How to Understand the CCP

    by Liu Di

Within China's unofficial opposition party, some call for peaceful evolution, some put their hope in violent revolution, and some look for internal reform within the Communist Party. But others say that since the CCP is an abomination, there is no possibility of internal reform, and as an abomination with unchecked powers, it can't tolerate any external forces that would promote either peaceful evolution or violent revolution. They conclude there is nothing the Chinese people can do but wait for death. This last group regards the Party as a malevolent supernatural power which spurns the constraints of objective law, resists the influence of anything outside itself, and is all-knowing and all-powerful. Under its tyranny, people are helpless no matter what they do. Now, among those who take this view can be found some who look for deliverance from a another supernatural power and believe they can communicate with it somehow and thereby save the world.

But we, for sure, are not resigned to waiting for death, nor do we place our hope for freedom in any supernatural power. In the first place, the CCP is not supernatural. Like everything else, the CCP is constrained by the rules and circumstances of the objective world: it cannot do whatever it wants. If it had been able to do whatever it wanted, it would long ago have brought about the realization of Communism. In the second place, the CCP is not a unified whole ruled by a single directing spirit, with every action calculated to advance the interests of the whole. No: like other organizations, it is composed of typical human beings who rationally pursue their own aims. We can understand the behavior of the CCP as arising from the competitive interaction of a multitude of individuals. If we want a diabolical image, rather than Satan upon his throne we should visualize a Pandemonium.

Invoking Adam Smith, some say that since Party members are rational, each individual's effort to advance himself must lead to an optimum outcome for the whole, that is, individual competitive striving will achieve the maximum benefit for the Party. But this is a misreading of Adam Smith. If he credited individual profit-maximization with ensuring an optimum outcome for the collective, it was only in a certain environment, a certain kind of system; it will not happen in all circumstances. In a different institutional environment, the individual's pursuit of his own interests may be harmful to the collective. According to Mancur Olson's theory of collective action, the larger the collective, the less likely it is for decisions to be made in the best interests of the collective. For that fortunate outcome to occur, you need an incentive mechanism that aligns the individual's interests with those of the collective. To craft such a mechanism requires considerable entrepreneurial talent.

In short, we have no reason to assume that Party members will act in the best interests of the Party, nor have we any reason to believe that the Party's every action is carefully thought-out for its optimum benefit—that would be overestimating the Party's capabilities. For example, according to that line of thinking, if the Party did not stop Adam Michnik from visiting China, it must have been because analysis suggested that Michnik's visit would, on balance, serve the Party's interests. But maybe what really happened is that the particular official involved didn't think Michnik was important, or he felt there was no upside to taking responsibility for barring him. As dissidents, we often come into contact with foreigners—including diplomats, journalists, and officials from human rights organizations—who hold critical views of the Chinese Communist authorities, yet most of the time we are not prevented from meeting with these people. Maybe the authorities aren't able to find out about all these contacts and prevent them. Or maybe they judge that hindering these meetings will create another kind of headache and most of the time there's no need to interfere. If someone says that all these encounters are “allowed” to happen because the Communist authorities have determined that they are in the Party's best interests, I believe that person misunderstands the reality of China today.

August 2010

Translator’s Notes

did not stop Adam Michnik from visiting China. Michnik is a historian and (for many years, underground) journalist who in the 1980s was one of the guiding lights of the independent Polish trade union Solidarity. As a member of an EU delegation, he visited China in July 2010 and took the opportunity to meet with a number of Chinese intellectuals.

translated by A. E. Clark