“It’s easier for a young man to find girlfriends if he is a Communist Party member,” said Liang Wengen, chairman of Sany Group, outlining the benefits of joining the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th Communist Party Congress.
“The party members’ girlfriends tend to be prettier than those of non-members … so I wanted to become a party member since I was young,” said Liang, who is China’s wealthiest man and, apparently, a party member.
His blunt comments reflect the truth. China is a network-based society in which people’s rights and obligations are firstly determined by family. Not everyone is lucky enough to be born to rich and powerful parents, so building a network of influential contacts is vital to success.
And, of course, the biggest and best network is the Communist Party. Membership provides a ticket to social and professional advancement, especially in the public sector, where every single significant position is filled by a member designated by the party.
Heads of large private companies need to bow to party mandarins to prosper. Sany’s landmark acquisition of Putzmeister, its blue-chip German rival, would not have been possible without the party’s support. It is the biggest patronage organisation in human history, bequeathing power and wealth to a select few.
How it works
The network is like a spider’s web — with all its strength and power concentrated in the centre. The inner layers — usually spouses and children — enjoy greater privilege for being closer to the centre, while the outer layers — comprising relatives and close allies — enjoy relatively fewer perks.
The web is highly elastic and can expand or contract depending on the degree of power at the centre, making the Chinese very sensitive to changes in the relationships among top leaders.
Maintaining the network is all about reciprocation, so it is hardly surprising that the relatives of powerful politicians amass colossal fortunes during their time in office. The rules of the network dictate it.
By the same token, a senior party member’s disgrace can affect others in his network — and usually those closest to him. When Zhu Shijian, former head of China’s leading cigarette maker Hongta Group, received a life sentence for corruption in 1996, his wife and daughter were also imprisoned. The daughter committed suicide.
At first glance, China appears to be a class-based society, with cities categorised into three tiers. In addition, the hukou (household registration) system divides citizens into two classes: urban and rural.
In reality, Chinese society is network-based. A rural resident isn’t handicapped by his identity at all if his father is a local official, whereas an urban resident may find it hard to get by without the right connections.
China’s economic and political reform is hampered by these complex personal connections. Many heads of the leading state-owned enterprises and institutions are actually sons and daughters of party leaders, meaning that their power often outranks the government entities that are supposed to regulate them.
Foreign observers are not alone in finding the process of China’s leadership selection confusing. The only clear thing is that officials are often promoted thanks to their connections rather than on merit. The rules of the network dictate it.