All is not well in the mighty central organisation department of the Communist Party of China, the section that controls the fortunes of the CPC's 75 million members. In this compelling exploration of the world's largest and most successful political machine, Richard McGregor reveals that the cadres complain that party members are "losing belief". Even those in senior leadership positions "doubt the inevitability of the ultimate triumph of socialism and communism". Many have replaced their faith in communism with a belief in "ghosts and demons".
Clearly, this is worrying for the comrades, but it is not surprising. The party's turn to state capitalism under the direction of the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping has been spectacularly successful in producing nearly 30 years of double-digit growth. A favoured cliché of commentators is that the party "has lifted 300 million Chinese people out of poverty", making China's economic miracle the largest and most effective poverty eradication programme in history.
Less enthusiastic observers point out that the same party was responsible for the 30 years of immiseration that preceded its Damascene conversion to capitalism-with-Chinese-characteristics, and that it would be equally true to say that the Chinese people have lifted the Communist Party out of poverty: over the same period, China went from being one of the most equal societies in the world, one in which party cadres were expected to demonstrate a spirit of plain living and hard struggle, to one of the most unequal. In the ten years from 1997 onwards, McGregor points out, the workers' share of national income fell from 53 per cent of GDP to 40 per cent. Some workers, notoriously, were not paid at all for long periods.
Nevertheless, even if some turned out to be more equal than others, it might still be possible, given that a large number of people are
better off, to bend China's capitalist surge into a socialist shape. But what is the bemused Maoist to make of this gem of ideological guidance from one of China's Communist Party bankers: "The only way to put the latest communist principles into practice was to maximise returns for shareholders."
It is easy to forget, as you stroll through any of the thousands of spectacular shopping malls that have sprung up in Chinese cities in recent decades, or meet the new men in business suits, fluent in western MBA-speak, who run China's state enterprises, that the party is as present in China as it was in the days of the tin mug and the Mao suit. As one interviewee tells McGregor, the "party is like God - he's everywhere; you just can't see him".
Ubiquity, invisibility and ineffability - and, as far as the citizen is concerned, omnipotence - are characteristics the CPC shares with the
divine. Perhaps also like God, it still has something of the old Leninist structure: power, as the author points out, flows downward from the top, and information flows up. Strict hierarchies, meticulous organisation and obsessive secrecy, the founding practices of a clandestine revolutionary party, remain active codes today. But the economic model has changed beyond recognition. Perhaps the only people who are not confused about the party's ideology these days are the few remaining Maoists, groups of whom gather occasionally under the disapproving gaze of the authorities to read pointed passages from the Great Helmsman's works.
Party leaders and their friends and relations have done extremely well over the past three decades. The details of their fortunes and how they were obtained remain among the many subjects too "sensitive" for even the most robust of Chinese media to approach, despite the party's constant laments about corruption. If, on occasion, a prominent cadre is be exposed and punished, nobody doubts that the case in question reflects the outcome of internal political battles, rather than moral censure.
It could hardly be otherwise. To combat corruption would demand more than the party is willing to permit, despite a façade of structures: it would require the rule of law, a measure of transparency, unfettered media and a recognition that the interests of the party, the state and the citizen are not, in all instances, identical.
Chinese law says that all political parties must be registered. The CPC itself, however, is not. It has no formal legal status and the laws so often misapplied to the citizen do not apply to it. Separation of powers is not on the agenda. The CEOs of China's great banks and corporations all have more important jobs on the side as high-ranking party functionaries: the party, not the board, appoints and dismisses them, something the western advisers who prepared their public listings on foreign exchanges deemed inconvenient to mention.
Can it last? At present there is no alternative. If power in China, and all the benefits that now accrue to the holding of it, are ever to become more transparent, and if the citizen is ever to have a say in who governs a state that nominally still belongs to the workers, peasants and soldiers, it can only be because the CPC itself wills it. Until that day, China's workers must be content with the party's surreal claims to democratic practices. As Hu Jintao told a Japanese school group in 2008, "It was the people in the whole country who voted me in and wanted me to be president. I should not let [them] down."
Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net
The Party: the Secret World of China's Communist Rulers
Allen Lane, 328pp, £25