Written by Kerry Brown.

One of the seminal texts during the period of struggle before the Communist Party of China (CPC) came to power in 1949 was Liu Shaoqi’s `How to be a Good Communist’, issued in 1939. Liu, despite being a native of the same area of China as his near contemporary Mao Zedong, had gained much of his political experience from being involved in the labour organisation work  particularly in the great urban centres of Wuhan, Shanghai and Guangzhou. This distinguished him from the more rurally networked Mao. Liu was to serve as Mao’s right hand man, and, from 1959 to 1968, China’s head of state. His short essay became a handbook of Communist Party membership practice, and was cited right up to his disgrace and downfall in the Cultural Revolution.

Liu, one of the most tragic figures of the Communist revolution, was posthumously rehabilitated in 1980. But few these days would associate him with any major intellectual contribution to the Party. There is a sense, however, that the vision he draws in 1939 of what kind of moral standards people have to meet in order to be good cadres and Party members has relevance, no matter how old fashioned the strictly orthodox Marxist Leninist terms he conveys this in might seem. Party members, he says, have to observe the proper ideology, they have to straighten out their thinking and see they are in a moment of revolutionary transformation and struggle in which they are the vanguard fighting against oppressive forces. `We Communists,’ he writes, `are the most advanced revolutionaries in modern history; to day the changing of society and the world rests upon us and we are the driving force in this change. It is by unremitting struggle against counter-revolutionaries that we Communists change society and the world, and at the same time ourselves.’

China’s current elite leaders are unlikely to come out with a statement like this today. But the question of what makes a good, effective, loyal Party member and how to prescribe and measure their behaviour and inner loyalty is never far from their minds. In particular, one of the key themes that Liu addresses in his short book (in fact, he devotes a whole section to it) will certainly have resonance with them: ‘A Communist must be clear about the correct relationship between personal and Party interests’, Liu declares. ‘Personal interests must be subordinated to the Party’s interests, the interests of the local Party organization to those of the entire Party, the interests of the part to those of the whole, and temporary to long-term interests.’ This, in their world view, still stands true, and lies behind the particular energy of the anti-corruption campaign they are currently waging.

There are plenty of people inside and outside China who maintain a very consistent and deep cynicism about the motives behind political figures and their actions across the country, particularly at the elite level. In an odd way, though, I think this cynicism lets a lot of important realities about the position China and its ruling party are now in evade attention. It doesn’t capture the more complex reality of what is actually going on. If we were to see the anti-corruption campaign as being waged around this single proposition above – the subordination of personal interests to those of the Party – then that at least gives an internal explanation for it. The accusation being made against a number of prominent figures currently is that they were not able to observe this subordination. This was their heresy. They inverted the private and the public in their obligation hierarchy. It is not just about accruing vast sums of money and acting with greed – it is related to what people believe, and how they view the Party they belong to. There is an expectation towards their moral behaviour in being Party members, no matter how eroded and devalued this has become since the time of Liu. It might also explain why some figures associated with huge amounts of assets have not been touched. They didn’t violate the obligation code, at least in terms of their beliefs.

We can stand outside this system and be highly critical and sceptical about it. There are, for instance, questions about who gets to say what the Party’s collective interests are, and how. We can also wrestle with the best description of what those interests might be. They would certainly be a different thing after 65 years in power than they were for Liu in 1939, when the Party was small, fractious and marginalised. But if we wanted to describe the system itself and how those acting within it might understand things, then I think these words about what is personal and what is of the Party, and how good members, and in particular good cadres, have to place the interests of the latter above those of the former, is important. Politics in China is brutal, and involves high stakes. But the idea we often hear of it being waged with mechanical self-centred viciousness by automaton like moral derelicts is supremely patronising. The real fire of the current purge comes because it does involve issues of belief, and about the Party’s destiny and those of the people within it. Reading Liu’s words from a time when the Party was more innocent and idealistic helps to understand this.

Kerry Brown’s The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in Modern China was published by I B Tauris in June. 


  1. I seems to me that Liu was simply reflecting the old Confucian expectations of officialdom, dressed up in Marxist-Leninist wording.

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