Participation Required: How Communism Changed China

September 27, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Political Participation in Communist China
The cover of James Townsend's "Political Participation in Communist China." (University of California Press)

Townsend, James. “Political Participation in Communist China,” 1967, University of California Press, 247 pp., $49.95, ISBN: 978-0520012790

A glance back at the scholarship and journalism of communist China from a previous era can provide useful reflections for our own time: on what has changed, on what has not, and how it is that people used to get their ideas across.

James Townsend’s study is most fascinating and penetrating, not only because of its breadth and detail, but also for the almost self-reflexive way in which the author takes up the questions he poses.

In addressing a topic that many modern observers would do well to learn a thing or two about—that is, the changes that Chinese communism brought to China’s political order—Townsend first interrogates this order. For the non-expert on matters of traditional China, there is much to learn in even this cursory background.

For example, it turns out that many aspects of the society against which the radicals and intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revolted (that is, including communism after Comintern agitators widely and successfully implanted the seeds) were not bona fide elements of traditional Chinese culture. Things had already changed:

“…the purchase of government office, the concentration of land ownership, the power of military and bandit elements in rural areas, the incompetence of the central government, and, above all, the diffuse effects of the Western presence itself—were symptoms of change rather than characteristics of the traditional order. Chinese communism, in this sense, is a revolt against a mutant traditional rather than the tradition rightly understood.” (p. 6)

(Though of course, it will take more than this to stop the feckless observers of the New China to speak of on an enduring political tradition—even linking the Confucian tradition and feudal rule to centralized CCP rule. Alas.)

Townsend’s book is a chronicle of not merely what changes the Chinese Communist Party brought, but how it enacted them, with what success, in the face of what resistance, and against which normative backdrop they may be evaluated.

Engaged readers can also draw out their own messages from things Townsend leaves unsaid.

For example, on traditional China we learn that “The legitimacy of the emperor’s ‘mandate’ to rule theoretically rested on his right conduct, which was tested by his ability to maintain harmony in nature and society.”

And while military force was necessary to seize power, “The Chinese tradition insisted that virtue and morality were the final legitimizers of political authority.” Just as the Emperor’s authority was morally based, “his governing of the people was to be by moral example.”(p. 11) How excellent. Does the contrast of this with the current set-up even need to be spoken of?

It is not only measured against the traditional backdrop that the CCP’s governance can be recognized as deformed, but from basic principles of logic, as Townsend shows. He explains how, for example, the political meaning of actions must be determined not only by the nature of the actions themselves, but the motivations of the actors.

As Harold Laswell illustrates, when a man kills a king because the monarch has insulted his sister, he has committed a crime of passion, not a political act. But if he thinks of the murder as part of a revolutionary struggle, then it is political.

The Party, however, does not go in for these nuances. “It is the CCP’s attempt to attach real meaning to ritualistic political performances and to invest apparently ‘private’ acts with political significance that accounts for the extraordinary politicization of life in contemporary China,” Townsend writes.

This makes clear why the growth of Falun Gong in China was interpreted as a mortal threat to the regime: not because the silent meditators meant anything political by their practice, but because for the CCP, forming your own group and doing your own thing, en masse, is problematic indeed. The same may be said for Tibetans’ recognition of the Dalai Lama, which the Party ceaselessly tries to brainwash them out of.

Here are some more interesting reflections:

Family and local associations were the bedrock of traditional Chinese society: “The Chinese citizen found his social identity, his security, and his hopes for advancement in his local associations and not in the wider political community.” Local associations, such as the family, village, guild, were often ends in themselves. Chinese life was about a preoccupation with one’s own particular affairs and interests, and people were largely indifferent to matters beyond this. This individualism made the family the center of the individual’s loyalties, and put the locus of meaning for living into the individual’s community. (pp. 17-20)

During the Civil War, when the CCP realized that peasants were not much interested in Marxist doctrine, it played up the anti-Japanese and nationalist card, and simply shelved the doctrine (of course, only to bring it out later with a vengeance). Did everyone know that? Does it sound a bit familiar? (p. 53)

The scholar-official’s loyalties were more to Chinese culture than to the particular Chinese state. Although the scholar recognized his obligation to serve society, he did not believe that public office was the highest form of service. Personally, his greatest rewards lay outside public life, “in the intellectual pursuits for which his studies prepared him.” (p. 12) This is in many ways opposite to the preoccupations of contemporary Party apparatchiks, for whom their service as an official is no more than a means of self-aggrandizement and individual wealth generation (though one must also wonder how much this differs from civil servants in the West, sometimes).

The technical point that something in China is not a formal part of the state does not mean that it is not political, or that the Party has no control over it. (p. 103) This should be kept in mind when thinking of Chinese companies doing business abroad.

“Formalism” is an amusing word used by the CCP to describe laziness by cadres. (p. 151).

Townsend neatly discusses how mass organizations 1) feed off people, 2) serve the Party’s interests overseas and in China. (p. 172-173 )

A parting observation, found on p. 158: while the mass organizations like the Communist Youth League and the Women’s Federation offered a broad sweep of society, and were effective transmission belts for indoctrinating the masses with Party policy, the CCP was not quite able reach into the nooks and crannies—the nooks being housewives and children, the crannies being hawkers and the unemployed—so Resident’s Committees were established.

This is the minutest level of CCP organization, reaching right into the neighborhood of every citizen. In the 1950s they were used to help with such activities as the “Resist America—Aid Korea” campaign, and the “Suppression of Counterrevolutionaries.”

Now, helpfully, these committees are used to sniff out Falun Gong practitioners, and hand them over to the police for “thought transformation.” Who said the more things change, the more they stay the same?

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