Party Time: An Interview with Rowan Callick

Party TimeRowan Callick is Asia-Pacific Editor of The Australian newspaper. Following some two decades in Papua New Guinea, he moved to Australia in 1987 after which he worked for The Australian Financial Review for some twenty years during which time he was that paper’s Hong Kong-based China correspondent (1996 to 2000). In 2006, he joined The Australian as its China correspondent. He is the recipient of the Graham Perkin Award for Journalist of the Year  (1995) and his work on Asia and the Pacific has also been acknowledged with the prestigious Walkley Award (1997 and 2007).

Rowan’s career is also marked by a strong engagement with the policy community: as member of the National Advisory Council on Aid Policy (1994-1996); of the Australia Indonesia Institute (2001-2006); of the Foreign Minister’s Foreign Affairs Council (2003-2006); and, since 2012, as an honorary fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

In his first book, Comrades and Capitalists: Hong Kong since the Handover (Freedom Publishing, 1998), he examined the impact of China on Hong Kong and looked at the possible effects of the handover on China itself. In his recently published Party Time: Who Runs China and How (Penguin Books Australia, 2013) Rowan offers an in-depth analysis of the Chinese Communist Party along with an insightful portrait of today’s China. The book and the multiple stories of power and humanity that it relates inspired the following interview.—The Editors


Question: Your recent book Party Time is fascinating, informative and insightful. What made you want to write about the Chinese Communist Party?

Answer: I have been writing substantially about China for almost twenty years, including two spells as a China correspondent – from 1996-2000 for the Australian Financial Review, based in Hong Kong, and from 2006-2009 for The Australian, based in Beijing.

There are three common threads in this task: an understanding of history, personal empathy, and the pervasiveness of the party.

Yet I kept discovering that visitors to China found the party invisible, that when asked to speak to groups – chiefly but not only from Australia – ranging from teachers to share traders, they expressed puzzlement that I should mention the party prominently in my talks.

I realised then, that there was a huge party-shaped hole in understanding about China, even among people sufficiently motivated to visit the country. So I began to plan and interview for my book, while I was working in Beijing.


Q: Many people regard knowledge of the Communist Party as absolutely essential for understanding contemporary China. In your view, is this true? Or, do you now see some aspects of contemporary China developing in ways beyond the Party’s control?

A: The final chapter in my book is titled: ‘China Beyond the Party’, so I certainly feel that while it remains a jealous party, reluctant to share space, to operate in genuine partnership with individuals or organisations it does not control, China is bigger than the People’s Republic. People have more space to constructive private lives and family lives.

The Party began under Deng Xiaoping to concede space – as a result of its already being exercised – to people doing business for themselves. During and after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Party began also to concede space for altruism.

The Internet has also opened space beyond Party control. Despite the deployment of thousands of ‘net police’ and massive investment in supervisory software, persistent ‘netizens’ find ways to communicate information and ideas around and beyond the Party.

But the Party remains at the centre of contemporary China. It does not have to control directly every institution and activity; it does retain though the capacity to do so, which remains crucial, a level of authority that marks China’s governance out as unique in the twenty-first century world.


Q: When talking about China, the party-state is foremost in people’s minds. In your experience, do many Party leaders at the different levels see China, the Party and the state as the one indivisible entity? What about Chinese citizens?

A: China has always been ruled – except for a brief period during the first half of the twentieth century – by elites, usually imperial families, who have perceived themselves as incorporating the very essence of Chineseness, of China itself.

The Party is not different. It may have had its episodes and echoes, earlier in its ninety-year life, of being partly at least driven by class consciousness, by a form of internationalism. But since the Cultural Revolution evaporated its ideological raison d’être, it has transmuted into an organ whose legitimacy rests instead on constantly improving living standards and on its incorporating China, as did imperial dynasties.

The mystical heart of Chineseness that formerly lay in the Forbidden City, now rests in Zhongnanhai, the Party headquarters immediately to its west. At a more local level, matters are inevitably more functional. But even officials in provinces and prefectures are reluctant to countenance rivals to their authority. Chinese citizens naturally find it hard to separate party and state; the ‘separation of powers’ has never happened in China. But they do have an understanding of China – meaning, essentially, Han China, as a cultural entity and value-set that is not subsumed by or subordinate to the party-state.


Q: Among the ordinary people you’ve spoken to, do many regard one-party rule as simply the way things are? Do people discuss the possibility of an end to one-party rule sometime in the future?

A: It’s fair to say that ‘ordinary people’ routinely accept that the Party’s rule is the natural state of play in China. They have known nothing else. But the remarkable number of ‘mass incidents’ throughout the country – chiefly reflecting anger at official corruption or high-handedness – demonstrates that they want the Party’s cadres to maintain high standards, even when this is the exception rather than the rule. Many view local corruption as aberrant, and believe that ‘if only the emperor/the party general secretary knew’, then their righteous anger would lead to swift justice. In a parallel manner, many want to be able to have their day in court – a court with a truly independent and righteous judge – more than they might want to be able to choose their leaders, or exercise democracy in some other way.

While conversations about the end of one-party rule might be rare, they are not unknown. Many strikingly independently minded individuals do discuss almost every conceivable manner in which China might be changed. They might not – almost certainly will not – be able to publish these thoughts or conversations at a mass level within China, but they can do so outside, in Hong Kong say, or in Taiwan.


Q: In Party Time, you remind readers that China is ‘a society of individuals, and strikingly so’. This is a very significant remark as individuals are often forgotten in Western accounts of Chinese politics and society, which tend to portray the persons under discussion as representatives of one or another group. What do you mean exactly by a ‘society of individuals’ in the contemporary Chinese context? Given that there is always some level of censorship at work, to what extent can Chinese citizens genuinely express their individuality? To what extent does CCP politics influence their daily life and actions?

A: Every Chinese village or town is comprised of people whose sense of self, of being a unique individual, is strong and resistant to communalisation or corporatisation. People like to fit in, to be and to be viewed as good citizens, but they also enjoy at times defying expectations of conformity. Westerners for instance look to ‘dissidents’ to behave and to speak in ways which they would recognise as consistent, and consonant with Western ideas of nonconformity. But that rarely happens. Dissidents who go into exile are frequently found to be almost as ‘difficult’ – due to their unpredictability and refusal to fit a mould – in the West as in China. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, for instance, jailed for almost twelve years, holds complex and unique ideas that appeal to others – that’s why he was jailed, primarily – but is no ‘freedom fighter’ or campaigner for Western values.


Q: You discuss the Chinese legal system and consider obstacles to its development. You also discuss the prospects of justice in China, mentioning in particular the difficulties that the judiciary faces in its attempts to enforce the law fairly. In your view, can judges be just in a society that does not have an independent legal system?

A: Yes, judges can and mostly are just in China. The courts operate, at a basic level, in a pragmatic and effective manner. But there are also constant miscarriages of justice, politically driven exemptions and convictions, and an incapacity for justice to be seen to be done when almost the whole legal process takes place behind firmly closed doors. I have spoken with judges who certainly intend to be righteous, in the tradition of predecessors in ancient dynasties. But cases that involve vested interests, on either side – plaintiff or defendant – are almost invariably referred for Party adjudication. It is inconceivable that such a case will not be concluded in favour of the ultimate interest of the Party or its leaders in that area. True independence of the courts is a crucial test of the capacity of the openness of the system. China is not there yet, and is not shifting significantly in this direction.


Q: Chapter Five of your book focuses on journalism and censorship. You recount the experiences of Chinese journalists who were forced to work under strict Party control. To what extent has state control of the media in China affected the reporting of foreign journalists in China? What are the main difficulties of reporting from China on Chinese current affairs?

A: The party-state is only moderately interested in what people outside China think. Its focus is on what messages Chinese people receive. But of course it retains jealously a capacity to scrutinise everything that is said, written or done within its own borders. It concedes that the world has a huge and legitimate interest in China, and understands that it benefits from this – especially in the economic realm – but believes that it owns the right to control access to all information it perceives as strategic or even significant. This view governs domestic and international reporting alike. China thus provides unique challenges for foreign journalists; little and often zero access to courts, the top figures in key state owned corporations, or leading politicians. There is naturally a degree of competition between state-owned media, with Chinese journalists straining to stretch the boundaries within which they are required to operate. But there are limits, which foreign journalists remain free to breach – sometimes meaning that some big stories are broken abroad before being picked up within China itself, sometimes coming back into China via the Internet.

Some subjects are temporarily declared off-limits, by explicit instructions from the propaganda department. Other topics are more permanently restricted, potentially landing foreign journalists in serious trouble if they are breached: Falun gong, the Dalai Lama, Uighur independence campaigners among them. There remain mysteries at the heart of the Party – such as its funding and budgets – at which journalists chisel away but which remain elusive.


Q: In relation to a musical event in China, you wrote, ‘cross-pollination is viewed by the authorities as cross-pollution’. To what extent are the Chinese authorities suspicious of foreigners across a range of professions? And, in this context, what do you think of the controversy surrounding the recent Communist Party circular ‘Document No. 9’ (also known as the ‘Minutes of the 2013 National Conference of Propaganda Chiefs – a briefing document on the current situation of ideology’) which warns against ‘dangerous Western values’?

A cartoon circulated online in 2008 showing patriots engaged in battle against the promoters of universal values.

A cartoon circulated online in 2008 showing patriots engaged in battle against the promoters of universal values (click on to enlarge). Source: Danwei

A: The authorities have sought since 1978 to attract certain foreign expertise – predominantly in technical and managerial areas. But the Party, believing it incorporates China itself in its uniqueness, is convinced that there are clear limits to what it can learn from foreigners. It is far from a closed world, but it is a shielded world. The concept of universal values – re-branded ‘Western’ values even though they are widely espoused elsewhere in Asia – has come to be perceived in core ideological circles within the Party as challenging or troubling. They are viewed as a potential Trojan Horse carrying within it the potential to erode Party – or, as often presented, ‘Chinese’ values. Similarly, ‘constitutionalism’ is also portrayed by powerful elements within the party as dangerous – potentially leading to the constitution being placed above the Party as the core source of authority and legitimacy in China. The immediate rush of support for Charter 08 – the document that eventually triggered the jailing of Liu Xiaobo, who was than awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – when it was posted online, indicated the potential support for such values branded as ‘Western’, in juxtaposition not only to Chinese traditional values but also to the Party’s own communist values, which may also be perceived to have ‘Western’ roots.


Q: Do you think the Party motto ‘serve the people’ has any meaning in today’s China?

A: Yes, many people still join the Party in order not only to advance their own careers and obtain access to state assets, but as a way to help maintain China’s development, and as a channel for their altruism. The motto of course remains prominent, in Mao’s own calligraphy, at the major entrance to Zhongnanhai, the party HQ. Those who recruit Party members, for instance at universities, hold out the Party as the sole effective way for service, given the circumscribed scope permitted NGOs or churches or indeed any other social organisation. But despite this manifest sincerity, many Chinese people have become sceptical of such slogans in the face of the large and widening wealth gap, and of the plethora of stories and rumours about large-scale corruption among officials in a party whose lack of accountability is itself a core driver of that corruption.


Q: In a recent interview with the ABC, you mentioned that Indonesia and Taiwan offer useful examples of democratisation that China could potentially follow without undermining its economic prosperity. Do you know if China’s leadership is looking at those two Asian examples? More generally, is there any evidence of the leadership seeking inspiration from other Asian governments in its attempt to reform the existing system in China?

A: China’s leaders have since the days of Deng Xiaoping held Singapore in high regard as a successful fusion of corporate and political governance under the guidance of a dominant party. My own raising of Indonesia is a response to Chinese official critics who claim that democracy takes centuries to install successfully, that it does not work in Asia, that democracy can hold back economic growth, that democracy might work in smaller countries but not in nations with populations of hundreds of millions. But this is not an example which has any traction within China.

The case of Taiwan is quite different. Deng Xiaoping and Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, studied in Moscow at the same institution at the same time. But at their two countries’ decisive moments, Deng took his authoritarian party down one road, Chiang down another – risking all. As it turned out, in placing the fate of the Kuomintang (Nationalists) in the hands of Taiwan’s embryonic electorate, he gave the party a new lease of life, with the voters granting it the sense of legitimacy that continues to elude China’s Communist Party. The moves towards greater social and economic harmony between the two countries continue; but politically they remain poles apart. A question that must remain unanswered for now, is the extent to which the rapidly enhanced familiarity on the part of mainlanders towards Taiwan, may lead to their asking – though naturally in the most guarded manner – whether following Chiang’s decisive loss in the civil war, Taiwan has ended up having the better of it, in recent years, both economically and politically.