A float featuring the Communist Party of China passes through Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 2019 during a parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Photo: AFP Forum via Sputnik / Anna Ratkoglo

Writing in mid-March, Josh Rogin, a columnist for The Washington Post, intoned the importance of pushing back against Beijing’s rewriting of the history of the coronavirus crisis, but not in a way that fuels racism against Chinese citizens or Asian-Americans, something still pertinent four months on.

“The key to accomplishing both goals is to separate the way we talk about the Chinese people from the way we talk about their rulers in Beijing,” Rogin wrote.

Echoing the views of many academics and commentators around the world, he said, “We must all be specific in blaming the Chinese Communist Party for its actions. It was the CCP that hid the virus outbreak for weeks, silencing doctors, jailing journalists and thwarting science.

“The Chinese people are heroes in this story. Chinese doctors, researchers and journalists risked their lives and even died fighting the virus and warning the d.

“The Chinese are also victims of their own government’s draconian measures, which caused massive extra suffering.” In short, he concluded, “Our beef is not with the Chinese people. Our problem is with the CCP.”

One cannot be sure how pervasive such a view is. But the “CCP bad, Chinese good” sentiment appears common. Having lived in or reported from many authoritarian countries, I know the notion that there is a neat division between the ruling party and everyone else in society is enticing.

Moreover, when trying to defend a group from racism, one walks a fine line between defense and patronizing. Often that group is instead held up as perfect and infallible, though without responsibilitfor their actions.  

This thinking is problematic, though. Take Li Wenliang, the late Wuhan doctor and “whistleblower” who is now regarded as something of a “dissident” by some in the West because of his revealing of information about the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 before his death in early February.

He was no doubt someone Rogin had in mind when he wrote about the “heroes in this story.” Yet he was a member of the CCP since university. A great number of China’s most famous and coherent dissidents were once party members, too.

As Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute, noted in an article for Oxford Political Review back in April, “for the great supporters of a neat division between Party and population, the thorny issue is that the Party is part of society, and its members are, unsurprisingly, more often than not typical Chinese people.”

He went on, “The Party deliberately sets out to integrate and reach deep into society. The most prudent thing one can say about the relationship between the two is that they are very complex.”

And he added, “And if you want to start deploying language like ‘evil’ about the Party, then you are going to have to start labeling a good number of Chinese people that way too. Party members are Chinese people, after all, not some separate species.”

While there are a tiny minority of some 3,000 senior party apparatchiks, there are around 90 million members of the CCP, according to estimates. But this doesn’t tell the whole picture of how not only the CCP pervades all areas of society, but also of how hundreds of millions of people are directly or indirectly tied to its fate.

Aside from the apparatchiks, there are millions of scientists, technicians, economists, academics and other experts who advise the government.

Added to this are the academics, journalists, editors commentators whose job is to defend the party. Indeed, the party apparatus and the sweeping bureaucracy are increasingly drawn from the ranks of urban, middle-class and university-educated, many of whom most probably don’t share the party’s ideology but know opportunistically or realistically that working with it is the only way to get ahead in life.

Many of the heroes of China’s economy also owe much to the party’s patronage. And then there are the tens of millions of ordinary people who have been lifted out of poverty and offered the promise of prosperity because of the CCP’s guardianship of the economy.

Yet this throws up another problem. Just because so many Chinese people are tied to the fate of the CCP, it doesn’t mean it is the legitimate representative of the Chinese people, given there has been no free election in China for decades, and certainly not since the creation of the People’s Republic in 1949. It is impossible, as a result, to conclude that the Communist Party is, first, popular, and, second, the legitimate representative of the Chinese people.

But this reasoning comes with a logical conclusion that many commentators do not want to concede: The Chinese people will never have a legitimate government until there is either true democratic reform or regime change in Beijing. In this case, those of us who believe that China must have a democratic future must not battle with China, but for China.

Kerry Brown blushes at this. He writes sarcastically of the “heroic statement that we, outside of China, with our enlightened ways, are those who will be key in delivering this salvation. We are on our way. Freedom is nigh.”

One shouldn’t be so skeptical, however, about expressing the moral certitude of the democratic world, not just by Westerners, but also people from China’s neighbors like South Korea, Japan and, dare one say, Taiwan. Arrogance is wrong, but moral relativism is worse.

Yet if one does wish for democratic change in China, then the sort of thinking that “our beef is not with the Chinese people; our problem is with the CCP,” as the columnist Rogin put it, is counterproductive.

Like it or not, most tyrannical states don’t fall from the noble and courageous protests of ordinary citizens. The Soviet Union wobbled because of a decades-old mismanaged economy, but it finally crumbled after Moscow refused to put down protests in the Warsaw Pact nations, an attempted military coup flopped, leaders in the Socialist Republics on the USSR’s periphery broke away, such as those in the Baltics, and then the center caved in when Boris Yeltsin called for Russian independence.

Only in Poland, of the USSR’s European satellite states, was there something like a functioning civil society and a possible “government-in-waiting,” in the form of the Solidarity movement.

Throughout history, authoritarian regimes tend to fall as the result of a “palace coup”; a natural withering away, as in the case of the Soviet Union; or a coup from those outside the ruling party, which may involve ordinary people but more often involves the military. Indeed, the People’s Power movement that overthrew the Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 relied on military support, while the regime of Indonesia’s dictator Suharto pretty much withered away in the late 1990s for numerous reasons.

If the Chinese Communist Party was ever to fall from power, it would most likely result from internal liberalization or some form of “palace coup” by moderates within the party.

But stating hatred of the CCP sidelines many in the party who are open to change and reform. Indeed, by assuming the entirety of the CCP is one monolithic organization, that everybody from the bottom to the top is equally responsible for the governance of the state (and equally responsible for the crimes of the state), it does nothing to separate the upper echelons of the party that surround President Xi Jinping from the rest of the party who, many commentators suspect, are often about Xi’s motives and actions.

If one hopes for a democratic future for mainland China – or, at least, a less draconian leadership from the CPP – this reformed system will need many of the same officials of the ancien regime to manage a new system.

After 1949, the newly established People’s Republic even had to rely on some old Kuomintang officials and provincial warlords. More often than not, the politicians and bureaucrats who populate a post-authoritarian system are the same ones who governed during authoritarian times. In an extreme analogy, post-1945 Germany had to employ former Nazi functionaries in office if the new governments were to survive. 

Perhaps, instead of a separation between the CCP and the Chinese people that doesn’t really exist, democrats across the world should say they support the reformist forces and reformist thinkers in China – be it those inside or outside the CCP – and are against those in favor of authoritarianism in China, which includes a good number of Communist apparatchiks as well as Chinese civilians.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno