Mao's Invisible Hand

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am


Mao's Invisible Hand
edited by Sebastian Heilmann, Elizabeth Perry

This book attempts to answer one of the great puzzles of international politics. Twenty years after the demise of communism in the Soviet Union and Europe, how has the party remained in power in China and delivered three decades of remarkable growth?

How has it maintained the Leninist one-party state it inherited from its elder brother, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and avoided political reform, while developing a dynamic and entrepreneurial economy at the same time?

Since the military crackdown in spring 1989, many scholars and politicians in the West have confidently predicted the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), saying that economic reform would inevitably lead to political reform and that one was impossible without the other. But they have been proved spectacularly wrong. The government today has more than US$3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the largest military in East Asia and an internal security apparatus able to snuff out 'the Jasmine revolution' in ways that Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali must deeply envy.

This book - subtitled The Political Foundations of Adaptive Government in China - presents some answers to the puzzle. Its editors are China specialists at Trier and Harvard universities and it contains essays by nine contributors.

The book argues that the CCP has avoided the mistakes of the Soviet and eastern European communist parties - where bureaucratic conservatism and entrenched interests blocked reforms - by its adaptability and willingness to try new things. This flexibility, the book argues, is in part a result of the three decades of struggle before the CCP took power.

'Mao [Zedong] conceived of policymaking as a process of ceaseless change, tension management, continual experimentation and ad hoc adjustment ... China's unusual receptivity to on-the-ground generation of new knowledge and practice - a feature, we believe, that derives in large measure from many of the same policy mechanisms that propelled the 30-year revolutionary struggle.' It is similar in some respects to guerilla warfare, in which rebels must constantly improvise and try new tactics in the face of a more powerful opponent.

In her essay, 'From Mass Campaigns to Managed Campaigns', Perry describes how the party has retained elements of Mao's campaigns in its present governance.

Since Mao's death in 1976, mass campaigns have disappeared, except in the aftermath of the Tiananmen protests of 1989, the Falun Gong protests of 1999 and the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic of 2003.

But elements remained in the 'Construction of a New Socialist Countryside' launched in October 2005, in which the Ministry of Agriculture conducted its largest ever national survey of villages. Instead of the single model of the past, the government offered nearly two dozen models of 'new villages' and accommodated popular religious beliefs and practises, especially Christianity.

It also rejected the 'class struggle' of the Maoist period and adapted foreign examples, including some from the US, Canada, France, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.

The book contains excellent material but some readers may find it too dense and academic.