Not so Communist.

Photographer: Wang Zhao/AFP

This Chinese Dynasty Needs a Name

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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The Communist Party of China, it is frequently asserted, is a misnamed organization. That's because, since the party began experimenting with private enterprise in the 1970s, it has shed much of the intellectual baggage associated with Marx, Lenin and that ilk.

Not all the baggage, mind you. As Richard McGregor explains in his book, “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers”:

The Chinese Communist Party’s enduring grip on power is based on a simple formula straight out of the Leninist playbook. For all the reforms of the past three decades, the Party has made sure it keeps a lock-hold on the state and three pillars of its survival strategy: control of personnel, propaganda and the People’s Liberation Army.

So that's one reason to keep calling it the Communist Party. Another is that most of the possible alternatives are problematic.

The BBC’s Carrie Gracie suggested a couple of years ago that the Chinese Nationalist Party would be the most appropriate name, except that it is, of course, already taken. The leaders of the Nationalist Party, aka the Kuomintang, fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the Communists defeated them in a civil war. Now the KMT is a standard-issue political party in Taiwan's multiparty democracy. Just to complicate things, though, it too was organized along Leninist lines for much of its history, despite its popularity among certain 20th-century American capitalists.

Daniel A. Bell, the Tsinghua University political theorist whose ideas I've been giving a lot of play to this week, suggested in his book "The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy" that the Communist Party rename itself the Chinese Meritocratic Union or the Union of Democratic Meritocrats. When I asked last week if those proposals were gaining any traction, he laughed and said:

No, are you kidding? Not at all, and that part will be censored from the Chinese edition. In private people say, of course, it's not a bad idea. But the idea that you would do it in public is really viewed as totally out of the realm of what's possible, for the next few years anyway.

I'm going to offer some free advice to the Chinese leadership here: It's actually a terrible idea. If you're a Chinese factory worker, being ruled by the Communist Party at least makes it sound like you, as a member of the proletariat, have some say. The Union of Democratic Meritocrats, on the other hand, would be very clearly announcing that it thinks its members are better than you. Even in Singapore, which offers the most successful model of what Bell envisions for China, the ruling party knows enough not to put anything about merit in its name. It instead goes by the innocuous and almost entirely meaningless People's Action Party.

In the U.S., Democratic and Republican are similarly uninformative. In Denmark, two leading parties have names that are outright wrong (or at least long out of date): The center-right party is called Left (Venstre) while the middle-of-the-road party is called Radical Left (Radikale Venstre). In Austria, the Freedom Party has Nazi roots. In Indonesia, the former ruling party (now the junior partner in the ruling coalition) is the Party of the Functional Groups. Party names can be weird, and maybe they don't matter much. Perhaps the Chinese Communists should just follow McGregor's example and call themselves the Party, with a capital P.

Or maybe party is the wrong word here. During my travels in China over the past two weeks, I've come to realize (based more on what I was reading  than what I was seeing) that in many respects the current regime is simply the latest in the long line of dynasties that have ruled China since 220 B.C. This is not a novel observation, but it doesn't seem to come up all that much in non-academic Western discussions of China. The dynasty model works like this: After a period of decline or even chaos, a new ruler takes power -- usually by military means -- and establishes a new dynasty. Some of these are short-lived -- the first imperial dynasty, the Qin, lasted just 15 years -- while others bring centuries of peace and prosperity.

From a Chinese historical perspective, then, the American republic at age 240 looks like a quite successful dynasty that's been showing signs of age lately, not necessarily the "end of history." And for China's current rulers, legitimating themselves as part of a dynasty with the potential to rule for centuries is a top priority. That's why Mao Zedong, whose record is openly acknowledged in China as pretty disastrous, still has his face on the money and the big banner overlooking Tiananmen Square. Mao took power after a century of political turmoil and humiliation at the hands of foreigners and defeated the rival KMT, threw out the foreigners, united the country and established a new dynasty. Repudiating him, as Khrushchev did with Stalin, would mean repudiating the dynasty.

So what should this dynasty be called? Mao Dynasty seems obvious to an outsider, but from a historical perspective it would be terribly inauspicious: The only Chinese dynasty to take the family name of its founder, the Chen Dynasty, controlled only a small part of the country and lasted just 32 years. The highly informative review of dynasty-naming at History Stack Exchange lists five other methods that have been used:

  1. Reviving an ancient dynasty name
  2. Place of origin
  3. Previous title (that is, the Tang Dynasty was founded when the Duke of Tang became emperor)
  4. Ancestral name (basically, reviving an ancient dynasty because you're distantly related to the founder or wish to give the impression that you are)
  5. Made up on the spot

Dredging up an old dynasty name feels a little too retro at this point even for the history-obsessed Chinese, and Mao wasn't the duke of anything. That leaves place of origin and making something up on the spot. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai 95 years ago, but there's no way that Shanghai Dynasty would fly in Beijing. Yan'an Dynasty, for the location of the caves in central China where the Communists sheltered from 1936 to 1948, seems more promising. But it does seem to be getting a little late for that, or for making up something new.

Which leaves Communist, a word probably coined by Frenchmen and popularized by a couple of Germans. That seems awfully foreign for Chinese tastes -- even Mongolian ruler Kublai Khan was politic enough to give his dynasty a Chinese name (Yuan). But it's what China's rulers have been calling themselves for almost 67 years now, already outlasting six historical dynasties. Communist Dynasty it is, then. Let's see how long it rules.

  1. Mainly "Confucius and the World He Created" by Bloomberg View contributor Michael Schuman, "Chinese Rules: Mao's Dog, Deng's Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China," by Tim Clissold, and Bell's "China Model." 

  2. There is a New Tang Dynasty Television network, based in New York and run by adherents of the banned-in-China Falun Gong movement. But that seems like it would be an argument for not adopting such a name in Beijing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net