Book Review: ‘Party Time’ by Rowan Callick

August 27, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

party time

For someone who writes routinely about the Communist Party of China, I wasn’t sure what to think when I received a copy of Party Time: Who Runs China and How by Rowan Callick, the Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian newspaper. Did I really want to read more about something I already have to deal with every day (and thought I had a pretty good grasp of), or was it a good opportunity to learn something new?

On the basis that Party Time is an awesome book title (albeit an obvious rip-off from Wayne’s World – excellent!), I decided to dig into the book with enthusiasm – and I am glad I did. The CPC is the most powerful organization in the world (take that, Vatican) with more than 80 million members, and yet few people have any idea how they operate. Despite significant progress over the last couple of decades, what is publicly known about the party, even by its own members, remains blurry and messy.

In Party Time, Callick tells us how the party runs the most populous country on the planet – by planting their presence in every aspect of daily Chinese life, from economics, education and law to media, arts and the military, and everything in between. Callick, who worked as a China correspondent for both the Australian Financial Review and The Australian, also conducted a series of interviews with locals – both party and non-party members – to provide a deeper insight into what people on both sides of the fence thought about the party and what it does.

The book is about 220 pages (excluding acknowledgments and the index) and split up into 14 chapters, each capable of standing alone as an independent feature piece. The first chapter, for example, tells readers how one can become a part of the Communist Party – something seemingly simple but lost on most foreigners. Chapter two then goes on to explain what goes on in the 2,000 cadre schools spread all over China (including the ridiculous “self-criticisms” that they all have to write), while chapter three explains China’s dual-system of government (with parallel party and state bodies and positions) and how it administers the country. So on and so forth.

What we learn from the book is that, despite the façade of having a “government”, China is unequivocally ruled by the party, and indeed nearly all government officials are also party members. You don’t have to be a party member to make something of yourself in China, but it certainly helps if you are. That is why so many young people are drawn to the party – even if they don’t believe in its philosophies or principles – because being a party member makes life easier and opens doors further down the track. This means for every hot-blooded party member there is probably one that is disillusioned, though as we find out in the book, once you join the party it’s nearly impossible to leave. One amusing anecdote tells the story of how one guy tried to leave but was told that the party would pay his annual membership for him – for life.

The chapters on law, media, art and business were of particular interest to me. In the law chapter, I learned that all lawyers, party members or not, must swear an oath of allegiance to the party’s mantra of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and to the party itself. Judges’ decisions are “guided” by the party line and “recommendations” of party officials, and overruling a lower court is frowned upon because it causes a “loss of face.” In one case, a local judge allegedly tried to punch a lawyer for suggesting that he intends to appeal the verdict. On top of that, sentences are heavily influenced by a person’s status, particularly if they are an important official or related to one. The examples Callick give include a death sentence for a minor theft by a commoner and 18 months for murder by the son of an official.

The way the party controls and censors the media and the art community in China is something I am well aware of, but it was still interesting to see just how ridiculous things can get sometimes. For instance, Callick describes a scandal in which a news photographer with a state media organization took and published a photo of the city mayor with his eyes closed. For making the mayor “look bad”, the photographer was fined and forced to write a self-criticism which he had to read out loud in public. And then he was sacked anyway.

I was also fascinated to read about how renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) choreographed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Zhang was honest but also very diplomatic in his responses, saying that while he had full control over the ceremony he was smart enough to know he had to take certain “suggestions” on board if they came from a high-ranking official, or several.

Doing business in China is a scary thought. In the business chapter, Callick takes us on a tour of the plethora of toy factories in Shantou in the east of Guangdong province, where the pay is surprisingly good for workers but profits continue to shrink for businesses. We are told of the dominance of the party’s All-China Federation of Trade Unions over the country’s 800 million-strong workforce, and reminded that the party is China’s most important business organization, with ultimate approval over every investment. It also has branches in every state-owned enterprise and 85% of private enterprises, with ultimate veto rights over all major decisions.

The last few chapters of the book, on subjects such as Mao’s legacy (they party has decided he was 70% right and 30% wrong), the re-emergence of Confucius (who was, by the way, not confused), and short bios of top leaders, were slightly less interesting for me, but I did love the chapter about what life is like in the party’s upper echelons – ie, no life, but all the benefits you can think of upon retirement, from free housing to chauffeurs to free overseas trips all totaling around US$1 million a year.

The best parts of the book are the anecdotes, such as the only recorded joke on record from ex-president Hu Jintao (who may or may not have been a secret Chinese lab experiment to create the ultimate cyborg leader), who told the governor of New Jersey in 2001 that was he willing to share with the United States the secret of how Chinese leaders keep their hair so black. It was also hilarious and insightful to learn how Chinese netizens went crazy when they saw Barack Obama step out of a plane holding his own umbrella (that’s a slave’s job!), and how Chinese consumers paste sticky tape over their tupperware so as to preserve the Lock-Lock logo (a reflection of the economic and social status they have achieved).

While Callick is critical of the party’s lack of transparency and its rigid, often draconian rule, Party Time is far from a “China bashing” book. Callick is quick to point out the positives afforded by an all-powerful centralized government and an insulated society, which demonstrated, among other things, how China was able to escape the 2008 Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed. He also gives credit to China’s rapid progression and its reforms, and offers due praise to Chinese leaders such as former premier Wen Jiabao and new party leader Xi Jinping.

In all, this is a great book for anyone with an interest in the Communist Party or China in general. Published in mid-2013, the information contained in it is relatively up to date, with regular mentions of disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai (whose trial just concluded the other day) and blind lawyer activist Chen Guangcheng. I had a good time with Party Time. It’s excellent.