Friends and Enemies, By Kerry Brown

Can the Communist Party of China promote further economic growth and still maintain state control?
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One theory that was speedily shredded after the financial crash in 2007-2008 was the idea that Asia in general, and China in particular, were decoupled from the rest of the global economy and would avoid the consequences of the economic mayhem ravaging North America and Europe. But the cutting up of credit cards in London and New York was followed immediately by factories closing in China.

Another Sino-centric theory now treads the boards. The humiliation of the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street will apparently usher in the rise to global dominance of the People's Republic of China. A Beijing consensus will replace that which bore Washington's name. Driving China forward to allegedly 21st-century hegemony is the Communist Party which rules it and is said to embody all its interests and aspirations.

It is therefore a good time for a study of China's ruling party – its history, its personnel, its structure and what passes for its ideology. Dr Kerry Brown does the business in a brisk, no-nonsense way. For those who want an easy, short and very readable guide to an organisation which has shaped China's present and could help mould the world's future, Brown's book can be warmly recommended.

Launched at its first Congress in 1921, covertly manoeuvred through the 1920s and 1930s by Stalin's Soviet Union, the victor of a civil war against the Nationalists and a war of liberation against Japan, the Communist Party has now enjoyed 60 years of unbridled power. It survived Mao's manic rule, the transition to Deng Xiaoping, the military suppression of dissent in 1989 and the sometimes comic but invariably underrated years of Jiang Zemin, and has now emerged into a present grey authoritarian consensus under a remarkably uncharismatic leadership.

But the tills keep ringing. Turning its back on socialism in the 1980s, the party has signed up China to the world economy, letting a sort of capitalism thrive, sometimes controlled by the state, sometimes roaring along guided only by the laws of the jungle. Economic success – three decades of growth at an annual average of nine per cent or more – has transformed life in China. Four-hundred million have been lifted out of poverty. More have seen real improvements in their quality and standard of living. The Chinese today have much more freedom – short, of course, of the political sort. Not that they would (so it is said) want things any other way, given that we are told that love of China and love of the party are as close as lips and teeth.

Admiration for China's economic success is tempered for most liberal democrats by scepticism about the ability of capitalism to thrive without political reform – above all, the introduction of greater openness and accountability. This debate is not without its echoes in China. Hard-liners argue that if the party continues to give up control over the economy – for example, privatising state-owned enterprises and encouraging more private investment – it will sooner or later lose control of the state. Modernisers argue that without such measures, growth will flag and unemployment will soar; in which case, the party will certainly lose control of the state. It seems to me that China's dilemma is that both these conclusions are correct.

What is required in China is a leadership smart enough to find a way around this predicament. Brown seems more optimistic on this point than most available evidence allows. There does not appear to be much thinking going on relevant to getting out of this bind, beyond elaborate efforts in party think-tanks to define democracy in ways that exclude any right for the citizens to change their government. Even flirtations with the importance of the rule of law soon hit the adamantine insistence that the law and judges serve the party above all else – a point underlined in the recent "Three Supremes" campaign. I doubt whether much good will come of the Chinese study, which Brown reports, on the longevity of the Catholic Church; after all, its survival for 2,000 years owes much to a belief system and narrative that go way beyond meeting materialist ambitions.

What is Chinese communism's belief system today? The chosen and discarded heir to Mao, Hua Guofeng, was known as a "whateverist". He cleaved unswervingly to whatever Mao said. Communist ideology today seems primarily "whateverist" – support the party whatever it says and wants. What it wants above all is to stay in power, providing through family or clan relationships with its leaders, the surest route to riches.

In China, dynasties have usually fallen because of their inability to contemplate or manage change. It is as though they all had, imprinted indelibly on their DNA, Alexis de Tocqueville's warning that autocracies are at their most vulnerable when they start to relax their grip. So whatever else the Chinese genius comprises, the ability to govern itself well has not been foremost among its attributes. It is in all our interests that China has learnt the real lesson of dynastic failure. We need a Communist Party smart enough to plan for its own succession without the turbulence that has too often rocked China in the past. For China to do well is no threat to the rest of us. For China to do badly would be very bad news for the world. It is odd to think how much stability and prosperity in our century will depend on the last of the politibureaus.

Chris Patten's latest book, 'What Next: Surviving the 21st Century', is published by Penguin