This week, China is treating the world to elaborate political theater mired in secrecy: the 20th Communist Party Congress.
It's a gathering of more than 2,000 top party officials to choose the next iteration of leaders, including the next head of the Communist party. Despite occasional pretentions at democratic consensus, this party congress' objective is being carefully managed to signal the opposite: that the party's leader now, Xi Jinping, has absolute control over all levers of power as he continues into his third term in office.
Watching from afar, it is easy to feel that the party — under the helm of one man — is very much in the driver's seat. Dissent within China is at a minimum, in large thanks to formidable set of digital surveillance and informational controls. Much of the population's every movement remains controlled through zero-Covid measures. An ongoing purge of civil society has obliterated a once-nascent network of media outlets, NGOs, law firms. Despite some internal party tensions, Xi still looks set to appoint his loyalists into power and thus stay locked on a political agenda of national rejuvenation Xi claims has guided the party for the last century.
Two new books challenge this sense of inevitable permanence of the Chinese party state. China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower, written by Dutch historian Frank Dikötter, charts how the party's control over info and financial and political institutions has endured even in the face of economic waste, ideological vacillation, environmental pollution, and appetite for brutal oppression.
Put another way, the party's greatest success is that it managed to stay in power not because it is all-powerful and all-knowing. Rather, its resilience is rooted in an extraordinary adaptability to handle a long, laundry list of problems — many self-imposed — that would have toppled a less-flexible regime. In just the last four decades, the Communist Party has had only one truly neat transition of power; faced down a bout of near ruinous inflation; fatally crushed pro-democracy protests; and overseen a messy, stop-start combination of capitalist reform and socialist retrenchment.
Nor has the party's current top-down control of all matters political and socioeconomic always been the norm. This is one of the central arguments presented by Julian Gewirtz, an American historian, poet, and China advisor on the National Security Council for the Biden administration, in his second nonfiction book Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s.
The slim volume covers the 1970s to early 1990s, a spread of time during which ideas about economic and political reform gestated. Those half-formed ideas towards liberalization that were abruptly thrown out as the party closed flanks following the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Where Dikötter's book is a roadmap of how we got here, Gewirtz looks at the road not taken — and a tantalizing glimpse, perhaps, at the political possibilities that remain still.
Gewirtz focuses much on the fascinating character of Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the party during part of the tumultuous 1980s. Zhao and sympathetic officials argued successfully for China to accelerate international trade, to import — or outright steal — foreign ideas and technology, and to disassociate the party with the blemished legacy of Chairman Mao Zedong.
But the 1980s were not all smooth sailing towards greater market liberalization and political opening, as official Chinese history now casts it. The decade brought numerous setbacks for the reformist camp, including a half-hearted and disastrous experiment with doing away with price controls that led to runaway inflation and ruinous state subsidies. Gewirtz brings to life the ferocious political maneuvering between reformist and Marxist ideologues battling it out over whose vision for what China should become would materialize.
Much of this back-and-forth history was intentionally obliterated as the party, under Deng Xiaoping's directive, wrested back total control over Chinese society in the aftermath of a violent takedown of student and worker protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989. The possibilities that party leaders framed a future China — one that inevitably would be more democratic, more market-driven, less insular — suddenly were winnowed back down to singular party rule.
Intriguingly, Gewirtz utilizes cast-off propaganda directives and internal meeting notes gathered from ragtag collections of loose papers he obtained from online auction sites and Beijing flea markets. These documents allow him to piece together this period of historical re-writing and censorship that would glorify Deng Xiaoping while relegating Zhao Ziyang to the margins. In a sign of how far China has closed itself to independent inquiry, Gewirtz notes that even these archives and auctions have recently been purged of potentially politically sensitive material.
Dikötter, whose three excellent previous books on the tragedies of Communist politics dubbed the People's Trilogy, is known for his grassroots telling of sweeping political changes in Chinese history. His newest book is more superficial in its source material, relying heavily on journalistic accounts over the years rather than archival research and oral histories. However, it remains a useful summary fusing together a wildly diverse set of decades of China under Communist rule, emphasizing just how the party has mutated in form and function.
This extraordinary adaptability to meet the perceived challenges of the day is the most novel argument presented in both books. Once resolutely socialist, the party has overseen a surge in the issuing local debt, using the stock market to fund hugely bloated state firms, and created one of the largest property markets in the world — each solving a critical short-term problem while also engendering larger issues down the road.
The party now faces a new raft of challenges, including hostile relations with the United States which has sanctioned some of China's once most-promising technology giants. Will the party survive another round? China's economy remains self-hobbled by unwavering Covid controls, its technology firms bound by dramatic American export restrictions, its officials sanctioned over the country's possible crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang region, and its diplomatic clout has been marred by a nasty dose of nationalism and a refusal to condemn Russia's war in Ukraine.
Precedent suggests the party will prevail, once again — though the odds look increasingly stacked against its favor as it holds its party congress. Concludes Dikötter at the end of China After Mao: "The challenge lying ahead for the Communist Party was how to address an entire range of longstanding structural issues of its own making without giving up its monopoly over power and its control over the means of production. It seemed very much like a dead end."
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.