Sunday 5 October 2014

China Flash: Writer Kerry Brown on the seven elite men who rule a country with Communist roots and capitalist shoots

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing.

Kerry Brown has been a China hand for two decades now. Formerly head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House in London, he also worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and Beijing and is now Executive Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He has gained expertise and shared his insights not only in diplomatic politics and academia but also in the literary world, speculating on the future of Shanghai in Shanghai 2020 and collecting voices from across China in Carnival China, an essay collection reflecting the country’s recent social, cultural and ideological transformations.

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.

If you visit Hohhot today the whole place has been rebuilt almost from scratch. Materially, on the surface, China is dramatically different today compared to then. But in the habits and thinking of the people, I think the change has been less dramatic than we think. Networks around you [which enable you] to get by in society were important then and they remain so today. The only difference is that in those days the most powerful person in the city seemed to be in charge of the local station ticket office, because it was so hard to get train tickets. These days, it must be the local Louis Vuitton boss who is the person everyone wants to know, or the director of the Inner Mongolian Apple outlet.

Have you also witnessed a transformation in the way the rest of the world views China?

The world outside could largely ignore China in 1994. I remember speaking to an eminent academic in the UK back then, after I got back from China after two years living there. When I suggested we might need to study China's language and society more and prepare for a future in which it was a more significant global player, he laughed aloud and said, “Well, people have been saying that for two hundred years.” It would be impossible to make this sort of dismissive comment so sweepingly now. But I suspect the same old misgivings and misperceptions of China as some kingdom of otherness still prevails, despite the fact that its people, culture and impact are in our daily lives outside of China much more deeply than they have ever been before.

What do you think underlies the Western stereotype of China as avaricious, inscrutable and alien?

Stereotypes of China have always carried this slightly unsettling element of inscrutability and unknowability. Films and plays in the past, like the notorious Fu Manchu figure from the 1930s, distilled this. It’s odd that these ideas can still linger when you think that in the UK, US and Australia, ethnic Chinese have been part of our communities for well over a century and a half.

Perhaps some people feel a deep need to have these distorted but dramatising images buried in the recesses of their imagination to liven their lives up. But it is a very deliberate and perverse act to maintain in a world where China and its people are in fact so visible, accessible and knowable.

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?

I suspect [their lives] are dominated by calculation of who they can trust and who they must be wary of. Theirs is a very insecure and often pretty merciless political culture. And once they enter this realm, they can never leave it - not willingly, anyway. In that sense, it is an extraordinary cage they are in.

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. 

[The seven men] have reached their current position by making many friends and avoiding building up enemies, but also by avoiding binding commitments that marry them to interests that they have to satisfy when they finally reach the summit. In that sense, these current leaders have shown, mostly in provincial careers, the ability to serve but not belong. They carry out the Party's mandate, but they cannot be the servants of anything except it.

How do the current Politburo Standing Committee members benefit from their power and do they share these benefits?

Of course, having a link with someone elevated to the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China is a great asset and plenty of people overtly - or more often than not covertly or subliminally – try to leverage this in their business or other work. One day we can probably work out the dollar value of having a powerful authentic link to members of the political elite. But the general rule now seems to be that those who have such a link preserve its value by letting others allude to it and broadcast news of it while they keep silent.

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?

I suspect people felt disengaged by the 2012 leadership transition in China because it was something decided in ways that were very remote from their daily lives. This was not a universal franchise election where at least there were campaigners trying to engage with people, get their attention and wrestle their vote out of them. It lacked that link.

The current political system tries to do too much with too little. In the future, power will need to be shared out more widely. At the moment it is concentrated in the hands of too few, and they are unable to really continue making the quality of judgments that people in this society are increasingly demanding.

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? 

The Party has created a society where almost anything can now be monetised. Perhaps that is the meaning behind the words of the Plenum last year: the ‘perfection of the market system’. In China, this means today that everything is in the market, from relations between people to education and marriage; there is no area of life that does not involve some sort of financial transaction. The puzzle for many in the manic market of China today is not why there are so many wealthy people, but why poverty still exists. To get rich is now glorious, and normal. I am sure the wealthy elite in cities or elsewhere in China are genuinely puzzled by how it is even possible to be poor in China now.

How do the communist and capitalist aspects of the country coexist?

Communism provides the elite with a common ideological and moral language that they can talk to each other in and concepts which can unite them and which derive from China's recent history [my addition: even if they live in a way which is completely and cravenly counter to the ideology, morality, conceptual framework and nationalistic devotion which they pretend to share]. For everyone else, this is like Latin in the medieval Christian church: something only the priesthood understood but which the rest of society didn't need to understand or know. They just had to take on trust what they thought was being said, and get on with their lives. The parallels between the Catholic church and the Communist Party are quite striking in many ways. Probably a good subject for a future book…

How would you categorise China? A capitalist country with a totalitarian core? A bureaucracy with a communist rationale?

I would categorise China by admitting it resists all categorisation. In some subtle ways it’s a unique system because of its scale, speed and complexity. It is [also] clear that our external categorisation of China carries little weight within the country itself. I was at a discussion on ‘fragmented authoritarianism’ with some Party officials and foreign scholars some months back. When the phrase was finally translated into Chinese, the Chinese officials looked genuinely perplexed. We have still failed to find a term for China or a framework in which those inside and outside the political culture here both agree on what it actually is.

What are the principal misconceptions the West has of China?

I think the West, or principal figures in the West, fail to see that while the Communist Party may well not be particularly loved by many Chinese people, when it appeals to the desire for China to be a rich, strong country it speaks a language that most people in this complex and often highly uneven society find appealing and unifying. We underestimate the desire for many Chinese people to have a strong status for their country - that is as much an emotional as a political desire. Underneath the surface, unity is lacking in China - it is a society where change has been too fast, where mobility has been huge, where people live in a place where they were not originally from and where cohesion is very fragile. This is a society where there are simmering frustrations and the need to create a sense of unity that doesn't just end up being a shrill nationalism is very important. That probably involves the state disappearing even more from people's lives as they seek new and more creative ways to become modern, global citizens.

Do you think that foreign countries criticise China for things that they themselves are guilty of? I’m thinking of nepotism, political corruption, extreme capitalism, too-fast development, commercialism, excessive police/army/state power, opposition to grassroots movements, surveillance culture…

There are a lot of double standards and hypocrisy with some of the international criticisms of China, just as there is a lot of defensiveness or wariness in the response to these criticisms by Chinese officials and elites. As the world's top emerging economy, however, they will just have to put up with attacks like these. It comes with the territory.
To read my China Flash series of articles about contemporary China, please click here or explore some of the links below: