Who said the CCP is like the Mafia:
- Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan
- Fumio Kishida, Prime Minister of Japan
- Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of Defense
- Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, Mafia boss
- None of the above
In a way, I wish the answer was #4, the now deceased Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo (Al Capone’s successor in Chicago), but it wasn’t. # 1- 3 are more reasonable guesses, and for all I know one of them has actually said something like this. But the answer I was looking for was #5 “none of the above,” because my quote came from a Chinese dissident with a lifetime of experience as a CCP insider: Cai Xia.
Cai was born into a “red family” with impeccable credentials: her grandfather was an early Party member and her parents fought in China’s Communist Revolution. Cai holds a PhD in Chinese Communist Theory, and worked for 15 years as a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, where high ranking CCP cadres are trained. At the beginning of her career, she was so orthodox that classmates nicknamed her “Old Mrs. Marx.” But as her thinking evolved, Cai started getting into trouble for criticizing the Party.
She left her faculty position in 2012, but continued to publish and speak, almost as if she was testing how far she could go. She found out how far in 2016, when she gave a speech in which she likened Xi Jinping to a “mafia boss” and called the Party a “political zombie.” From that point forward, she wrote in an article in Foreign Affairs, “the CCP blocked me from all media in China—print, online, television. Even my name could not be published.” In 2019, while Cai was traveling on a tourist visa in the US, a friend told her that if she returned to China, she would be arrested. Cai decided to stay and now lives in exile in the US.
In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Cai spelled out the details of the Mafia analogy with Xi Jinping as the Don, the six members of the CCP Standing Committee as underbosses and consiglieres, and the remaining 18 members of CCP’s Politburo as capos who try to stay in Xi’s good graces by executing his orders. As a reward “they are allowed to enrich themselves as they see fit, seizing property and businesses without penalty. And like the mafia, the party uses blunt tools to get what it wants: bribery, extortion, even violence.”
Cultural differences between the US and China have added to misunderstandings between the two countries. According to Cai “Americans are too naive… One basic cultural tradition of Americans is not to lie, to obey the rules, and to respect the spirit of contracts. In Chinese culture deception is in our blood. There is no spirit of the contract, no sense of fairness, and people often say different words to mean the same things under different circumstances. Something said today can change tomorrow.”
Well, I’m glad she said it. In my posts on cultural differences between China and the US, I talked about “the relativity of truth,” but if I had written anything quite this direct I might have been sued by an anti-Asian alliance.
Cai also highlighted another of the seven cultural differences I mentioned in my posts – “relationships as the key to success” – when she wrote “When it comes to one’s rise within the party hierarchy, individual relationships, including one’s family reputation and Communist pedigree, matter as much as competence and ideology.”
She sees President Xi Jinping as one example of the rise of a “princeling” (a descendant of an influential family) that has “failed upward.” “Over the course of his tenure,” she wrote elsewhere, “the regime has degenerated… into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness… People who haven’t lived in mainland China for the past eight years can hardly understand how brutal the regime has become.”
All of his policies ultimately come back to holding on to power in Cai’s view. When I wrote a post about Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, I quoted Professor Kerry Brown that Xi’s campaign “has really drawn blood.” Perhaps I should have put more emphasis on whose blood exactly. According to Cai, “since corruption was endemic in China, with nearly every official a potential target, Xi was able to use the campaign as a political purge.” She proceeded in the same article to quote how Xi targeted rivals while “those who helped Xi rise have been left untouched.” For example, while “there is reason to believe that… [Xi ally] Jia Qinglin… and his family are exceedingly corrupt—the Panama Papers, the trove of leaked documents from a law firm, revealed that his granddaughter and son-in-law own several secret offshore companies—they have not been caught up in Xi’s anticorruption campaign.”
One of the most important implications of Cai’s look behind the curtain is to remind us that the CCP is not monolithic, and that some Party members and elites strongly disagree with Xi Jinping’s policies. Based on “more than 30 years of contact with middle and high level CCP officials,” Cai wrote in a Hoover Institution white paper (p. 25), “I can say that at least 60-70 percent of the CCP’s high level officials understand… that only a democratic constitutional government can ensure long-term stability in China and protect human rights, personal dignity, and personal safety.”
Wait a minute. 60-70% of senior CCP officials want democracy? Can that be true? Why don’t they do something about it? Cai’s answer: “There is little chance for any form of opposition to organize under Xi’s heavy handed rule.”
Her advice to US policy makers is dark. The CCP’s goal she believes is “to replace the free and democratic system of modern mankind represented by the United States, and the values and order of peace, democracy, freedom and justice,” with its own model of governance. If that’s not bad enough, she has also argued that “relations with China are destined to be defined by standoff and confrontation in large part because the Chinese Communist Party is by nature totalitarian, belligerent, unpredictable, and unwilling to follow the norms of a democratic rules-based order.”
Given that Cai was basically thrown out of her home, in the country she loved, it may be wise to take what she says with a grain of salt. If I were thrown out of the US as a result of my politics, I’d certainly hold more than a few grudges. But it is also worth noting that her claims have an unusual credibility given that Cai is the highest ranking Chinese insider to provide insights into the hidden world of CCP politics.
In Cai’s view, if Xi were to have a fatal heart attack tomorrow, the nature of the US-China rivalry might change for the better. But that’s probably not going to happen soon.
What is likely to happen when the 20th Party Congress meets in Beijing October 16 is that Xi will be elected to an unprecedented third five year term as General Secretary of the People’s Republic of China. He is 69 now so he will be 74 if his third term ends on schedule in 2027. He could then be elected for additional terms and even become president for life.
There’s hope for US-China relations in a post-Xi world. But in the meantime, with an adversary like Xi on the other side of the negotiating table, the US needs a very clear understanding of China’s goals and methods. And we will also need to be prepared for a wide variety of surprises and unpredictable events.