ban on recruiting private sector entrepreneurs, previously considered class enemies, so that the CCP no longer represents just the “revolutionary” classes. – workers, peasants and soldiers – but also the “advanced productive forces” of the country.

Selected businessmen and women become members of the political elite, ensuring that their businesses are at least partially protected from predatory officials. Their membership in the CCP gained momentum under President Xi Jinping (from 2013), with the aim of forming “a group of business people determined to walk with the Party.”

A need for a “festive spirit”

As a result, the CCP quickly became more and more elitist. In 2010, the number of “professionals and executives” with higher education qualifications already equaled the number of peasants and workers. Ten years after, they exceeded them, representing 50 percent of the membership, against less than 35 percent of the workers and peasants.

If “working for communism” was one of the main reasons for joining the Party during the Maoist era (1949-1976), today’s motivations are more pragmatic: first facilitate professional advancement. Indeed, internal training shows that the PCC presents itself as a managerial structure of neoliberal inspiration, aimed at effective management of the population and the economy.

However, the minimal importance given to communist ideology does not diminish the high level of allegiance and “party spirit” required of CCP members. Like corporate culture, this aims to ensure the success of the Party itself by creating a sense of belonging. It is also tinged with nationalism. Members are regularly reminded of the Party’s centrality in China’s transformation, whether during training sessions or through the development of “red tourism” – visiting places linked to the history of the revolution.

Under Xi Jinping, internal discipline has also strengthened. The aim is to secure the morality and loyalty of leaders and members through a massive anti-corruption campaign. Not only have potential opponents of Xi’s personal power been sidelined, but control over civil servants has increased, just like the fight against the “four bad [professional] styles ”: formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism and extravagance.

This injunction to loyalty and professional ethics, in accordance with the image that the CCP wishes to convey to the general public, applies to all its members, including those in the private sector. According to Party guidelines, they are not only expected to remain faithful to the party line, but also to “regulate their words and actions”, “to cultivate a healthy lifestyle” and that they remain “modest and discreet”. And those who do not play the game can suffer the consequences. The charismatic Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba group, is a perfect example. After openly criticizing the state’s grip on the banking sector, he became the target of an attack orchestrated by the Party authorities.

Pressure to show loyalty

The initial public offering of Ant Group, a financial subsidiary of Alibaba Group, was interrupted at the end of 2020, and the group was ordered to limit its operations. This incident demonstrates the CCP’s willingness to exert pressure as a means of retaining entrepreneurs and as a means of maintaining some control over the financial and technological resources of their companies.

Ant Group holds valuable personal and financial data on the hundreds of millions of people who use its online payments and loans; the equivalent of billions of dollars circulate daily on its platforms. The increased control over the private sector is in line with the CCP’s hegemonic tendencies characteristic of the Xi era. The Party charter was amended in 2017 to emphasize that “within government, army, society and schools – in the east, west, south and north – the Party leads on all fronts ”.

In companies, this translates into an increase in the number of grassroots organizations or party cells. As early as 2012, the CPC Organization Directorate, whose mission is to manage human resources, issued a directive calling for “exhaustive coverage” of the private sector, and since 2018 companies listed on the Chinese market are obliged to set up a Party cell. : Now 92% of the 500 largest Chinese companies have one. Although no precise figures have been made public, regular leaks reveal the strong presence of members and cells in foreign companies operating in China.

Uproot “disloyal” officials

This presence provides the Party with leverage even beyond the large parts of the economy it owns. The CCP’s disciplinary apparatus, embodied by the Discipline and Inspection Committee, is able to impose extrajudicial sanctions on members who violate its rules, and its powers have been strengthened by the anti-corruption campaign. . Criticism and self-criticism sessions, known as “democratic life meetings”, have been revived as a means of rooting out “corrupt” or “disloyal” officials. Traditional Maoist practices are thus recycled, no longer focusing on the ideological purity of Party officials and members but on their allegiance to the organization and its leader.

Until now, Party cells played a minor role in enterprises: they mainly recruited members and organized courses or social and cultural activities. Now, with the aim of developing a “modern enterprise system with Chinese characteristics”, directives have been issued requiring private enterprises to “adhere to the principle that the Party has decision-making power over human resources.” . It is too early to know what form this will take, but for Ye Qing, Vice President of the Chinese Federation of Industry and Commerce headed by the CCP, it is clear that this means that the Party will have control over personnel management.

Party approval would be required for hiring and firing, to prevent “managers from promoting whoever they want,” Ye said. It also recommends the establishment of a control and audit structure within companies, under the authority of the Party, to ensure that companies comply with the law and to deal with breaches of discipline and “Abnormal behavior” of employees. The Party’s disciplinary apparatus thus extends to everyone, even to non-Communists.

According to the new directives, the management of Party cells should be formally incorporated into the company’s statutes, with a specific budget reserved for their activities. This amounts to legally codifying the requirements of the CCP so that they become binding, even for companies that are not under its direct control. Thus, the CCP’s role in the private sector increasingly resembles that it plays in public enterprises. Focused on its own survival, displaying a pragmatism, even an ideological void, it brings into its ranks a growing number of capitalists as it becomes more and more present in companies.

This asymmetric alliance is found outside national borders: the Belt and Road Initiative is accelerating the internationalization of Chinese companies, both private and public, which create party cells abroad to supervise their employees. If it has put aside Maoist internationalism, the CCP now exports its mode of organization and its disciplinary tools.

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