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CNN International's On China: Pushing Back the Veil on China's Communist Party

Aired October 17, 2012 - 05:30   ET


KRISTIE LU STOUT, HOST: This month ON CHINA, it's a long way from the US presidential election, but every bit as important. The world's largest political party prepares for its own November of change after a year of turmoil saw the fall of a favorite son and the emergence of a chosen leader.

We welcome three unique perspectives to Hong Kong to push back the veil on China's Communist Party. A top publisher and TV host, Hung Huang grew up in politics, her mother an interpreter for Mao Zedong, her stepfather China's foreign minister.

Victor Gao spent a career in China's foreign ministry as an English interpreter for the late leader Deng Xiaoping.

John Pomfret is a journalist and author. In 1980, he became one of the first American students to study at Nanjing University. At the table this month ON CHINA.

Victor Gao, Hung Huang, and John Pomfret, welcome to ON CHINA. Thanks for being here today.




STOUT: Now, the Chinese Communist Party is the world's largest political party. How does one generally become a member?

GAO: Well, the Communist Party has more than 82 million party members, so it's the single largest political party in the world, and the party members actually are more than the total population in Germany.

And the party branches are everywhere, in universities, in factories, in companies, in government entities. So, they have these party branches spreading across the country and penetrating through all the institutions. And normally, the party actively recruits its members.

STOUT: These are the best and brightest of China?

POMFRET: Well, also people with the best connections. It's not simply a meritocracy. If your parents are Communist Party members and have a certain amount of connections to the center, chances are, you're going to be in the party regardless of your school studies.

STOUT: And if you could map out what the Chinese Communist Party looks like, if there was an organization chart in terms of hierarchy, what would it look like. That you have Central Committee in the middle, the Politburo at the top? How would you explain it?

HUNG: I -- I would do it like a corporation. You have -- you have a board, and the board is the Politburo. They name the CEO. And then, you have middle management, which are the ministers and the various commission directors and so on and so forth. So, it's this -- for me, it's really like a corporate town. It's like -- run -- it's China, Inc.

STOUT: And there seems to be factions at the top, or a lot of discussions about factions at the top of the Communist Party. You have the Jiang Zemin faction, the Hu Jintao faction. Is that overstated or is this the reality at the top?

GAO: Well, many people from outside China tend to look at the Communist Party of China as a monolithic group of people. But in reality, it is not. First of all, personalities do matter. Secondly, these so-called political camps actually do exist.

You have these people in higher positions, which belong to different traditions. You have different mentors, you have different associations. So this is what we call intra-party democracy in China.

HUNG: I think it's true there is diversity within the party, but it is not the party's intention to make it transparent to people who are not in the party or to anyone who is not part of the very political elite.

But there is dissension within the party for sure. Four people that I know who wrote a letter to the party claiming that they are party members and they were calling for reform of the party system, they called for the delegates to reveal their assets, how much money they have in order to gain more credibility for the party.

But it was interesting to read this. And I agree with what they are saying. They are trying to introduce a modicum of democratic representation within the power.

However, the whole thing was capped with, first of all, let's us congratulate the Communist Party on its convening of the 18th plenary session, blah blah blah blah blah.

In other words, you've got to drink the kool-aid first. You know what I mean?

STOUT: Right.

HUNG: You've got to drink the kool-aid. And then you get the -- but that may be just this one little thing, may I suggest that we do differently? So, I think this is why partly reform is going to come so slow, because everybody has to show the fact that they drink the kool-aid. STOUT: How much unity is there at the top of the party?

POMFRET: I think it's an open question, partially because so much of this stuff is based on guess work. You see it in China's foreign policy, with the Ministry of Foreign affairs being a little bit more concerned about China's international image in Asia with its policies in the South China Sea or its policies vis-a-vis Japan or the Korean peninsula.

At the same time, you see other elements of the Chinese party structure, both the security services and the PLA pushing a somewhat, one could say, aggressive policy in those areas. And so, these battles play out very publicly, but the party doesn't top about them openly.

STOUT: Are these policy differences being played out along ideological lines? Hardliners versus reformers?

POMFRET: I think that there's an ideological element to it. There's also a populist element to it, what will play to the Chinese public. Because the Chinese public is now a participant in this discussion about what's going to push China forward through the Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, through the internet.

So, their anti-Japanese demonstrations recently, they were clearly tolerated and then someone could say encouraged as a way to let off steam. But then, there are also the clamps put on them once they get a little out of line.

Because the Chinese party structure is worried that an anti-Japanese demonstration could easily turn into an anti-Communist Party demonstration, with one yelling of a slogan that's out of line.

And so, the party understands, now, that the people want to have a -- want to participate, but the party's struggling with how to give them a voice while at the same time maintaining total control. And that's a very difficult thing for them to manage. It's tough to be a Communist Party leader, I would say.

STOUT: Your thoughts about Xi Jinping and then also how he will fare as China's next leader?

HUNG: I think we are at a political and historical juncture where the party has to seriously consider its role in China and how to move forward.


STOUT: More about the makeup of China's top leaders. It seems that most of them have an engineering background. Why is that, and is that changing?

HUNG: I think one of the reasons has to do with modern Chinese culture, is that every since the May 4th movement, the Versailles Treaty, the Chinese blamed our poverty on the fact that we don't have technology. On the other hand, I think it's a tribute to the mentor system that we talked about before, because if you look at them, they all went to the same university, Tsinghua University. So, at one point or another, that is a great pool. It's like the old boys' network in the US. It's basically, through the alumni association, whatever, you picked people to work with.

So, I think it has to do with both, but modern Chinese culture has created this permanent insecurity among Chinese in terms of technological performance vis-a-vis the West. So, I think we treasure the technology -- the technical aspect a lot more than what culturally Chinese have to offer ourselves.

STOUT: But the paradigm is shifting, of engineer as leader.

POMFRET: Slightly. In the next round, one would expect that Li Keqiang, who has a law degree, would be number two or three in the party structure.

I think there's also an understanding that you need software to run this hardware. And so you do have more people with a legal or a humanities background getting into the structure. But it's still a country that is a country of builders.

STOUT: Xi Jinping also has an engineering background, his background in chemical engineering. Your thoughts on how he was able to rise to the top?

GAO: Well, he had a very unique career path. When he was in the civilian positions, Mr. Xi Jinping actually has kept his association with the Chinese military through various ways -- serving in the reserve forces, taking up leadership of the provincial garrison, for example. So that sets him apart from almost all the current civilian leaders in China.

STOUT: But what was the factor behind his rise? Was it his achievements or his relationship to the military? Your thoughts --

POMFRET: Well, a significant party, of course, relied on his excellent working history.

STOUT: The princelings.

POMFRET: Yes. But also it relied on the fact that his father was a close associate of Mao and one of the people who, as the Chinese say, took Heaven. Took the country.

And so, that -- those dual factors, he had -- he could not make huge errors in the work that he did all over the country, but at the same time, he was helped significantly by his father.

His father was a close associate of Deng Xiaoping, his father was also one of the major architects of the push to open up special economic zones around China, which were a laboratory for experiments to help the country modernize. STOUT: So, it was a combination of his technical skills, what he was able to achieve and, of course, his relationships and his very close connection to the top through his father.

HUNG: Pedigree. His pedigree.

STOUT: Your thoughts about Xi Jinping and also how he will fare as China's next leader?

HUNG: In my particular paradigm of understanding the Chinese Communist Party, I think we're at a political and historical juncture, where the party has to seriously consider its role in China and how to move forward.

Because with the advance of technology and internet, I think the people know a lot more about the party than actually it was willing to let people know, and the party know, through internet and Weibo, a lot more about how the people feel about the party than it probably wants to know, also.

And I think him having the pedigree is actually a plus. That gives him a lot more leeway in terms of bringing about changes.

POMFRET: And I think Victor's point about his ties to the military are significant and have been ignored by a lot of people in the Western media. He has sort of a Nixon Goes to China opportunity in China because of his pedigree, because of the fact that the structure is, no doubt, comfortable with him.

But also I think, clearly he has a strong personality, much stronger than the previous leadership. And so, in discussions with US ambassador Sandy Randt, he praised very strongly US Western films, like the John Wayne type, because they showed a clear balance -- a clear distinction between right and wrong.

And so, we have this sense of him as a fellow with some significant chutzpah and willing to express his opinions. But nonetheless, the guy has a -- obviously has a personality.

HUNG: But I think also his background and his personal experience also counts. Because his generation of Chinese, he's seen Chinese politics at its worst during the cultural revolution. I think at some time, his father was in jail for 16 years during various periods.

And I think he's had the ups and downs of politics, and he's known what it's like to be a -- a wanted princeling and to be down and outcast and so on and so forth.

POMFRET: And I think that the last decade or so, the personality of Chinese leaders has sort of dissipated. But it -- but we've forgotten. Mao was an enormous personality. Dong was an enormous personality. Jiang Zemin, actually, was an enormous personality, as well.

And so, I think we're -- and I think that's important. In the last decade, that's been de-emphasized. There's more of that corporate board feeling. But I think because of the demands of the Chinese people and also the personal experiences of the new leadership, that's going to be moving away.

And you saw it in the case of Bo Xilai. He was a big personality, as well. Now, he fell afoul of the system, but no one could argue that the guy didn't have a significant amount of charisma.

STOUT: And it's been called the biggest political scandal to hit China in the last 20 years. How much of a threat is it to the party?

POMFRET: A unity in purpose or on the surface of the Communist Party at the top is over.


STOUT: Can we shift our discussion, now, to talk about Bo Xilai? One of the biggest stories out of China in the last year, and it's been called the biggest political scandal to hit China in the last 20 years. Is it that big? How much of a threat is it to the party?

POMFRET: I think that it indicates that we're entering a new period of uncharted waters where China's face -- going to face an enormous amount of challenges.

Challenges from very charismatic and populist figures like Bo Xilai, challenges from the bottom up, for people demanding more predictability in their lives, a legal system that will protect their property, good schools for their kids, clean or at least trustable food for their children, clean air to breathe.

I think all these things are part of the fact that the Communist Party system is being stressed. And I think the Bo case is another example of this eruption and the end of this period of remarkable political stability. And I think politics will now be very important, and how the new leadership deals with politics is going to be an enormous --

STOUT: But how does the Bo Xilai scandal expose the lack of unity in the party? One could just see it as the transgressions of one politician of crimes committed by his wife. Why would it threaten the legitimacy of the party?

GAO: Well, I would say there are several implications from the Bo Xilai scandal. One is that corruption is rampant in China and the government in China, the Chinese nation as a nation need to deal with that. Because if corruption remains unabated, it may become a major threat.

STOUT: Huang, I know you've been commented on the Bo Xilai scandal to your millions of Weibo followers and your blog readers.

HUNG: I think the Bo Xilai story was scary because to some extent, the Chinese, some of us, have kind of lived with the idea that the cultural revolution is a thing of the past. That no one in China would be crazy enough to go the populist route, to recreate a political movement that turned the country upside-down, so much suffering. So, people will think that you learn from history. That was bad, we know. But the Bo Xilai thing seemed to have hit a very sensitive note in the Chinese memory and psyche, to say that actually, people actually are thinking about taking that route. And that is really scary.

STOUT: So, what grabbed your attention about the scandal? Was Bo Xilai's own brand of politics, his revival of Maoism, as it were?

HUNG: Yes.

STOUT: Last year in July, it was the 90th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party, and there was this huge wave of propaganda that was released: propaganda TV shows, movies, banners across the capital. How did that go down with the people of China? Does that kind of propaganda work?

GAO: I think you are talking about the legacy of the Communist Party of China. I think at least several things will stand out. One is that under Mao Zedong, he really brought the Chinese up to their feet again. Because before 1949, China was down on its knees. Really, nobody in the international community, very weak, very backward, et cetera.

And then, I think, under Deng Xiaoping, he really steered China onto a path of growth and development. He created millions of jobs, improving the living standards in China significantly and transforming China completely.

The life expectancy in China over the past 30 years has increased by almost 10 years. That's, in itself, a significant indicator.

HUNG: This is where I differ, because you talk about life expectancy. Yes, we're living longer. Except social welfare? We have none. There is no social welfare to speak of. Chinese pay some of the highest tax rates in the world, but yet, if you look at our medical care system, our unemployment benefits, it's -- it's really bad.

And nobody can ever collect anything from the state. All you do is hand in taxes. It's very difficult. So -- and you say that we should focus on the good part. I think we all recognize the good part. So, the important thing is to focus on the bad part and make it good.

STOUT: There are a number of people who believe what they read in Xinhua, "Remin Ribao," the "People's Daily," et cetera. But there's also a growing number of people that say online, who believe in the rumors. For example, the Gu Kailai body double rumors, because they have no faith in what the government mouthpieces are telling them.

Is that growing cynicism -- that must be an issue with the party, and how will they address communicating with the people who think that way?

GAO: As I mentioned, how to maintain stability remains a top-level challenge for the country. However, I think there are two different ways of looking at China today. One is to look at it as a still frame picture. The other way to look at it is look at China as if it is a motion picture.

Now, if you look at as a still frame picture, you can always find faults with China, you can always find grievances and you can be unhappy with many things in China.

However, if you look at it as a motion picture, then even though you still find problems, if you look at China over the past 30 years in a dynamic way, you are confident.

POMFRET: I'd like to take issue with something that Victor said about if you look at the broad picture, everything has slowly over time, with spasmodic back-and-forth, gotten better. I think the last decade in China has been an enormous missed opportunity. And one of the reasons for the growing cynicism is because of this lost opportunity.

They had enormous economic development, no doubt. My classmates, their big screen TVs are bigger than my car in Beijing. And so, the material wealth is there, but there's been a stasis on a lot of economic reforms and also on political and cultural reforms that people expected would happen.

Because people would say, OK, I got my money, I got my car, I got my little villa or whatever, but I want predictability, but I also want change.

STOUT: What do Chinese want, Huang, especially young Chinese? Do they want freedom, democracy, political reform? Or apartment, car, economic stability?

HUNG: I think they want both.


HUNG: They want both. They do expect change, like John says, in China. They do expect change for the better, more liberal, better reforms in the political system. But they are not basically saying we have to have certain elements that are modeled after a particular Western government.

STOUT: So there is this expectation for change. What is the state of the Chinese Communist Party? Will it stay in power? Victor?

GAO: Well, I think the Communist Party of China will remain the ruling party for many years, if not for many decades, to come. However, that doesn't mean that there will be no increasing amount of democracy or democratic participation.

I think participation in the government, monitoring of the government, supervision of the Communist Party by other democratic parties and by the population in general will increase.

It may not be the same as in the United States or in Britain or in European countries et cetera.. It will be very much of Chinese characteristic, and that will set China apart from other developed countries for decades to come.

STOUT: Huang?

HUNG: I think the Chinese Communist Party will also continue to be the ruling party. But I think it needs to hear the people, and hear what they're saying, what they need and meet some of their demands in order to do that.

STOUT: OK. And finally, John?

POMFRET: I generally agree, but I also think that from 49 -- 1949 when China had its revolution until today, the Communist Party has actually been the main source of instability in China. So, if the top echelon of the party, we see significant fractures in that top echelon, I think all bets are off.

And I think that if they do not remain united, they're going to sink together. If they are united in terms of pushing China forward and listening to the increasing demands of their people for some type of political opening, they're going to be in charge for decades to come.

STOUT: Well, fascinating discussion all around, and thank you for helping me to demystify the Communist Party of China. John Pomfret, Hung Huang, Victor Gao, thank you.

HUNG: Thank you.

GAO: Thank you.

POMFRET: Thank you.