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As China's Communist Party Marks 100 Years, Why Has It Lasted So Long?


The scholar Bruce Dickson has spent his career studying China. And he says, that work is getting harder. It's harder these days to talk with people in China, or at least talk with them freely. The government increasingly monitors people and their speech.

BRUCE DICKSON: The increased use of facial recognition software almost everywhere - in college classrooms - many of them have cameras now to monitor what the professors and students say. The internet has always been censored. But now it's increasingly monitored. And new groups that have tried to form, including Marxist student groups on campus, have been squashed and some of those leaders put in jail.

INSKEEP: This is the face of China's Communist Party that we know, a one-party state backed by increasingly powerful technology. But as the Communist Party marks its one 100th birthday this month, Dickson identifies another factor in its long-term survival. He writes of it in a new book called "The Party And The People." Chinese communist leaders listen to people, even to voices of protest, and accommodate them in a certain way.

DICKSON: They often do two things almost simultaneously. One, if there's someone who's identified as a leader of a protest, that individual - those few individuals will often be arrested and sentenced as a warning to others to not try some similar tactic. But at the same time, they often respond to the specific complaints of the protest.

INSKEEP: What's an example of a way that the party co-opts a protest movement?

DICKSON: So about 10 years ago, there was a village in the southeast coastal area of China where the villagers rose up in protest against the elected village leader who had sold off their farmland, given them a small settlement for what the value of the land was worth and then resold it to developers and pocketed the difference. So the villagers were so outraged about it that they marched on the government in the neighboring city. Initially, the response was to repress those protesters, put some of them in jail, put a heavy police presence in that village to prevent the protests from arising again. But then the provincial leaders stepped in and acknowledged the legitimacy of those complaints. They fired the elected village leader. They allowed a new election, in which case, one of the protest leaders was elected to be the new village leader - so in that sense, made it look as though they were being very responsive to what the complaints were and even indicated that in future protests like that, they would handle it the same way.

INSKEEP: This sounds like a very responsive government, even a small-D democratic move to listen to the people. What made it something less than that, though?

DICKSON: There's a couple things that made it less than that. One is the person who was the newly elected village chief himself was a member of the Communist Party. So in some ways, the higher authorities were simply reimposing the party's authority on this village but with a new person. Second of all, it did not spread to other villages, even though they had - may have had similar complaints. There were not reports of similar protests happening and a similar outcome.

INSKEEP: Is their ultimate goal not really to respond to the people but to make protests disappear?

DICKSON: Well, I think one is seen as a solution to the other. People realize that if they raise legitimate demands, they may be able to get them answered.

INSKEEP: How effective has this approach been?

DICKSON: It has been effective more in the past than at present. I think under - in recent years, under Xi Jinping, the focus has been more on repression and less on responsiveness.

INSKEEP: Why would the current leader, Xi Jinping, be more needful of that repression?

DICKSON: You know, that's one of the difficult questions to answer without actually having access to him. Why is he - seem to be so risk averse? From the outside, the party doesn't seem to be facing major challenges. There's no organized opposition. There's no movement to bring about political change in the country. There are no independent parties or labor unions, and so on. They may know information that they don't reveal publicly. That's also possible. We often can identify that the repressive turn has happened without fully understanding the reasons why.

INSKEEP: Can I ask one other question as the Communist Party of China turns 100? You've talked about the way that the party co-opts dissent. And when that doesn't work, they crush dissent. And they repress people and censor the media and censor the internet. And yet this seems to me to be a country with a lot of connections to the outside world.

There's a big diaspora. There's people with relatives in other places. There are literally millions of Chinese students who've come to the United States for college and gone back again. Or they've done business in different places, meaning there are a lot of people in China who know what it means to live in a free and open society or a more free and more open society. Do you not detect any desire among the people for that?

DICKSON: It was once thought when the U.S. and China had opened their relations, back during the Carter administration, that having more Chinese come to the United States for education and work - and then they would come here, they would get infected with the Democratic virus, then they would go home and it would spread. And that never worked out. And one reason didn't work out is that often when people would come to the United States, they didn't have the greatest of experience. They often didn't interact much with Americans. They often faced some type of prejudice by people they did run across.

There wasn't a real warm and fuzzy experience here in the United States. More recently when people in China look at the American political system and also what's happened in Europe in response to COVID, they're not looking at these governments as a better alternative to what they've got, which is ironic. We think, you know, the freedoms that we enjoy should be so apparent. But from the perspective of many of the Chinese looking at these other countries, their inability to deal with COVID, the inability to deal with our infrastructure problems and other types of basic policy issues tells them that maybe democracy is not a solution for their problems.

INSKEEP: Bruce Dickson is the author of the book "The Party And The People: Chinese Politics In The 21st Century." Thanks so much.

DICKSON: Great to be here - thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIA KENT'S "FLICKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.