“The Party”, by Richard McGregor

Since its launch last month, traditional media, blogs and other websites about China have not stopped talking about this book. His author is Richard McGregor, an Australian who has been working as a journalist in this country for ten years. Under the title of “The Party. The Secret World of China´s Communist Rulers”, in its nearly 300 pages McGregor analizes the evolution of the largest and most powerful party in the world, explaining its relationship with business, the army, the different regions of China and the media.

The author presents a Communist Party (CPC) which moves in the shadows but still operates with a Leninist structure and keeps control over all major sectors of the country. The book offers many examples, one of them about Chinese lawyers: “About one-third, or 45,000 of the 150,000 registered lawyers in China as of May 2009, were party members. Nearly all law firms, about 95 per cent, had party committees, which assessed lawyers´ pay not just according to their legal work, but to their party loyalty as well”. The CPC has lowered his profile, it seems almost invisible, but when you try to find out who makes the big decisions, it´s always there. “The Party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can´t see him”, says a University Professor in Beijing.

McGregor uses here the example of the red phones, the secret and highly exclusive way of communication that are in the offices of about 300 people at the top of the Party (including CEO of big companies, institutions and media). This is the core of the Government and the Party, the decision makers of the world’s most populous country, all united by these red machines that can bring benefits or nightmares.

The strength of McGregor’s book is undoubtedly the economy. McGregor describes how the most important positions in all major Chinese companies (CNOOC, Chinalco, PetroChina, Sinopec, Lenovo, Huawei …) are appointed directly by the communist leaders. The big banks are also controlled by the government, which does not hesitate to replace their directors if there is any conflict with the state guidelines. “Top executives [at the big state banks] are also government officials with vice minister-level positions. So in addition to caring for their banks, they are responsible for supporting the central government´s economic stimulus policy”, Caijing magazine wrote.

Along with its Leninist character and an invisible aura, McGregor addes corruption and favoritism to the mix. The major political leaders have managed to place their wives, children and relatives in front of the largest companies, making the Party a kind of a big mafia family that controls the country (Li Peng and their children in the energy sector, Zhu Rongji in the financial sector, Jiang Zemin in the technological sector, Wen Jiabao and his wife in the diamond world …)


The book has been praised and well received by critics and audiences, who have placed it almost at the height of “the definitive book about how the Party runs the country”. Maybe my expectations were too high, but the truth is that the book does not achieve such an ambitious goal. Richard McGregor certainly makes an interesting account of general aspects of the party organization and its power, but you always have the feeling that he could have dug further, that the real protagonists, the decision makers, are still in the shadow. The author himself plays a lot with the idea of the Party as an invisible force, which ultimately can leave the reader the impression that “yes, is very difficult to know how the party works, and you weren´t able to find out neither after all”.

I don´t know if the title (The Party, The Secret World of China´s Communist Rulers) was chosen by McGregor or by the publishing house, but the truth is that it seems much more a marketing technique than a description of its content. Actually, there are no big leaders talking in the book, it doesn´t explain how the laws are passed in the country, it doesn´t speak about the Communist Youth (an important Party organization that seems to be growing in influence) and there is a lack of many other key issues (it would have been interesting to talk about the politicians in the government that are not party members, like Chen Zhu).

The book, however, is a very interesting description of the relationship between the Party and business. Here you can see some of the most important CEO of the country, the books examines who pulls the strings within each company and the symbiosis that´s going on between the Party and entrepreneurs. The description of the corruption case of Chen Liangyu, the former party secretary of Shanghai, is a fascinating glimpse of the abuses of power in contemporary China and the internal disputes within the government. Special mention also for the case of milk contaminated with melamine after the Beijing Olympics, explained from the point of view of the company, the media and the government in a way that makes you see how the system failures can be lethal for its citizens.

As a former Financial Times reporter, McGregor has used all his contacts he has developed over last  years in China, and the result is an interesting book where the economy is the protagonist. Two of the eight chapters are clearly about this (“China Inc.: The Party and Business” and “Deng Perfects Socialism: the Party and Capitalism”), but others chapters like the one about corruption, the personnel selection or “the Party and the Regions” tend to end up inevitably into the economic field. In this sense, the book can be fascinating for those (and there are many) who see China as an economic opportunity, are doing business in the country or are interested in the business world.

On the other hand, the book have several problems (constant repetition of ideas, too many comparisons with the U.S., sources unexplained) that made me think that this book, for whatever reason, has been overrated. It is still an interesting work, with some good fragments and a fascinating insight into the relationship between the Party and the economy, but it is not an in depth explanation about who the rulers of the country are or how the Party rules China.

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Acerca de Daniel Méndez

Daniel Méndez es el creador y director de ZaiChina. Licenciado en Periodismo y Estudios de Asia Oriental, colabora desde Pekín con varios medios de comunicación (entre ellos El Confidencial, Radio Francia Internacional, El Tiempo y EsGlobal) y es el autor del libro "Universitario en China. Así son los futuros líderes del país". Es profesor asociado de la Universidad Pompeu Fabra de Barcelona, donde ha impartido el curso "Información, medios de comunicación e Internet en la China actual". [Más artículos de Daniel Méndez]

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