Grand Old Parties: The Chinese Communist Party and the Congress (I)

The Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding in July this year. From being unambiguously communist in ideology and a party of the masses, the CPC today is an elitist organization that has under its canopy competing factions with differing economic philosophies united only by a common desire to preserve the Party in power.

To take a China-India comparison, one might ask – is the CPC evolving into the equivalent of India’s Congress (I)? Before Independence, the Indian National Congress was a collection of leaders and groups with widely disparate ideologies united by a common desire to see British rule ended. It did not take long after the achievement of that goal for the Congress to see its members start splitting away to form political parties that covered the spectrum from the leftist to the rightwing. Even today, the successor Congress (I) retains a fair degree of this ideological cosmopolitanism.

A follow-up question would be if the CPC will like the Congress of old, split to create a genuine multi-party system in China. At the moment, there are at least two major factions in the CPC. One, led by President and Party General Secretary, Hu Jintao is the more left-leaning wing comprising mostly members who have come up the ranks as Hu did through the Communist Youth League (CYL). This group has opposed the all-consuming obsession with economic growth in China in favour of more balanced growth that can reduce both growing income inequalities and regional disparities in development.

The other faction comprises the so-called ‘princelings’ or the children of the Party elders who have in the past suffered the perils (such as the Cultural Revolution) and are now used to the privileges that come with being high born. Xi Jinping, the current Vice-President and designated successor to Hu as General Secretary is the presumptive leader of this faction which appears determined to dump the old left-wing ideologies and believes in economic growth at any cost.

Neither faction however, appears to have much tolerance for democratic expression and dissent. For Indians, the similarities in factional structures, ideologies and political inclinations with the Congress (I) and other Indian political formations must be obvious.

The comparison of the CPC and the Congress (I) also helps highlight the decline of the Indian political party. Over time, the Congress (I) has ceased to be a cadre-based party and is today, top heavy with ‘leaders’, often unelected, and almost untouchable, because of their connections with the Nehru-Gandhi clan. A host of other major and minor regional parties in India, including some cadre-based ones, are similarly structured.

In the CPC by contrast, no one can quite take his or her place for granted given that the Party now holds regular intra-Party elections. True, candidates for election are handpicked by the top leadership based on guanxi or ‘connections’ but their capabilities also matter and they still have to win the requisite number of votes inside the Party to make it up the leadership rungs. The General Secretary meanwhile, is only primus inter pares in the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo that effectively rules China by consensus.

The CPC has attempted several reforms over the years in its quest to remain in power. It has sought to learn from experiences of long-reigning political parties in various countries and particularly from Singapore. Thus, in addition to guanxi, it has adopted several criteria for its top leadership echelons such as educational qualifications, age restrictions, and adequate governing experience at the local and provincial levels.

These changes have made for largely efficient and capable Chinese leaders at the highest levels, however corrupt they may be. But they have also meant that the CPC is a fair distance today, from its peasant roots and Maoist-era egalitarianism. It is in fact, currently an elite club dispensing favours and privileges to and through its members and has difficulty carrying off the “Communist” part of its name or celebrating its 90 years with any semblance of legitimacy.

Indian political parties perhaps face different crises of legitimacy but the fact remains that most are non-democratic organizations functioning in a democracy. If a communist party in an authoritarian state realizes the need to innovate and hold intra-party elections, to choose the best leaders to put before the people, how much more must Indian political parties?

Read the original here: Jabin T. Jacob, “China looks into the mirror to find India’s Congress,” DNA (Mumbai), 13 August 2011.

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