A short review on “The Culture of Chinese Communism and the Secret Sources of its Power” by Kerry Brown

Abstract

Kerry Brown is a well-known scholar of Chinese culture. The Communist Party of China could not have avoided his attention.

I have read this book at a book club, and would like to share some of my impressions.

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The scope

Dr. Brown is a very well known and highly regarded scholar of China. He is considered an expert both in China and overseas, up to a degree at which the Chinese government itself sometimes consults him over how China is seen in the foreigners’ view.

What is this book about?

This book is about the official attitude of the Communist Party to several of the major issues that every social institution has to consider at some point:

  • History
  • Ideology
  • Ethics
  • Aesthetics

The views on these topics from within the Communist Party and from the outside are usually radically different. Being a foreigner, Dr. Brown usually writes about China from an outsider point of view. This is to be expected, as his audience is predominantly external. Moreover, he seems to be a strong supporter of the “outsider” point of view, the one that he calls “rigorously justified” and “empirically supported”.

This leads, however, to the conflict of visions with a large group the very object of his study. In simple words, it becomes hard to discuss China with its own ruling party members, who seem to be even speaking a language different to the one the external scholars of China speak.

One could simply say that the texts and ideas that the Communist Party speakers produce are just symptoms of being victims of the state propaganda, but dismissing such a large body of information would lead to a large loss of data. Rather than dismissing all the material that the Chinese Government and the Communist Party produce as being propagandist, Dr Brown proposes to develop a certain skill of understanding what exactly is being written “between the lines”.

This book is, in some sense, an attempt to write a field guide to understanding what the Chinese propaganda means when it says something.

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The results

Can I say that the attempt is successful?

I did write down several book titles and several other materials as a result of reading this book.

I did learn that after the year 1978, not just the economic policy of China changed, but also the government’s attitude to almost every aspect of a society from the list above.

I did find out that the Chinese Communist Party considers the broadly understood “Culture” an important tool in shaping the society and attempts to use it in its policymaking with more and more effort each year.

I did understand that the presidency of Chairman Xi is facing a challenge that is just as huge, or even more huge than the challenges encountered by its predecessors. On this issue there seems to be a consensus of both the external and internal scholars.

But have I understood what the Communist Party of China actually is? Not really. Apart from the fact that it considers itself an entity that is different from just “a party” in the Western sense of the word “party”, I did not really understand much. One analogy that is made in the book, that is intended to give a better understanding of the Party is the one of the Catholic Church, which also a grand structure that considers itself responsible for all aspects of the social life of its members. However, this analogy is not really illuminating. (Pun intended.)

Almost every aspect of the “uniqueness” of the Communist Party of China seems to have been tried by some other guys in this world. And even the “totalitarian” property is being just as successfully replicated by the Vietnamese right across the border to the South. Moreover, almost all properties of the CPC were already tried and tested by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and we all know how this party ingloriously terminated. The Chinese Party has obviously learned on the Soviet lessons, but whether this makes this social structure unique, I am not very sure.

On the positive side, now I understand that the Chinese Government will be paying more attention to the cultural side of life. It is going to be a hard job, as the “classical” art is all already redistributed in the nineteenth century, and is unlikely to be bought-out from the countries which already possess it. However, Chinese modern art is growing in price and is likely to become more and more interesting as it is given more attention, so “hard” does not mean “impossible”.

The natural Chinese seem to say that the book is largely repeating what they are taught at school on the politics course, so this book does not seem hugely critical. The author does cite a few dissidents from within China, but frankly speaking, their views did not do much to enlighten me either.

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References

I cannot even make a comprehensive list of things that I would be willing consult in order to understand China better. Below is a poor attempt.

  • How to be a good communist by Liu ShaoQi
  • Speeches of the Chinese Communist party leaders
  • Modern art exhibitions all over China
  • The Dream of the Red Chamber (an old classic)
  • Xi JinPing tells stories
  • Records of the speeches by Jiang ZeMin on YouTube/YouKu
  • Party learning materials/apps
  • Deep China by Arthur Kleinman et al.

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