This week’s superleak of a database of nearly 2 million members of Chinese Communist Party, most of them from around Shanghai, many of whom are working at the local offices of a number of big Western companies as well as many Western consulates, is interesting but it’s hardly news. I mean, what did you expect?
When considering the issue of party membership you need to keep in mind two things.
Firstly, being a member of the Communist Party does not necessarily mean you are a hard-core believer and activist in the cause of whatever official ideology the CCP now subscribes to (power and control – domestically and internationally, would probably be a fair summary, though that’s hardly an ideology). As in all one-party states, party membership is pretty much a prerequisite to any significant advancement and promotion. This has been the case in the Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and many other places, and has been and continues to be so in China. Millions of people over the past hundred years have sold their souls to the devil not because they’re intrinsically evil but because they simply want to get somewhere in life. As unaccustomed as we, in free countries, are with those sorts of calculations and choices, we should be careful in making sweeping judgments about people living in different circumstances.
Secondly, however, membership of the Communist Party is not the same as membership of a political party in a democracy, not simply from a moral point of view but in practical respects. The CCP is the superstructure of the state and it pervades all aspects of public, economic and, often, private life. It’s more than a mere voluntary association like one joins in the West; it is the one and the only that counts – it’s less of a political party than a cross between a monastic order, a not-so-secret society and an organised crime syndicate. As a Communist Party member you are a foot soldier of the state, and it’s your duty and obligation to carry out any instructions you are given by your superiors. The Party is your ultimate boss.
So while the mere fact of party membership does not necessarily tells us a lot about an individual, their personal beliefs and their character, you can be pretty certain that the Chinese nationals chosen by the Party to work for foreign employers (and yes, there is nothing accidental about who gets to work where) have been selected on the basis of their political and ideological soundness, their proven loyalty, and their reliability as instruments of the state power.
What’s the upshot of it all? That when you engage in commercial and other dealings in China, you do it at your own risk. Operate with your eyes wide open, fully aware of the conditions under which you are working, and able to clearly calculate costs and benefits for your business. China is not a normal country and nothing you do in China is quite the same as what you’re used to back home. Apart from the risk to your IP and your confidential business information, you are also at risk of being used as an unwitting pawn in the political and economic game played by the Chinese authorities with the world outside. The locals you employ are more than likely to be agents of the regime, whose ultimate loyalty and accountability is to the Party and not your business. If your business is big and important enough, there is a Party cell present, as it is just about every comparable Chinese business, with the difference that you are most likely unaware of its presence and operations, This is the sad reality of doing business with a very successful authoritarian regime. Buyer – and seller – beware.