China’s transformation from an undeveloped nation of agrarian peasants to a modern manufacturing powerhouse with a burgeoning middle class and a rapidly increasing global influence has been nothing short of remarkable. Understanding this transformation requires an understanding of its guiding hand – the Communist Party of China (CPC) – which, as author Kerry Brown makes clear early on in this fascinating book, is easier said than done.
Founded in 1921, the CPC has ruled China since 1949, having seen off both Japan’s occupying forces and the Chinese Nationalists. Throughout its reign, its control of Chinese affairs has gone far beyond the political. Indeed, as Brown writes: ‘The CPC can be viewed as an entity for not just political but also cultural, ethical and personal transformation in the country it controls and rules over.’
Deeply pragmatic, the party has regularly been forced to reinvent itself, shaping and reshaping its ideology, identity and even its own historical narrative in order to remain relevant and maintain its grip on absolute power. And what of its motives? According to Brown: ‘The CPC has a moral narrative in which its fundamental mission is to restore justice and dignity to the Chinese people.’
The latest iteration, under the current general secretary, Xi Jinping, is looking increasingly expansionist. While it works domestically to rein in the corruption of party officials and the hedonistic excesses of China’s newly enriched entrepreneur class, internationally it’s promoting the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, one of the most significant infrastructure programmes of global history.
Although the book has a slightly stilted, academic tone, the insights it provides into the history and cultural impact of the CPC are enthralling enough to carry the reader. China is already the world’s most populous nation and is well on its way to becoming its most powerful, which makes such insights particularly valuable.
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