Book Review-Red Capitalists in China: The Party, Private Entrepreneurs, and Prospects for Political Change

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Amazon Paperback $5.97 – $10.85 ISBN-10 0521521432   ISBN-13 978-0521521437 Publisher Cambridge University Press  Publication date  January 20, 2003

by Ankit Kumar  29 June 2023

About the author

Bruce Dickson is a distinguished author and professor with a profound understanding of the political dynamics in China. His research and teaching expertise primarily revolve around the adaptability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the governance of the regime. With a comprehensive knowledge of China’s political landscape, Dickson’s work provides valuable insights into the country’s socio-political transformation.

As a professor, Dickson has written in a wide range of courses, including those focused on China, comparative politics, authoritarianism, and democratization. His teachings encompass not only the intricacies of China’s political system but also the broader context of political dynamics worldwide.

Dickson’s current research focuses on the political impact of China’s economic reform, delving into the intricate relationship between economic changes and political developments within the country. He explores how economic transformations have influenced the CCP’s strategy for survival, shedding light on the party’s evolving tactics and adaptability in the face of societal and economic changes.

Moreover, Dickson’s research delves into the shifting relationship between the state and society in China. By examining this evolving dynamic, he offers a nuanced understanding of the complex interactions and power dynamics between the CCP and different societal actors. His work is really valuable in comprehending the implications of China’s political and economic transformations for its citizens and the broader international community.

Dickson explores the intricate relationship between the Chinese Communist Party, private entrepreneurs, and the potential for political change in the book “Red Capitalists in China: The Party, Private Entrepreneurs, and Prospects for Political Change” In this influential work, the book offers a comprehensive analysis of the evolving dynamics of power, wealth, and politics in the Chinese political and economic system.

Dickson’s notable publications include

  1. The Party and the People: Chinese Politics in the 21st Century
  2. The Dictator’s Dilemma: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Survival
  3. Allies of the State: Democratic Support and Regime Support among China’s Private Entrepreneurs” (Harvard University Press, 2010) – Co-authored with Jie Chen
  4. Wealth into Power: The Communist Party’s Embrace of China’s Private Sector” (Cambridge University Press, 2008):
  5. Red Capitalists in China: The Party, Private Entrepreneurs, and Prospects for Political Change” (Cambridge University Press, 2003): This work examines the complex relationship between the Chinese Communist Party, private entrepreneurs, and the potential for political change in contemporary China.
  6. “Democratization in China and Taiwan: The Adaptability of Leninist Parties” (Oxford University Press, 1998): This book focuses on the adaptability of Leninist parties in China and Taiwan, exploring the potential for political democratization within these contexts.

Bruce Dickson’s collection of books showcases his expertise in Chinese politics, offering deep insights into the Chinese Communist Party’s strategies, the role of private entrepreneurs, and the prospects for political change. His contributions to the field have enriched our understanding of China’s political landscape and its future trajectory.

Pigeonholing

Bruce Dickson can be recognized as a distinguished scholar specializing in the political dynamics of China. His current research areas focus on three main aspects: the political consequences of economic reform in China, the evolving strategy for survival employed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the shifting relationship between the state and society.

With a focus on the political implications of economic reform, Dickson investigates how China’s economic transformations have shaped the country’s political landscape. By exploring the consequences of these reforms, he sheds light on the intricate interplay between economic changes and political developments in contemporary China.

Furthermore, Dickson’s research delves into the CCP’s evolving strategy for survival. He analyzes the party’s adaptive measures, exploring how it navigates the challenges and pressures of a changing society and global dynamics. This research provides valuable insights into the strategies employed by the CCP to maintain its hold on power. Bruce Dickson has established himself as an authority on the political consequences of economic reform, the evolving strategies of the Chinese Communist Party, and the evolving relationship between the state and society in China.

Assessment of the author

Bruce Dickson’s assessment of the relationship between red capitalists, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and political participation sheds light on the complex dynamics within China’s political and economic landscape. His research reveals interesting patterns and provides valuable insights into the motivations and behaviour of entrepreneurs in China.

One notable finding from Dickson’s study is the significant number of red capitalists who are party members. It is estimated that 20-30 per cent of entrepreneurs in China are members of the CCP. Moreover, two-thirds of red capitalists were party members before venturing into business, indicating a strong correlation between party membership and entrepreneurship. This data challenges the notion that capitalists in China are solely motivated by economic interests and highlights the intertwining of political and economic power.

Dickson’s research also emphasizes the top-down nature of capitalist recruitment into the CCP. While the ban on capitalists joining the party has been lifted, the process remains cautious and limited. The party’s welcome of capitalists is measured, as evidenced by the relatively small number of entrepreneurs included in key party positions. This cautious approach reflects the CCP’s desire to maintain control and balance the interests of various societal actors.

Dickson highlights that China’s private entrepreneurs and business associations are not pushing for radical political change or democratic reforms. Instead, they seek closer integration with the existing system and prioritize good governance over democracy. This reflects their concerns about potential instability and the desire to maintain stability and continuity in China’s political and economic environment.

Importantly, Dickson’s work challenges the notion that China’s entrepreneurs are solely driven by economic interests. He explores the complex relationship between capitalists and the CCP, revealing how capitalists strive for integration within the existing political system rather than pushing for radical political change. This nuanced perspective emphasizes the importance of stability and continuity in the political and economic landscape of China.

Assessment of the book

“The prevailing belief suggests that privatization and economic modernization typically pave the way, either directly or indirectly, for democratization. However, China serves as a compelling example that challenges the validity of this widely held notion”.

Why has the Chinese Communist Party survived, when most of the other ruling communist parties have not? This basic question has been a puzzle to scholars, policymakers, and perhaps even to the CCP itself.

The book, despite its concise size, manages to cover a significant amount of ground within its 200 pages, divided into six chapters. This brevity allows for a focused and compressed examination of the subject matter, ensuring that readers receive a condensed yet insightful exploration of the complex dynamics at play. In his book “Red Capitalists in China,” Bruce Dickson, presents a comprehensive analysis of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) adaptation to the nonstate sector and the behaviour of private entrepreneurs in navigating politically sensitive issues to achieve success. Focusing on entrepreneurs who are party members or have been co-opted into the party, Dickson’s use of survey data reveals that these “red capitalists” have largely upheld the status quo and have not acted as agents of significant political change, contrary to popular expectations.

“Red Capitalists” is a well-crafted and significant work enriched by a wealth of data that sheds light on the relationship between economic liberalization and political reform, particularly in the context of the interaction between the private sector and the state. Dickson’s survey findings highlight the close ties between local government officials and the private sector, a phenomenon expected in China’s “market socialist” system. These political connections grant entrepreneurs greater market access and given the unpredictable nature of taxes and regulations, private business owners must closely monitor the government and the party. Furthermore, the absence of a robust rule of law and effective protection of fundamental rights discourages both officials and entrepreneurs from openly expressing opposition to the existing regime and advocating for Western-style democracy.

Based on Dickson’s survey of 524 private entrepreneurs and 230 local party and government officials, it becomes apparent that China’s entrepreneurs are not currently inclined to pursue an independent status that would allow them to challenge the authority of the state. Instead, their objective is to establish strong connections within the state apparatus itself. Simultaneously, the state has created institutional mechanisms to facilitate and strengthen the linkages between private business interests and governmental structures.

Dickson’s research reveals a convergence of views between private entrepreneurs and government officials, particularly in more developed regions. Consequently, red capitalists emerge as agents of economic growth and stability, rather than catalysts for political change. Local leaders are inclined to prioritize economic expansion and seek benefits while upholding the party’s dominant position. However, Dickson emphasizes that this finding should not discount the potential for the private sector to play a role in future political reform.

The imperative to drive economic development compels the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to forge new connections with social segments that were previously excluded, such as intellectuals, private entrepreneurs, and professionals. While this adaptive strategy yields short-term success, Dickson argues that it erodes the organizational competence of the Leninist system, ultimately leading to its abrupt collapse, as seen in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Contrary to those who view China’s increasing array of corporatist arrangements as a path towards gradual political liberalization, Dickson contends that the strategy of co-optation, employed to ensure the party’s survival, will inevitably result in the “deterioration of the communist party and the whole Leninist  system itself.” Societal corporatism, as Dickson asserts, is fundamentally incompatible with a Leninist system.

Dickson examines the dynamics of Leninist adaptation in chapters dedicated to the organizational links established by the CCP to engage with the private business sector, the politics of co-optation, and the political attitudes of private entrepreneurs and local officials. Through an analysis of associations like the Self-Employed Laborers’ Association, the Private Entrepreneurs Association, and the Industrial and Commercial Federation, Dickson discovers a roughly equal divide between officials and entrepreneurs regarding the role of these associations: whether they should maintain party leadership over the private sector or represent the interests of their members. Surprisingly, entrepreneurs in economically developed and privatized counties lean towards perceiving these associations as reflecting the government’s perspective. This challenges the assumptions of modernization theory, indicating that increased development and privatization lead to heightened embeddedness rather than greater autonomy.

In the chapters addressing co-optation and the political beliefs of China’s red capitalists, Dickson explores the internal CCP debate between traditionalists, concerned about the party’s erosion, and reformers, who advocate for the inclusion of entrepreneurs to avoid isolation. Examining the attitudes of entrepreneurs, Dickson finds that many adopt an elitist stance, favouring their political participation but not that of others. Entrepreneurs also exhibit higher support for policies promoting economic growth over social stability compared to party officials. Remarkably, Dickson’s survey of the economic elite reveals “no relationship between indicators of individual prosperity and support for political reform.”

Overall, Dickson’s book provides valuable insights into the complex interplay between the CCP, private entrepreneurs, and political reform in China. His thorough examination of organizational dynamics and political attitudes highlights the challenges and limitations faced in bringing about significant political change within the current system.

Conclusion

Dickson’s book “Red Capitalists in China” offers significant insights into the evolving role of private entrepreneurs and business associations in China’s political landscape. His observations highlight two key points. Firstly, rather than using their influence to challenge the state, red capitalists strive for closer integration within the existing system, indicating a unique role within China’s nascent civil society. Secondly, Dickson’s study aligns with previous research indicating that entrepreneurs are hesitant to support democratic reforms due to concerns about potential instability. Presently, Chinese entrepreneurs appear more focused on promoting good governance rather than advocating for democracy.

Dickson’s meticulous research and extensive survey data provide valuable contributions to our understanding of the complex interplay between political, economic, and social forces shaping China’s future. The book offers fresh perspectives on the intricate connections between economic and political reforms and sheds new light on the potential influence of red capitalists on policy decisions. It will undoubtedly appeal to readers seeking a comprehensive understanding of China’s political landscape and the role of entrepreneurs within it.

Criticism

While “Red Capitalists in China” by Bruce Dickson offers valuable insights into the role of private entrepreneurs and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it is not without its shortcomings.

One criticism is that the book heavily relies on survey data, which may have limitations in capturing the nuances and complexities of the political and economic landscape in China. Surveys can be susceptible to biases and may not fully capture the intricacies of entrepreneurs’ attitudes and behaviours. Additionally, the sample size of the survey could be limited, potentially limiting the generalizability of the findings.

Another criticism is that the book tends to generalize the behaviour and motivations of red capitalists. While Dickson acknowledges variations within this group, there could be a risk of oversimplifying their actions and aspirations. The diverse nature of entrepreneurs in China, with differing backgrounds, interests, and ideologies, might not be fully captured in the analysis.

Lastly, while the book provides a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between private entrepreneurs and the CCP, it could benefit from a deeper exploration of the broader societal implications. The impact of this relationship on social inequality, labour rights, and civil liberties deserves further attention, as it could shed light on the larger consequences of the party’s adaptation to the nonstate sector.