'China thinks India is a democratic mess' A secret world All our lives are touched by China these days. With Chinese toys finding their way into the hands of tiny tots even in India's remotest villages, the Dragon is practically everywhere in India. And yet it is shocking how little we know about our most formidable neighbour. More so at a time when China is at its liveliest in decades. The economic surge that has made it the world's second biggest economy has not only triggered a surge in freedom, debates and nationalism, but also in corruption and other ills that afflict societies right across the world. Most of us, though, continue to remain in the dark about these developments or cling on to old assumptions. The lack of knowledge stems right at the very top. The protean Communist Party, the moving force behind every move China makes, has managed to confound most experts and escape their rigid definitions. Not anymore. The workings of this secretive organisation has now been put firmly in the spotlight by Richard McGregor, former Financial Times China bureau chief and the author of the illuminating The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers. The unique book, which explains 'the party's functions, structures and how political power is exercised through them' in a deeply engaging way with the aid of a rich cast of characters, has of course been banned in mainland China. In an interview to R Rajesh Kumar, the author talks of the difficulties he had in chronicling the "least understood and most important political phenomenon in the world today". He also shares his views on the challenges the Party faces and on the China-India equation. Knitting it together You begin by terming your book the story of a curious journalist trying to open a secretive system's many locked doors, and looking inside. How difficult was it picking those locks? To be honest, I don't think I did pick the locks, at least not the really big ones. It is not easy to find genuine insiders to talk openly and at length about how the party worked. But once you focus on particular topics and in particular on structures, and are alert to any manner of information about them - such as on the Organisation Department and the anti-corruption bureau - you can accumulate quite a deal. It is not unlike knitting a sweater - you get one strand of wool here; another there; soon you have enough for a sleeve and eventually for the whole sweater. But it takes time and the painstaking accumulation of detail. The official Chinese media carries quite detailed accounts of scandals and the like once they have been resolved. That can be useful for piecing things together. The party-controlled papers have lots in them about internal debates. It is also a good idea to head out of Beijing to the provinces, where people can be a little more relaxed about talking about how the system works. Finally, there is lots of good material to be found in Hong Kong and Taiwan, both very open places compared to China. I tried to write about what I was sure of and not to speculate too much about what I couldn't get to, such as the personal relationships between members of the Politburo and the deals they do on policy and appointments. Focus on the structures, and the rest will follow. Enforcing loyalty The Party has been swelling its ranks - its membership grew to almost 78 million in June 2009. You write of how it has even offered money to lure new members. Does this not reek of a safety-in-numbers approach that has gone too far? It is really about the need to ensure total coverage of all government posts, which in a way is about safety in numbers. Has it gone too far? In a sense it has, because the public payroll has become bloated so it is impossible to raise official salaries as the flow-on cost to the budget would be too high. And low official salaries encourage corruption. Party officials, like you mention, have to undergo training at the nationwide network of 2800 training schools before gaining promotions. How important a role do these trainers play? Some of the training, especially at the three centrally-controlled party schools, has the ability to broaden an official's outlook. The curriculum can be very wide, ranging from geo-politics to trade negotiations to how Congress (in the US) works. Courses also give Beijing a chance to educate officials on issues such as the environment and health care reforms. At a broader level, however, it is mainly about enforcing loyalty to the party line on sensitive issues. Corruption... and the Army On the one hand, the Party is recruiting as many members as they feel the need to. On the other hand, they are making a great effort to stay in the shadows. Doesn't this betray a certain degree of fear and confusion? Remember, most senior party officials have roles in government. The government operates ostensibly in the open. It is the party and party departments - which are separate from the formal government - that reside in the shadows. A relatively small percentage of the party's 78 million members (I couldn't give you an exact figure) work solely in the party bureaucracy. These people are determined to maintain a low profile, whereas the government is becoming slightly more transparent. China is now a very corrupt nation. I am reminded of what Professor Yan Xuetong told you in his denunciation of present-day China - 'As long as society is fully engulfed by money worship, you will have a lot of social crimes, but no political violence.' Is this the very reason why the Party condones corruption? I am not sure I would say they condone corruption. I think corruption is inevitable in any society growing as quickly as China and with government decision-making dominated by a largely unreviewable administrative system. In my book, I tried to illustrate a more systemic reason for entrenched corruption - the refusal of the party to allow an independent body to investigate senior officials. Moving on to the Army, you mention how the PLA's (People's Liberation Army) formal budget has been increased at double-digit rates every year since the early nineties. In your afterword, you also talk of the resurgent nationalism in China. Does this mean that neighbours like India have to be prepared for a more bellicose China? Neighbours have to be prepared to deal with a more assertive, nationalistic China. That will be difficult for everyone. I might add that China will have to deal with a more assertive and nationalistic India! That will be a challenge for them as well. But China also has a deeply practical bent as well. Their leaders' main focus is on their legion of internal problems. I see little sense of this in the headline debates that come out in India about China. Competition and change You mention how competition between localities has been a prime driver of growth in China. But hasn't this also created further fissures within the Party? It creates some fissures, of course, but the economic benefits outweigh the problems, so far. And while the Party allows some freelancing on the economy, it allows none on core political issues. It doesn't matter who you are - you cannot break ranks in public on issues like Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang without the system coming down on you like a ton of bricks. How much of a change has the arrival of technology - particularly, mobile phones and the internet - brought about in China? I ask this because Lee Kuan Yew, the Singapore Minister Mentor, mentioned it as one of the significant changes the Party will have to grapple with. The thousands of people who confidently predicted that the internet, and other technologies, would bring down the Party have all been proved wrong. It turns out that the internet is just as powerful a tool in the hands of the state as it is for an individual. Sure, the Party has to grapple with it, but on the evidence so far, it has done so successfully. China and India In the book you highlight how the Indian growth model - less investment and higher relative growth - has been more robust than the Chinese model, which you say has 'run out of puff'. This seems to be in sharp contrast to what somebody like George Soros had to say recently when he called China the great winner of the recession and the motor of the world economy... I don't think there is any contradiction between what I say and what Soros has said. The Chinese have an unparalleled ability to mobilise resources in the system. At a time like the financial crisis, this holds them in good stead. But you can't keep doing this forever. About 90 per cent of growth in China in 2009 in the wake of the pump-priming that followed the financial crisis came from investment. This is not sustainable. India's model has not proved to be more robust so far, but it has a greater chance of being more sustainable into the future. Talking of India, how does China view us? All the cliches are true. China thinks India is a democratic mess, without really seeking to understand why it is a democracy in the first place. But I think the view has been changing in recent years. Sad to say, but India's nuclear bomb gained New Delhi respect in Beijing. Certainly, Chinese strategists complained bitterly to me that Beijing did not respect New Delhi until India had the bomb. They believed that China should have tried to engage India much earlier than that. India's technological advances and companies have helped change the country's image in China. I think the PLA has some respect for the Indian military, especially the navy. But this is an area in which China is gaining fast on what once would have been regarded as a more sophisticated Indian naval force. I think relations with China will always be difficult. The two countries' political systems are starkly different. There is Tibet, of course, a super-sensitive issue in China. And the territorial dispute gives hardliners on both sides a platform from which to attack each other. It is very hard for the middle-ground to innovate in such a climate because they are always putting out fires. Gaining an understanding The Party is decaying while it is evolving, you quote the author Yang Jisheng as saying. He is not sure which side will end up on top. You, though, show greater faith in the Party's ability to evolve. Wouldn't this evolution mean downsizing the government and the party? Letting go further, as even establishment figures like Professor Zhou Tianyong have argued... Good question. What does evolution look like? I think the Party's control over the 'three Ps' - the PLA, Personnel and Propaganda - will remain inviolate. Around that core, there is much you can do, some of which is real and some of which is cosmetic. There is already lots being done on an experimental basis in lots of localities around China now. China has experiments in so-called 'deliberative democracy' in many places, where officials are called in to hear detailed feedback from select citizens on the local government's performance. Some elections within local assemblies for the Mayor's positions are being held. The local media is increasingly open in some places for complaints about the government. Needless to say, the increased scrutiny does not generally apply to the Party. Evolution has its limits in China. That is not a problem yet but could be in a decade or so when the economy matures and slows. The importance of learning about the Party at a time when China is playing such a pivotal role in the world cannot be emphasised enough. But I guess it's only fitting that you seal the deal by telling us why you feel everyone ought to read your book. Since you ask, I would (immodestly) say that my book is the only genuinely accessible up-to-date tome available on what is really the least understood and most important political phenomenon in the world today. It's very simple - if you don't understand the Party, then you will not understand China.