(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 2 January 2019.)


In late November an email group I belong to happened to discuss a New York Times article on why China may be in the process of managing its decline. After a long exchange, one participant noted, “My only comment here is that for the 25 years I have been in Hong Kong, every year Western pundits have forecast the demise of the Chinese economy. Maybe one day they will be right.”


Doomsday economists will inevitably get it right one day if they keep predicting the same message. Reliable predictions, however, must come from a combination of correct models, clear evidence, and a sophisticated knowledge of history – a pundit that ends up possessing all three attributes has achieved no mean feat.


Daniel Koss, a German diplomat turned scholar and author of Where the Party Rules (2018), said something worth recounting here. His book is a scholarly study on the rank and file of China’s communist party. His thesis convincingly sets forth the case that the role of the party in China serves a distinctively different function from that of the government bureaucracy.


The party’s rank and file, he argues, allows the state to penetrate local society. Local branches function as conduits for information circulation. The single party thus provides organizational infrastructure for the state to project authority throughout its realm. The party empowers the state at the local level precisely because the overwhelming majority of members are not in administrative positions within the government bureaucracy and work outside the government.


In this sense, the party state is not merely a relatively ordinary government bureaucracy. Instead, the party’s local presence across the country represents a different face of the state that seeks to bridge state-society relations to support the ruling state in a manner analogous to the way a vibrant civil society supports the democratic state.


The party can restrain and mitigate the harmful and disruptive effects of bad state policies, and strengthen and amplify the helpful and constructive effects of good state policies. Across policy areas, the rank and file of the party is key to explaining the lasting effectiveness of the regime.


Daniel Koss shows that variations in the party’s presence across the country have had varying impacts on the lives of ordinary people. The number of party members per population partly reflects party penetration in a location. A typical ‘red’ province is Hebei with 6.25 per cent of the population joining the party, a rate that is 1.69 per cent higher than Guangxi, a typical ‘pink’ province with only 4.56 per cent membership. Koss finds the extent of party membership penetration, whether at the provincial or county level, contributes to variations in the effectiveness in the implementation of state policies.


Koss found that during the Cultural Revolution, those provinces where party penetration was highest experienced fewer casualties and reduced levels of violence, significantly better protected fiscal soundness, and probably somewhat shorter durations of turmoil.


Yet, most interestingly, Koss found that at the county level, the effectiveness of the one-child policy in controlling the number of non-first births was better when the number of government bureaucrats per population was higher, than when the number of party cadres per population was higher. This finding was counter to the widely-held belief that women party members were more effective at persuading women to comply with the one-child policy. Having more women party members increased the number of non-first births, whereas having more women bureaucrats reduced the number. These findings again highlight the different roles played by the government bureaucracy and the party. Party members, especially women party members, decreased the effectiveness of a highly unpopular state policy.


Another finding by Koss was that the amount of rural tax extracted in a village was higher the greater the proportion of party members in that village. Likewise, the total amount of revenues collected by government in the urban industrial areas was higher the greater the number of party members.


The Chinese state is more politically effective in governing localities with a high proportion of party members. A greater presence of party members marks communities that are politically more loyal, either in return for privileges or out of true conviction. During the Japanese invasion and occupation and the Civil War, the number of party members in a village would be used as an indicator to gauge how much logistical support could be expected for military planning. Today, the number continues to hold strategic importance for effective government.


The variations in local outcomes in the Cultural Revolution, one-child policy, and fiscal capacity could thus be traced to historical circumstances. Different provinces had different endowments of party members that had been inherited to a large extent from the war period. Provincial endowments of party members experienced attrition and were replenished with new recruits. Koss found that for the period 1956-2010, the number of party members per population across provinces converged very slowly at an annual rate of 0.1 per cent, so the distribution only gradually flattened. His calculations suggests that it will take until 2042 for half the difference in party penetration between Hebei (a red province) and Guangxi (a pink province) to be narrowed. The party therefore remains strong in places where it had more members before 1949, when it was still a revolutionary party and not a governing party.


Koss’s findings on the strength of the Chinese state differ from Eric Xun Li (李世默), a well-known Chinese political commentator familiar to TED Talk viewers. Li emphasizes that the political strength of the Chinese state is its characteristic as a meritocratic bureaucracy. Koss identifies the state’s political strength partly with its party organization that supports the bureaucracy under good conditions and offsets its excesses in bad times. Li’s view of political strength is administrative strength – strength also present during imperial times. Koss’s analysis of regime strength focuses on party strength rooted in the revolutionary history of the Chinese Communist Party.


Koss’s findings are important in light of  two important interpretations on the rise of the Chinese Communist Party to power that lead to two different renditions of China’s revolutionary history. One is Chalmers Johnson’s 1962 thesis advanced in his Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945.  The second is Tang Tsou’s (鄒讜) unfinished work outlined in his 2000 article entitled, “Interpreting the Revolution in China: Macrohistory and Micromechanisms.”


The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, but until Mao’s leadership was affirmed at the Zunyi Conference in 1935, the party leadership had leaned primarily towards an unsuccessful strategy of urban insurrection influenced by agents sent by Stalin’s Communist International. Mao’s strategy instead was to ‘fight from villages, surround the cities’ (農村包圍城市). Thereafter, the Party grew in strength and finally succeeded in leading a revolution that founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.


Why was Mao’s strategy successful? What is the significance of ‘fight from villages, surround the cities’? Chalmers Johnson argued that the historical origin of party strength could be traced to the wartime Japanese invasion and occupation (1939-45). The war provided the opportunity for the party to recruit substantial numbers of local members in areas occupied by the Japanese military. The party successfully mobilized peasant nationalism against the ravages of Japanese aggression.


For Johnson, the revolution led by Mao was a nationalist revolution to throw off the yoke of Japanese imperialist aggression. Mao was fundamentally a successful peasant rebel leader like those that preceded him in China’s imperial past. And the new communist state he founded was by character a nationalist state to restore China’s historical glory that had been eclipsed by the rise of the Western powers.


Tsou was deeply critical of Johnson’s thesis for failing to understand the true nature of Mao Zedong’s revolution. Tsou maintained peasant rebel leaders before Mao had started their rebellion in the villages by relying on hungry and oppressed peasants, but the victorious rebels, after entering the cities, never returned to the villages and abandoned the peasants that had brought them to power. The rural landlord class was able to return to power and in time oppression and hunger prevailed again to sow the seeds for the next peasant rebellion. History was a repetition of dynastic cycles without any fundamental change in the lot of peasants.


For Tsou, Mao’s mobilization of the peasants, from which party members were recruited, was not merely to build resistance against aggressors, but also undertake a social revolution that would empower peasants. Peasant mobilization and social revolution continued throughout the war of resistance against the Japanese in the occupied areas, and during the civil war period against the Nationalist government.


So when Mao proclaimed that the Chinese people had stood up on 1 October 1949, it was not merely for nationalist reasons, but also because the vast majority of the population that were rural had turned the tables for the first time in two millennia. The rise of the Chinese Community Party was the outcome of a successful social revolution.


The defeated Nationalist government had allied itself with the rural landlord class on the Mainland. In time, the rural landlord class would be eliminated from Chinese history. As a class, it presented a barrier to industrialization and modernization, and not necessarily from a Marxist perspective. The continuing resistance to restoring the private ownership of land in China today has deep roots in communist history.


Party cadres recruited in the Japanese occupation areas during the years of aggression were more connected to the peasants. Koss found that during the Great Leap Forward, famine mortality numbers were significantly lower in the more contested areas under Japanese occupation – the embattled areas. These were areas where the Japanese military and the Chinese Communists were fiercely contesting for power. Party members in these areas were more connected and committed to the peasants and did the most to mitigate the devastating effects created by the Great Leap Forward.


By contrast, areas that were Communist base areas or Japanese stronghold areas, where the contest between the Japanese and Communists was less intensive, actually experienced the greatest famine mortality rates. The commitment and resilience of the local party leadership to their constituents obviously varied with the challenges they had to face to survive and thrive in different locations.


After the founding of the People’s Republic, party members from the ‘White’ areas began to play an important role in promoting industrialization in the state economic sector. These party cadres had pursued a party career in the urban areas where the Nationalist regime was in control. With the reform and opening up after 1978, more members were recruited into the party from the non-state economic sector. Both have created a greater diversity within the party membership. But the revolutionary historical roots of the party before 1949 continue to have an impact. As a governing power, the party has also evolved with China’s long march to modernization.


In China, local society has a different role to play from the homegrown societal organizations described in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which had played a dominant role in shaping local state-society relations in the US. Rather, local society in China has been faced with different manifestations of the Chinese state that reaches out into society. One could think of the party as a mobilizing-cum-coordinating institution that seeks to bridge state-society relations in the absence of a vibrant civil society. It is top-down, but not merely top-down. Mao describes it as cycles of top-down and bottom-up.


In the summer of 1971, I first met Professor Tang Tsou, the Homer J. Livingston Professor in Political Science at the University of Chicago, after completing my first year of undergraduate studies. Four of us, all students from Hong Kong, had decided to study the modern history of our country, especially the Chinese Communist Revolution about which we knew nothing and felt an intense need to learn more. And we sought his advice on how to start.


Professor Tsou counseled that the analyses by Mainland and Taiwan scholars were often too ideological, while those by Western scholars, although methodologically sound, often lacked a sophisticated understanding of China’s history. At the time, I had only a very dim appreciation of the wisdom of his words. Reading Chalmers Johnson, Daniel Koss, and observing developments in China have deepened my admiration for Tsou’s scholarship and erudition.


It is a pity he died too early to complete his work on interpreting the Chinese Revolution. He always thought that the path to modernization for China would take time and would be shaped by China’s history. I think he is correct. Even today, after 40 years of unprecedented rapid economic growth, 40 per cent of the population of China is still rural with a long past.

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