ONE of the old rules of Chinese politics is that, when facing the world, the Communist Party is best kept out of sight. State-owned companies and universities have party cells but rarely mention them when talking to outsiders. Officials who spend time brushing up on ideology at party school are more likely to tell foreign interlocutors that they have been in executive training. Those with important roles in both the party and the government generally include only the latter on their business cards.
Under President Xi Jinping, plenty of old norms of Chinese politics have gone by the wayside, including the term limits on Mr Xi’s own post. That the party’s powers should be diligently obscured is among those rules that have been upended. The party is now far bolder about exposing itself. The recently concluded China Development Forum (CDF), an annual meeting in Beijing that brings together business leaders and academics from around the world, was a striking marker of this change.
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China uses the CDF, which it has hosted for nearly two decades, as an occasion to present its story, buffed to a fine sheen, for an influential foreign audience. Guests this year included Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, as co-chair of the forum; Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s biggest money-manager; and Pascal Lamy, a former head of the World Trade Organisation; along with another hundred or so prominent guests. In past editions of the CDF, China accentuated its professionalism. Ministers laid out their agendas and explained to visitors that reforms, mostly aimed at relaxing the government’s grip on the economy, were proceeding apace. The forum was itself a creation of the civil service, organised by the Development Research Centre, a respected think-tank under the State Council, or cabinet.
But at the latest CDF, which ended on March 26th, the party was visible as never before. Chinese ministers and academics still outlined their reform plans, impressing many of the attendees with their vision, their attention to detail and their cool-headed responses to Donald Trump’s threats of a trade war. Overlaying that, though, was their homage to the party. One simple measure was the number of times it was name-checked. Yi Gang, China’s new central banker, known as a technocrat, mentioned the party five times in his speech. By contrast, his predecessor, Zhou Xiaochuan, had avoided mentioning it entirely in his final two appearances at the CDF, in 2015 and 2016. The vice-minister of foreign affairs, Zheng Zeguang, cited the party four times in his address. Representatives of the foreign ministry had mentioned it only once in both 2016 and 2017, and not at all in 2015.
Even more notable was the way in which the party was discussed. When the party comes up in speeches, it is normally in the form of lengthy preambles. “Under the strong leadership of Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Communist Party, we have done X, Y and Z” is the kind of line that rolls off the tongue of any well-trained official in Beijing. But Mr Zheng of the foreign ministry went well beyond that. “The Chinese Communist Party is a party that pursues happiness for the Chinese people. It is also a party that strives to advance the cause of humankind,” he said. If the party was once shy and retiring, it was now out and proud.
The sense of pride, verging in some instances on cockiness, extended to China’s model of development. An audience member asked Liu Kun, the finance minister, to respond to foreign criticism that China’s process of market reforms had, in recent years, gone backwards. Mr Liu scoffed, pointing to China’s remarkable growth over the past four decades. “There is no one who understands market economics as deeply as do Chinese people and Chinese cadres,” he said. Some in the crowd gasped. It is nothing new for Americans or Europeans to get an earful over their governments’ refusal to recognise China as a market economy. But it takes an extra level of brazenness to claim that China in fact gets Adam Smith better than the West does.
The most remarkable part of the forum was a panel discussion devoted entirely to the party. One person involved in the planning said it was the first time in 19 years of CDFs that such a panel had been convened. Titled “Communist Party of China and China’s Modernisation”, it brought together ideologues and academics. For many of the foreign executives and scholars in attendance, the discussion that followed was unlike any they had encountered before.
Chen Jin, vice-chairman of the Party Literature Research Office, began by explaining that the recent revision of the constitution—the one that eliminated presidential term limits—was a vital step towards modernising the governance system of China. Luo Zongyi, provost of the China Central Party School, tackled the puzzling question of what exactly “socialism with Chinese characteristics” means. The essential characteristic, he revealed, was leadership by the Chinese Communist Party. The great ship of the state needs a helmsman who can stand tall and see far, he said. And, lest there were any doubt, he exclaimed that Mr Xi is that helmsman. Zheng Yongnian, a professor at the National University of Singapore, addressed another seemingly thorny problem: the relationship between the party and the government. It was in fact quite simple, he argued. Mr Xi’s reforms had done away with the distinction by making clear that the party was an essential element of the government.
If politics were not their bag, foreign executives attending the panel were also offered some business lessons. Zhou Haijiang, both the CEO and party secretary of Hodo Group, a garment company, explained that modern corporate management, as practised in the West, was fine and dandy for running a company, but that it failed to take account of the interests of the state and society. For that, the solution was modern corporate management with Chinese characteristics. Finally, in wrapping up the discussion, Ye Zhenzhen, president of People’s Daily Online, an arm of the party’s main newspaper, illuminated the deeper forces at work. The Communist Party and one-party rule were, he said, the inevitable product of China’s nearly two-century pursuit of modernisation.
Foreigners in the audience cast bemused and occasionally bewildered glances at each other as the discussion proceeded. Afterwards, one noted wryly that the whole event felt like “Davos in reverse”. Perhaps it should not have been so surprising to see the party placed front and centre. As Mr Xi said last year at an important meeting, “government, the army, society and schools—north, south, east and west—the party leads them all.” One might even give the party credit for its honesty in presenting itself to the good and the great from around the world, much as it portrays itself to a domestic audience.
It was jarring all the same. The message to foreign dignitaries and executives passing through Beijing used to be that China was a deeply pragmatic, bureaucratic state, and that the party, a relic from its past, was quietly humming along in the background. Those at the forum this year ought to have come away with a very different conclusion. The party is still firmly in charge, and ideology still matters.