Editor's note: As the Communist Party of China (CPC) prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary on July 1, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international investment banker and corporate strategist, spoke to China Daily about the Party's most significant achievements, particularly since it embarked on the policy of reform and opening-up in the late 1970s. Kuhn is the author and editor of more than 25 books, including The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin and How China's Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China's Past, Current and Future Leaders. He is a long-time adviser to the Chinese government and advises multinational corporations on their China strategies
Robert Lawrence Kuhn [Provided to China Daily]
Q: Given your many meetings and contacts with CPC members, how would you describe a typical Party member?
A: During my more than 22 years coming to China - I have been to China over 100 times - I have been fortunate to meet CPC members in all walks of life and in all areas of the country. Although I do not like generalizing about any human beings, all of whom are individuals, I can say that CPC members have roles in Chinese society of greater responsibility and that they generally take these roles seriously. There is great diversity, both in professional competence and in personal morality. They have a heightened sense of Chinese patriotism, which energizes their contributions to society, but which, on occasion, can become aggressive and counterproductive. In today's China, many are motivated by ambition to achieve, and in a knowledge-based, market-driven, competitive world, this is a good thing for China. There are obvious abuses, particularly corruption and unethical behavior, but the fault is not the ambition, the market or the competitive will to achieve. The fault is personal, and society needs to do more to instill the highest standards of behavior - without harming proper ambition. Among the CPC's senior leaders, many of whom I have been privileged to know personally, there is great concern to enact policies in the best interests of the people, while recognizing that due to the complex machinations and interactions in contemporary society, there are often competing policies that must be optimized, one against the other. CPC leaders today seek policies that increase the standard of living and general well-being of the Chinese people, irrespective of this or that ideology.
The "China model" has attracted a great deal of attention and has been the subject of much debate. What do you think is the CPC's most successful experience in leading the Chinese people to achieve enormous economic growth?
There is no doubt that the more than 30 years of reform and opening-up which began in 1978 is one of the most remarkable transformations of a country in human history. The CPC's great innovation, pioneered by Deng Xiaoping, was to focus on practice more than on theory, which changed the character and contributions of the CPC. Although "reform and opening-up" is often said as a single stock phrase, I believe that "opening- up" was the real key to China's success, because it gave the Chinese people a sudden, uncolored view of the real world, so that they were finally able to learn the best international practices and processes while keeping Chinese distinctiveness and culture. Such opening-up has been promoted by the enlightened CPC leadership. Reform, on the other hand, has often begun at the grassroots levels and put into "gray" practice, and it was only after the reform had been working in society did the CPC leadership recognize the reform's success and make it official policy.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the CPC? What's the cause of it and how can it be tackled?
Challenges can be classified broadly as economic or political. Economically, the challenge is to keep the country's GDP growing briskly and steadily while reducing the great imbalances in society, between urban and rural, coastal and inland. To accomplish this, productivity is the key. Without increasing efficiencies in all areas of production and consumption - from industrial output to consumer utilization, even including new knowledge creation - all of which is based on intelligence and investment, China will be mortgaging the future while improving the present. The great challenge for China's leaders is to enhance the standards of living of underdeveloped sectors of society without restraining or unintentionally undermining national productivity. The key here is innovation, driven by science and technology. The fact that most CPC senior leaders are scientifically literate is a vital, if underappreciated factor, in China's continuing economic success.
I suggest policies that have a high, rapid impact on poorer citizens, such as electronic education for children, efficient modern healthcare, and access to media and entertainment.
Politically, I believe that at least for the current times China should continue with its one-party CPC rule, provided, of course, that the CPC remains true to its policies of the past 30 years, continues to put the people's welfare first, and works to institute careful political reform. For saying this, I am, as you would expect, criticized in the West. But what I also say is that because the CPC has a monopoly on power, it has a greater burden to institute reforms and to promote a democratic and prosperous society. Transparency in governance, as well as an increasingly free media, are critical tasks for the CPC.
I also believe that the increasing involvement of professionally competent non-governmental organizations contributes to pluralistic governance and facilitates the CPC's leading role. The CPC should be proud of China's accomplishments and should have the confidence to encourage new organizations to emerge which compete in society, thus attaining optimum benefits for the people.
Examples are new roles for labor unions which are independently empowered to represent workers in their negotiations with corporate management and diverse kinds of charitable organizations serving the needy.
How do you think the CPC can have more effective interaction with the people? How can the CPC increase people's sense of involvement in the governance of the country under the prerequisite that the country's current political system stays as it is?
I believe that the most significant advance in the CPC's history is the call for "intra-Party democracy". I am impressed that CPC leaders, especially future leaders, are putting high stress on this vital vision of CPC political reform. To continue to serve the people optimally, the CPC, as the ruling party, should be increasingly governed by rules and procedures that are standardized and reasonably open to public scrutiny.
I am impressed by the strong meritocracy of the CPC, whose leaders are highly intelligent, extremely well educated, and have wide-ranging experience. CPC leaders are generally some of the most capable leaders in the world. Only if the CPC maintains this high standard of leadership, and prevents arbitrary and autocratic rule from reasserting itself, will the CPC continue to lead China successfully.
The diversity of people in all societies should be appreciated. Not everyone is interested in politics or history. A society that encourages diversity of expression is a confident society. In celebrating the CPC's rightful achievements in China's resurgence, it is important to tell a complete story, even the parts that were less glorious or serious errors. Only truth builds trust. The CPC should be confident about China's great accomplishments, and as such the CPC should have the confidence to discuss openly the problems of the past, particularly the political movements of the 1950s, such as "anti-rightist campaigns", and the devastating "cultural revolution" (1966-1976). Open discussion needs to be allowed, without accusations or recriminations. Such confidence of the CPC will build the confidence of the people.
While recognizing that the CPC must continue to encourage political reform, such as in transparency of governance and the rule of law, the world should celebrate the greatly enhanced personal and social freedoms of the Chinese people. But these need to increase further. For example, Chinese interest groups, such as those that fight pollution, should be allowed to make their case openly and freely in the media.
Why does the "one-ruling-party system" work in China?
All systems of governance have trade-offs. The benefits of a one-ruling-party system include the capacity to institute critical policies rapidly, such as the stimulus package during the financial crisis of 2008 that insulated China against the worst of the recession. It can also secure long-term policies, such as China's western development strategy.
The cost or danger of a one-ruling-party system is that society is much more dependent on the quality of its leaders, and much more vulnerable to their vicissitudes and excesses. It is far easier for leaders in a one-party system to assert themselves and trouble the people, whether obsessed by ideological madness or driven by personal power. While China's one-ruling-party system has had great success during the period of reform, in decades prior, when leftist ideology was enforced with oppressive zealotry, it instigated waves of political mass movements which impoverished and dispirited the people. China's one-party today, the CPC, is far more enlightened; it is a "learning-minded" party that encourages its members to expand their knowledge in all fields, including science, economics and culture. By stressing its learning-minded ethos, the CPC exemplifies a contemporary ruling party.
There are trade-offs too in restricted freedoms, particularly certain freedoms of the press and rights to political assembly. It is not possible to have a genuinely free press and maintain one-party rule. Nonetheless, I believe that a cost-benefit analysis would support China maintaining its one-ruling-party system, at least for current times.
If a multi-party system were introduced in the near term, with China's huge disparities in education and income, significant resources would be consumed in political battles and severe social conflict could erupt. A premature democracy would sacrifice long-term economic development for short-term political freedom, and therefore not bring the greatest good to the greatest number. It will be only when most Chinese citizens have sufficient education and adequate living standards that more participatory political systems may be considered.
At some point, however, these dynamics invert so that the absence of a political democracy would thereafter inhibit not enhance China's continued development. For example, corruption is best minimized in a political democracy and by a free press. When that inflection point occurs is for China's leaders to figure out.
To most Westerners, democracy has a simplistic, one-dimensional test. If a country offers one-person-one-vote elections, then it is a democracy. If it doesn't, it isn't. By this test, China is not a democracy. But if one looks at almost every aspect of real life, Chinese people have more personal freedom today than at any other time in their long history, almost the equivalent of their peers in the West. Although China does not have political pluralism, it does have increasing economic pluralism, social pluralism, and cultural pluralism. Those who still insist on classifying China as a repressive society must explain how it can offer vast arrays of information to all its citizens. Furthermore, the Chinese government is increasingly sensitive to democratic ideals, like polling its citizens to assess their attitudes and opinions.
While I argue that China today is best served by its one-ruling-party system, I stress that for the CPC to retain its ruling status, it has a higher obligation to enhance standards of living and personal well-being, which includes increasing democracy, transparency in governance, public oversight of government, media freedoms, rule of law, and human rights. All these are embedded in the CPC's public commitment to "intra-Party democracy".
The CPC claims a historic mission. In a thousand years, when the long annals of political systems are written, China today may well be a case study of what happens when a country with a one-ruling-party political system seeks to construct a prosperous, democratic society.