Ignatius Suglo reviews Kerry Brown’s newest work on China – a deep dive into the Communist Party of China.

Kerry Brown, China’s Dream: The Culture of Chinese Communism and the Secret Sources of its Power (Polity Press, 2018), 240pp.

In China’s Dream, Kerry Brown – Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London – notes that there has always been a certain degree of divergence between the way in which the members and non-members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) have understood the Party. It is a disparity that makes  dialogue between the two groups difficult. And so, Brown’s book enters the fray in the hopes of setting up a framework that mediates this terrain by organizing a bridge between the discourse of internal (Party members) and external parties (scholars from outside China) (13). Arguing that scholars have tended to discuss the Party without taking into account the views from within the Party itself, Brown accepts the challenge of trying to unify the discussion by balancing both internal and external accounts of the CPC. In doing so, Brown constructs an alternative and nuanced lens for analyzing the nature of the Party.

It soon becomes clear that maintaining political legitimacy is a core aim of the CPC. Brown describes how the CPC has maintained legitimacy despite key changes to its ideological stance. Party narratives are linked with the underlying notion of salvation and delivery of justice for a once victimized nation. In Mao’s China, the CPC positioned itself as the only entity that could offer explanation for, and save the country from, calamities such as feudal oppression, class domination, and colonial/capitalist exploitation. During Deng Xiaoping’s era, due to the effects of the campaigns of Mao on ordinary citizens, linking the narrative of legitimacy to that of Mao’s era proved potentially dangerous. The promise of a better life became a new pillar of legitimacy with global marketization and the consequent opening-up of the country forming the core of revised policy. However, Deng’s policies ultimately saw a rise in corruption and embezzlement among government officials, and the accessibility of technology brought such crimes to light. The result was a loss of trust in the Party. It is in this context that Brown reads Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption purge as at base a means to regain public trust in the Party and not, as it has commonly been reported elsewhere, simply a mechanism that allowed Xi to further his political standing. Indeed, Brown makes clear that Xi’s actions stand in a long line of anti-corruption measures instituted by different administrations of the Party that had as their goal the maintenance of the political legitimacy of the CPC.

Another pillar of this political legitimacy, Brown notes, is the stress put on morality. Moral standing and ethical issues matter to the CPC. Hence, it had to attempt explaining the undesirable events that took place under Mao, such as the Great Famine, anti-rightist campaigns, and the Cultural Revolution. For a Party that has always been in the “right”, admitting failure proved difficult. Attempts to offer an explanation separated and highlighted Maoist thoughts, from Mao’s actions. In this realm, Brown likens the CPC to a religious entity whose power is based on the emotional and moral power of its beliefs in its language, elite leadership, rites, history, and doctrine (61). Indeed, history and culture have been used in very different ways to serve the CPC. By comparing Mao’s and Xi’s approach to ancient Chinese history, Brown shows that the former condemned it as the cause of the nation’s problems while the latter not only embraces it but also exploits it by extracting as much symbolic capital as possible (50). To this end, the focus of Xi has shifted from the long standing one of building a strong party, to building a strong nation. As such, Xi has returned to storytelling and an appeal to traditional Chinese culture as an effective way to reach the hearts of the People and to seek emotional engagement rather than just physical consent. Interestingly, such storytelling has also been extended to serve China’s global interest and to offer a counter narrative to the demonization of China’s engagement with the rest of the world (47).

Brown deploys multiple methods in his analysis. One of which is a discourse analysis approach to grasp the core ideology of Xi by isolating commonly used terms and defining them in the context of China. On the whole, the approach seems effective since Chinese leaders are known for their consistent use of punchy and captivating statements and slogans as a strategy for simplifying and communicating ideology to the masses. Though Brown states that his work is a descriptive account, as one would expect of such an acclaimed academic, he goes further by offering in-depth, well supported analysis. China’s Dream offers a comprehensive yet concise description of the factors that matter to the CPC. This as he shows, transcends the political to the cultural and moral.

In sum, Brown’s work breaks ground for a broader and more nuanced study of the various roles the CPC plays in Chinese society. It is a compelling book that is recommended.

Ignatius Suglo is a PhD student of China Studies at the University of Hong Kong. His research interests include China-Africa relations, representations of Africa in Chinese popular media, diasporic communities and people-to-people engagements.

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