Between 1856 and 1860, the British and French empires fought China’s Qing dynasty in the Second Opium War. War had broken out after repeated acts of aggression against British and French subjects in the aftermath of the first war, which had concluded with the Treaty of Nanjing and, for China, the humiliating loss of Hong Kong. Poor trade and diplomatic relations followed and so, by 1856, the British and French headed East in a bid to tame the Chinese threat once and for all.
The war ended with an event that still haunts the Chinese cultural memory, and continues to affect their approach to foreign relations, finance and the international markets to this day. As the Anglo-French expedition approached Beijing, news reached the armies that their delegation, sent to negotiate the Qing surrender, had been imprisoned and tortured. Twenty had died. In a fit of rage, and driven by a strong desire for vengeance, British and French forces completely ransacked the Old Summer Palace. This was China’s main imperial residence and represented the pinnacle of its cultural achievement. Over four long days, the palace was destroyed by four thousand men. It was burned completely to the ground. Thousands of pieces of precious art were looted. China was again humiliated.
This was the low-point of what became known in China as the “Century of Humiliation.” This refers to a period between 1839 and 1949 when China lost its sovereignty over territories including Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan and was completely dominated by much more powerful states in the Western world. It still influences, to a very great degree, Chinese political and cultural discourse.
After Chairman Mao seized power in 1949 and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square, Chinese leaders and thinkers increasingly began to think about how to initiate the country’s rebirth. How could China reemerge as a global power, with a strong enough military and economy to resist the stronger powers to its west? How could it avoid a repeat of its 19th century humiliations?
This is where the idea of the party cadre comes into play. Looking back to respected bureaucrats like Lin Zexu, who became a symbol of China’s fight against British opium, the principle was to send hundreds of thousands party representatives – cadres – into whole swathes of the national economy.
There is a famous proverb in China that translates loosely as “the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” This is partly a nod to how local officials have, throughout history, tended to disregard the wishes of the authorities in Beijing. For some, it might romantically represent how millions of Chinese, in distant rural communities, live an independent life despite an authoritarian central government. But for others, this was a problem. How could the nation become economically sound, and how could it hope to protect itself from its enemies, if the government had little authority over vast swathes of territory?
Hence the party cadre. The idea to start with revolved around Mao establishing Communist authority to create a cohesive, economically strong state. Party cadres were sent from Beijing and trickled out across the country to enforce the government’s agenda in areas it had previously struggled to reach.
Particularly during the Cultural Revolution, however, cadres became largely about reinforcing the power of the Communist Party in all forms of national life. Cadres were a source of power: a way to control further the workings of the Chinese economy and assert a Communist presence in virtually every area of China’s huge landmass. To an extent, this omnipresence explains how the Communist Party was able to enforce its state-planning edicts and, in the time of Mao, disastrous economic policies on China’s industry.
Yet as China increasingly began to open up to the international markets under Deng Xiaoping, these cadres, once handpicked by the party leadership for little else than their ideological conformity, become ever-more useful as economic agents. Deng Xiaoping binned uneducated party zealots and replaced them with professional, technically competent cadres: a process of “streamlining and rejuvenating” the bureaucracy. Consciously or otherwise, his drive for economic reform was partly driven by the “Never Again” mentality which has dominated Chinese cultural and political thought since the times of the Old Summer Palace. The pressing need to achieve economic strength to avoid the humiliations of the past.
One might even go as far to say that these cadres, party technocrats embedded in business across China, are the bedrock of modern “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” That is to say, the particular type of capitalism that has emerged in China since the 1980s, one which allows private enterprise to flourish – but only under the iron fist of the state.
Cadres are the CCP’s representatives inside business, simultaneously employees of both private businesses and the state, and are designed to embed Communist Party thinking within the nation’s private sector. They are, of course, the eyes and ears of the Party in business, but also perhaps the eyes and ears of business in the Party: helping to relay concerns and wishes up the chain of command and, ultimately, to the central government in Beijing.
As we looked at recently in our feature on Guangzhou’s electric vehicle industry, the Chinese government in 2001 identified electric cars as a key market of the future. Too far behind America, Britain and Japan to catch up in the traditional automobile sector, Beijing decided to launch the “863 Programme” and invest hundreds of millions of dollars, at a very early stage of development, into technologies that would lead to the creation of the electric vehicle. This is a market that China already dominates, and is set to dominate further still as the world shifts to greener forms of travel.
But who would be the people actually initiating the 863 in practice, causing the shift in China’s car industry towards electric? Backed up by Beijing’s cash, thousands of technologically literate cadres would have gone into Chinese car manufacturers in order to further the government’s economic vision.
We see the influence of cadres in Chinese banks to this day. Just browsing the annual reports of some of the “big four” alone shows just what kind of power these party appointees can possess.
In its 2020 report, ICBC refers to “more than 2,800 cadres and employees join[ing] the frontline against the virus.” It outlines a “Dream in ICBC” programme, which involves training more than 100,000 “community-level cadres and technicians” – demonstrating how the Party and business is continuously looking to nurture the next generation of cadres. “Cadre management” forms one of the “four beams” of the Bank’s management framework, showing to what extent the cadre idea is embedded in China’s largest bank.
China Construction Bank, too, underlines the intermingling between political, party initiatives and the country’s banks. In 2020, 21 cadres from the bank were sent to Ankang, Shaanxi Province to undertake “poverty alleviation” initiatives. The private and the public sector are fundamentally entwined; the lines between the political and the economic are blurred as the party cadres help set the direction for the nation’s enterprises. At the same time, they are political figures and business actors. They are the embodiment of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
This idea – of party appointees planted throughout China’s businesses and private sector – has its roots in the Opium Wars and colonial domination. Looking back at the Century of Humiliation, political theorists and Chinese leaders tried to work out how best to ensure this could never happen again. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, cadres evolved to become an invaluable way for the Party to exert strong control on the country’s political and economic direction. China has been modernised by an embracement of market principles, and cadres enforcing this in communities and businesses across the country.
Cadres are in many ways the epitome of the “faceless bureaucrat” stereotype. But in modern China, these millions of people have a considerable role in setting the direction of what is soon to be the world’s largest economy.
Author: Harry Clynch
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