Brown returns to Beijing this month to discuss a project that may constitute the riskiest move of his career: The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China, published this year by I B Taurus. The New Emperors examines the culture of the ruling Communist Party and the personal and professional histories of the seven men elected to the Standing Committee of the current Chinese Politburo in 2012. Brown describes an insular network of wealthy, strategic careerists whose existence is dominated by an all-consuming political culture which absorbs all their ambition but isolates them from the lived reality of the country.
The New Emperors is a fascinating, subtle and timely insight into the most delicate relationships: those between the rulers and the ruled; between politicians’ personal ambition and adherence to the Party; between Communist roots and capitalist shoots; between what is asserted publicly in theory and practiced in secret; between stated ideology and private values; between the mechanics of control and strategies of evasion and subversion; between the major cities and the provinces, local and national; and between the privileged minority and the struggling majority.
Brown reveals a world in which it is possible to rise to the top of a massive communist organisation while remaining firmly within the patriarchal boys’ club and collecting lucrative business stakes, innumerable off-the-books perks, plentiful sexual exploitation opportunities, shady accomplices and a diversity of ideologically, politically, financially, socially, culturally and morally dicey interests along the way. These guys wear their inner and outer hypocrisy as easily as the regulation black hair dye and heavy tailoring which render them deliberately identical in the public eye.
The book hasn’t been translated into Chinese and probably hasn’t been read by the ‘princelings’ and ‘new emperors’ themselves. However, given the targeting of those within China who write critically about politics, I am skeptical when Brown tells me the only risk he has undertaken in his work is ‘an aching hand from typing so much’. When he arrives in Beijing for an event at the Bookworm on Wednesday 15th October, his discussion of The New Emperors will necessarily include issues which the Party deems sociologically sensitive. In advance of that conversation, in which I will be Brown’s interlocutor, he shares his thoughts on China’s past, present and future.
Your first visit to China was as a teacher exactly 20 years ago. How have you seen it change in that time?
The China I lived and worked in 20 years ago was on the cusp of its great economic awakening: here had been reform for over a decade, then the shock of 1989, the withdrawal of many foreigners and the end of the relatively liberal era of politics in the 1980s. The city I was based in for two years, Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, was pretty sleepy and represented the ‘half awake’ atmosphere that prevailed at the time: lots of qualified expectation and hope [which was] still weighted down by the unfortunate events of the last few years. There was one ersatz fast food place in Hohhot, a sort of local rip-off of Kentucky Fried Chicken, then large swathes of the city that were pretty makeshift and ramshackle and looked like they could be blown away in a strong gale.
What do you think underlies the Western stereotype of China as avaricious, inscrutable and alien?
You have engaged with China not only as a writer but also as a diplomat and an academic. What is it that draws and keeps your interest?
I find it to be a world of surprising surprises. It is a place where the things I expect to find startling often feel very familiar - like relating to people, despite the cultural and historic differences. Things which I expect to find familiar are often baffling – [for example] I have never really worked out what many Chinese really think of the outside world.
The New Emperors focuses on the seven men who essentially run China. What is these men's remit?
The seven men in the current Chinese Politburo are best seen, as I interpret them, as in charge of the big vision or strategy for their country. They sit almost like the board of some massive company, signing off the broadest general directives but living in a zone where administrative or specific policy implementation is left to others. They are, in many ways, the guardians of the values and legacy of the Party. We forget that in this context their individual aims and ideas have to be subsumed within this entity to which they owe everything and which they must faithfully serve: the Communist Party. The Party is the strongman in modern China, not Xi Jinping.
What kinds of lives do the members of the Communist Party's upper echelons live?
How did they rise to power?
They rose to power by accruing political capital across different constituencies and networks in the party. Former leaders, particularly figures like Jiang Zemin, [comprised] one of the key groups amongst the [various] constituencies the current leaders had to recruit to get where they are. In the 2012 leadership transition it was clear that in the end, as a kind of circuit breaker, Jiang and other senior retired cadres had a consultative role. This might have been no more than nodding through one candidate or pausing and damning another with faint praise.
How do the current Politburo Standing Committee members benefit from their power and do they share these benefits?
You describe the indifference you witnessed among ordinary people in a Beijing hotel when the latest seven were elected. Why do you think they were so apathetic?
Walking around Beijing I am always surprised by the visible wealth of many of the young people in certain areas. Where does this wealth come from?
How do the communist and capitalist aspects of the country coexist?
How would you categorise China? A capitalist country with a totalitarian core? A bureaucracy with a communist rationale?
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