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As the Chinese Congress takes place, two books challenge the Communist Party's permanence: NPR

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Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

This week, China delves into the world’s political theater grappling with secrecy: the 20th Communist Party Congress.

A meeting of more than 2,000 senior party officials to elect the next iteration of leaders, including the next head of the communist party. Despite occasional claims of democratic consensus, the purpose of this party convention is carefully orchestrated to state the opposite: Xi Jinping, the party’s current leader, has absolute control over all branches of power as he continues his third term.

From afar, it’s easy to feel like the party is too much in the driver’s seat – at the helm of one man. Opposition in China is at a minimum, largely thanks to tough digital surveillance and information controls. Most every movement of the population is kept under control with zero Covid measures. An ongoing civil society purge has destroyed a once burgeoning network of media outlets, NGOs and law firms. Despite some intra-party tensions, Xi still seems determined to appoint his loyalists to power and is thus locked into the political agenda of national rejuvenation, which Xi claims has guided the party over the past 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, the book shows how the party’s control over information, finances, and political institutions continues even in the face of economic waste, ideological instability, environmental pollution, and the appetite for brutal repression.

In other words, the party’s greatest achievement is not because it is omnipotent and omniscient, but because it has managed to stay in power. Rather, its resilience has its roots in an extraordinary adaptability to deal with a long, dirty list of problems – many of which are self-imposed – that would overturn a less flexible regime. Only in the last four decades has the Communist Party really experienced a smooth transition of power; faced an almost devastating inflation; fatally suppressed pro-democracy protests; and oversaw a messy, stop-and-go combination of capitalist reform and socialist famine.

Also, the party’s current top-down control over all political and socioeconomic issues has not always been the norm. This is one of the key arguments presented in his second nonfiction book by Julian Gewirtz, an American historian, poet, and Biden administration adviser to China’s National Security Council. Never come back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s.

The thin volume covers a time period from the 1970s to the early 1990s, when ideas about economic and political reform arose. It is these semi-formed ideas of liberalization that arose suddenly as the party closed down after the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989. Where Dikötter’s book is a roadmap of how we got here, Gewirtz looks at the road not taken—and perhaps an enticing glimpse. , on the political possibilities that still remain.

Gewirtz focuses on the charming character of Zhao Ziyang, who was the party’s general secretary during the turbulent 1980s. Zhao and sympathetic officials have successfully argued for China to step up international trade, import or directly steal foreign ideas and technology, and separate the party from Chairman Mao Zedong’s tainted legacy.

But the 1980s did not move smoothly towards more market liberalization and political opening, as official Chinese history now shows. The decade brought numerous setbacks for the reformist camp, including a half-hearted and disastrous experiment in eliminating price controls that led to runaway inflation and devastating government subsidies. Gewirtz enacts the savage political maneuver between reformist and Marxist ideologues fighting over the realization of his vision of what China should become.

Much of this back and forth history has been deliberately erased, as the party reclaimed full control over Chinese society under Deng Xiaoping’s directive following the violent abolition of student and worker protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989. The possibilities that party leaders had framed for a future China—inevitably a more democratic, more market-oriented, less isolating China—were suddenly back in single-party rule.

Surprisingly, Gewirtz uses old propaganda directives and internal meeting notes he gleaned from scattered collections of papers from online auction sites and Beijing flea markets. These documents allow him to piece together this period of historical rewriting and censorship that would set Zhao Ziyang aside while glorifying Deng Xiaoping. Gewirtz notes that even these archives and auctions have recently been cleared of potentially politically sensitive material, in a sign of how much China has shut itself down to independent investigation.

Having named his three previous excellent books on the tragedies of communist politics the People’s Trilogy, Dikötter is known for his grassroots account of sweeping political changes in Chinese history. His most recent book is more superficial in its source material, based on journalistic accounts over the years rather than archival research and oral histories. It remains, however, a useful summary that brings together China’s highly diverse decades under Communist rule and highlights how the party has mutated in form and function.

This extraordinary adaptability to meet the perceived challenges of the day is the newest argument presented in both books. The once staunchly socialist party used the stock market to finance massively inflated state firms, overseeing a surge in local lending and creating one of the world’s largest real estate markets – each solving a critical short-term problem while also raising new ones. . bigger problems on the way.

The party now faces a new set of challenges, including hostile relations with the United States, which has imposed sanctions on some of China’s once most promising tech giants. Will the party survive another round? The Chinese economy, unshakable Covid controls, tech firms tied to dramatic American export restrictions, tech firms sanctioning possible crimes against humanity in the country’s Xinjiang region, and diplomatic clout have been marred by a nasty dose of nationalism. Refusing to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The precedent suggests that the party will prevail once again – although the odds seem to be increasingly stacked in his favour, as he holds the party convention. Dikötter finally concludes: China After Mao: “The challenge for the Communist Party was how to solve a long-standing series of structural problems that it produced itself, without giving up its monopoly on power and control over the means of production. It looked very much like a dead end.”

Emily Feng is NPR’s Beijing correspondent.