Chinese lessons in leadership

With critiques of Marxism and free-thinking seminars on politics and economics, China’s top school for Communist Party officials is far from the dour institution you might imagine.

Witness - Feet Unbound

I could see more ivy on the walls of the buildings than an Ivy League university and the rest of the grounds, with its mature trees and classical buildings, imparted a sense of Old World European scholarship.

It was a very different campus from other places we’d visited. China’s top schools for example, have modern, uninspiring campuses.

The Communist Party, it seemed, had clearly saved the best for their own use.

Indeed, there was probably a sense of triumphalism to appropriate what had once been a Catholic seminary and re-establish it as their administrative training centre.

There are 80 million members of the Communist Party and more than half of them work in the government in some way – whether directly in a ministry or in a state-owned corporation. Training them in management and administration requires what is probably the biggest human resources department in the world: the Communist Party School system, with some 2,000 satellite campuses.

The mission of these schools is not only to teach cadres the tools of governance, but also to reinforce ideology and the party line. Our visit was at one of the most important campuses: the Beijing Party School where 300 faculty members teach courses in nine different departments, ferrying through thousands of officials a year – some who turn up for short week-long modules, and others who move into the dormitories for three-month terms.

The dean of what is officially known as the Beijing Administrative College, Zhou Chunming, tells us the school has formed exchanges with foreign equivalents, including Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

We were taken to a seminar on Marx’s Das Kapital. I wondered how the professor would fit the current Chinese market economy with Chairman Mao’s vision. The Party has changed from its 1949 revolutionary roots. Karl Marx would not have recognized modern China as any proletarian state.

Five minutes in, and Professor Liu Changlong was up there flatly dismissing the old textbooks and saying there was nothing wrong with capitalism to a room of middle-aged cadres.

Liu didn’t exactly fawn over the new economic model, either. He went on to mull over private ownership and the unproductive way, as he saw it, wealthy people were getting wealthier, noting the growing income gap in the country.  He openly mused about the motivations of citizens willing to work as officials, and pointed out that one’s ability to govern does not necessarily translate to any accompanying sense of ethics or morality.

It was a jab right at the officials sitting before him.  He moved on glibly to discuss corruption.  I was somewhat stunned.

“We have to talk about and analyze sensitive issues,” Liu said. “The academic and teaching environment here is very relaxed.  There are no limitations to what can and cannot be discussed.”

The Party School is an open forum, Liu went on to explain, because it has to be. Officials can’t afford to avoid problems that could directly threaten their governance. The Propaganda Department may present news to the public, selecting facts and fabrication for inclusion. But on the closed campus of the Party School, officials must consider the real issues of income inequality, protests, and what direction the country should be headed, both politically and economically.

In a separate class, cadres separated into small groups for discussions, this time about Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Their task was to discuss some of the challenges facing the party today through Marx’s writings.

Questions assigned to the teams: 1) Marx was convinced capitalism was not sustainable. But 160 years later, it’s still around. How do you explain that? 2) What do you think is the relationship between capitalism and socialism? 3) Based on Marx’s Manifesto, what do you think of socialism with Chinese characteristics? Is this real Marxism? 4) How can the Manifesto help us build a harmonious society?

Participants in the classroom came from all walks of the party: a professor at a university, someone from the education bureau, a doctor at the medical college, a museum curator, a judge, and the chief engineer of a state-owned construction company.

Some of them were staying on campus. They had a schedule: from morning exercises in the courtyard to meals in the dining hall at night.

It is a great opportunity for cadres from different ministries and departments to network, and the development of friendships from time spent on campus probably equal the utility of studying Marx. For some party officials, attendance is a prelude to promotion, depending on the ministry or department.

As we left campus, we had a surprise: we passed by an old stone grave, gated off and surrounded by old trees.  It was the grave of Matteo Ricci, the 16th-century Jesuit missionary and one of the first Western scholars of Chinese language and customs. He would not have been surprised at the disciplined management style employed by China’s Communist Party today.

For hundreds, if not thousands of years, China has always had the challenging business of governing a large population.