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Above: Inside the bookshop of the CPC's Party School. Below: A woman reads a Chinese translation of The Old Regime and the Revolution. Photos by Wang Jing / China Daily
Great works of literature guide officials in formulating policies for the future, reports Tang Yue in Beijing.
Among Beijing's 100-plus bookstores, one of the most important is also one of the smallest and least prepossessing.
In the rather shabby, old bungalow of around 60 square meters, there is no electronic signboard, so the "recommended" and "bestseller" lists are handwritten.
But located inside the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, where the country's leaders-in-waiting are trained, the bookstore helps to shape the minds of the political elite and therefore plays a part in determining the country's future.
There is no way visitors can miss a conspicuous advertisement at the entrance. The notice is written in the traditional style with a brush, and the large black characters on yellow paper proclaim: "The Old Regime and the Revolution, recommended by Wang Qishan, is on sale now."
It's been little more than three months since Wang, the new leader of China's top disciplinary watchdog and also one of the seven members of the nation's highest decision-making body, suggested that officials and experts read historian Alexis de Tocqueville's account of the French revolution of 1789-99, written some 50 years after the events it describes.
The book has become increasingly popular recently. Twenty different versions are available on Amazon's Chinese site, one of the country's most popular online bookstores, and 18 of them were published after Wang's recommendation. The bookshop also houses related works such as A Guide to Reading The Old Regime and the Revolution and Why Do We Read The Old Regime and the Revolution?
"It has been quite hot, but that came as no surprise. Any book recommended by the leadership is always very popular with the officials who study here," said a sales clerk at the store.
She cited the examples of The Meditations by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and The Theory of Moral Sentiments by the 18th-century Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith, both of which were endorsed by Premier Wen Jiabao.
Zhen Xiaoying, former vice-president of the Central Institute of Socialism, said the books recommended by the leaders reflect their thoughts about reality, and their political beliefs. The books also serve to provide theoretical support for the politician's political stance and policy.
Tocqueville wrote, "It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable."
Zhen offered her own analysis of Wang's recommendation. "While the recommendation hints that we have to accelerate the pace of political reform, it also reminds us to be cautious and go step by step because the price of revolution is very high, as shown in the book."
She said the recommendation may be open to differing interpretations, but it is certainly a positive note that China's leaders are more open-minded and keen to learn from the outside world.
"When they realize a challenge in reality, they don't just look for answers from Chinese history; they also turn to the history of global civilization. China is young in terms of democracy and party politics and there is still a lot for us to learn from the West."
Bi Yantao, director of the Center for Communication Studies at Hainan University, said the recommendation of The Old Regime and the Revolution could be seen as a way of preparing public opinion for political reform and a fight against corruption.
"But what is needed is not just lip service; it is action that makes a difference," he said.
Compared with their Western counterparts, Chinese leaders tend to display their personal tastes less frequently. Thus, the outside world always tends to make a guessing game out of any obscure clues, he added.
"Politicians never say things for no reason at all. It (their taste in books) could be seen as a political signal, but we can't over-interpret it," he said. "I even read a story about how one can judge the political stance of a Chinese leader, left or right, by their hairdo. Another one split the Party into factions depending on different styles of tie. These ideas are ridiculous.
"However, recommending a book or displaying one's personal taste may do some good for a person's political image, even though it's not their purpose to do so."
A book at bedtime
Hanging above the doorway of the Central Party School bookstore is a board that reads: "Leaders and cadres should love reading, read good books and be good at reading." It is a quote from a speech delivered in 2009 by the school's principal at the time, Xi Jinping.
At the opening ceremony of the Party School's new semester on Friday, Xi, now the Party's top leader, urged officials to never stop studying. "We should learn from the people, from the experts and scholars, and also from the experiences of other countries," he said.
Xi himself is a bookworm. Shi Chunyang, 59, Party secretary of Liangjiahe village in Shaanxi province where Xi stayed from 1969 to 1975, said Xi spent a lot of his free time reading.
Premier Wen is well known for his addiction to Meditations, which maintains that by putting aside great passions, unjust thoughts and indulgences, a person can acquire virtue and live at one with nature. Wen said he always has the book by his bedside and has read it around 100 times.
"Reading can change a person's life; a person who reads can change the world. But a person who does not read has no future, and a nation without reading has no future," he said.
Wang Yang, a member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, the Party's core leadership, has often expressed his admiration for The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas Friedman.
In 2008, Wang, then Party secretary of Guangdong province, a region at the forefront of China's market reforms, invited The New York Times columnist and bestselling author to visit Guangzhou, the provincial capital. Wang told Friedman the book had deepened his understanding of the Internet and economic globalization.
"China is part of the world and can't be independent from the course of global civilization. The Party and Chinese society are undergoing a period of transition and we have to learn from the West, which has already been through what we are going through right now," said Cai Xia, a professor who specializes in party-building theory at the Central Party School.
"Marxism is very important, but it doesn't provide all the knowledge we need. Ancient Chinese wisdom is also valuable, but is not enough either," Cai said.
However, she noted that the problem today is not that officials learn too much about Marxism, but that they often understand the theories in a very dogmatic way and thus are easily bored by them.
"If you read the original pieces, you'll find the books are full of self-reflection and self-criticism, which are greatly needed by the Party today," she added.
'Thick, black philosophy'
Party leaders - from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin - have always called for cadres to keep studying, according to Cai.
"But it is still a problem within the Party and the government. During the opening ceremony, Xi commented that 'cadres spend so little time studying and so much time playing'", she said.
She added that many officials read books on how to deal with colleagues in the workplace and climb the political ladder, a concept known in Chinese as hou hei xue, often translated as "thick, black philosophy".
It was a widespread phenomenon in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is not all that overt nowadays, but many officials still study how to gain promotion by flattering the leaders rather than by improving their own abilities, said Cai.
"Why is that? We should reform the personnel-evaluation system. If those who bribe get promoted instead of those who study and work hard, then the officials will lack the motivation to learn authentic skills and serve the people," she said.
"If it doesn't change, reading books recommended by the leaders will simply be another chance to be sycophantic rather than an opportunity to learn something."
Zhen, from the Central Institute of Socialism, said the popularity of hou hei xue reflects a lingering strain of feudal thought in Chinese society.
"In a feudal society, it is more about autocracy and power tactics, while in a modern and democratic society politics is more open and transparent, and a system in which you have to win people's trust to win the post," she said. "From this perspective, we have to continue to improve our electoral system and we will require more political reform if we want to see off the hou hei xue."
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Yang Wanli and Cui Jia contributed to this story.
(China Daily 03/06/2013 page7)