As China celebrates 100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party, let's be honest here. China has not become the nation it is now because of the leadership Communist Party. It has become the nation that it is now in spite of the leadership of the Communist Party.
China is starting a month of fevered celebration in honor of the founding of the Communist Party. The public holiday falls on July 1 each year, although Mao Zedong and 12 other founding members met for their first congress on July 23, 1921, in Shanghai.
I'm not sure what the Communist Party currently stands for, but it certainly isn't Communism. It's a dictatorship blended with a kleptocracy, supported by billions of yuan generated through rent-seeking behavior: asking for profits without providing much, or anything, in return.
The current Communist Party system thrives on bribery and nepotism. If you want to get something, anything done in mainland China, there will be an official, in fact a whole network of officials, with their palms out, looking for them to be greased. It is the problem when you have an unelected leadership sitting atop an all-encompassing, Kafka-esque bureaucracy. The system gives incredible power to paper pushers, generated by the permits and permissions they provide.
You see these little bullyboys (and they're nearly all middle-aged men) at the gambling tables in Macau, or at least you did when the croupiers were dealing out the cards like normal. Men with little taste, little in the way of obvious smarts or charm, but whole stacks of ill-gotten chips. Fake Gucci carry purse in hand, they puff out their chest and tighten cheap belts and show off their expensive watch. They know they rule the place.
How far advanced from where China is now would it already be if it had not been held back by the disastrous famines of the Great Leap Forward, from 1958-60? Some 20 million Chinese had died of starvation by 1962. A series of misguided policies that encouraged small-scale industry over mechanization brought crushing poverty on those who survived.
How great would its cultural and academic fabric be if it had not been shredded by the Cultural Revolution, the social purge that began in 1966 and lasted for a dread-full decade? Student-age Red Guards were left to maraud across the nation, persecuting anyone they identified as having "bourgeois" leanings. Again, tens of millions were either killed in a series of massacres, or humiliated and often driven into rural exile to atone for their "sins."
How free would China now be if instead of massacring students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the top leadership had made the country's governance more inclusive, and the state less oppressive? How entrepreneurial and vibrant would a China be that doesn't favor state-owned enterprise, and insist on bashing into line and effective government control any successful private company that makes it against the odds?
As it is, China is a moderately successful emerging nation. Its sheer size and world-leading population guarantee vast scope, cumulatively. Per capita, though, China (at US$11,819 per person) is well behind its East Asian neighbors: Taiwan (US$32,123), South Korea (US$34,866) and Japan (US$42,928), all based on IMF estimates.
All those nations, three times as wealthy now per person, had to contend with fraught economic conditions post-World War II. The Chinese Communist Party has been in power since 1949, but Taiwan and Korea both experienced decades of dictatorship, too. Japan has virtually had a one-party state, with little to challenge the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which bar a couple of exceptions has been in power since 1955. They have also thrived despite their economic system, and recently emerged into democracy.
The Chinese Communist Party likes to point to China's emerging wealth and booming economy as a sign of success, that the party's policies have been wise and inexorably heading, correctly and appropriately, this way all along. But how much further advanced could China be if it had not had to suffer under a police state that discourages innovation, and places a target on the back of anyone who gets too successful without express party permission? That encourages East German-style reporting on your neighbor, meaning everyone has to look not ahead but over their shoulder?
China's per-capita revenue is on par with Russia (US$11,654). Perhaps that is not a coincidence. Although Russia shook off Communism and the USSR, it is still contending with the long shadow of its Leninist, Stalinist years. Quite in common with modern day China, it has a ruling class of oligarchs who are in their positions due to political connections, and their ability to land state assets at bargain basement prices. On top of that sits a dictator, Vladimir Putin, who tolerates no dissent and eliminates every rival.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has been ruthless in uniting the Communist Party under his sole rule, which is now uncontested. But are we really to believe that out of 1.4 billion Chinese, there is only one person who is qualified to lead the country for the better part of a decade? Having come to power as head (general secretary) of the Communist party in late 2012, and now having abolished term limits, Xi stands to rule as "emperor for life," perhaps another decade given his current age, 68.
Are we really to believe that out of 142 million Russians, there is only one person who is qualified to lead the country for the better part of a decade? Putin is the exact same age as Xi, and has been president since 2012, although his tenure as prime minister dates back to the end of 1999. He rigs elections and rejigs the system anytime he feels the need to reinforce his position.
There are plenty of similarities between these leaders, and the post-Communist worlds that they oversee. There is also plenty of similarity in that neither leader appears to be going anywhere. In fact, both men have consolidated power throughout the financial crisis of 2008, its aftermath, and now the muddled pandemic response in the West.
The Chinese Communist Party has survived 100 years, and fared better than virtually any other authoritarian administration. There's a highly insightful piece here by the former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal that suggests it isn't going anywhere, perhaps for another 100 years.
That may be true. It's also, if the political stasis remains, a shame. We can only imagine how great a free China would be now, as developed as Taiwan, Korea and Japan, and as open a society as those East Asian democracies, rather than kept in check by the party that rules it, first and foremost, with the sole goal of staying in lucrative, intoxicating power.