July 19, 2010

The Red Telephone

On the desks of the heads of China’s 50-odd biggest state companies, amid the clutter of computers, family photos and other fixtures of the modern CEOs office life, sits a red phone. The executives and their staff who jump to attention when it rings know it as the red machine,” perhaps because to call it a mere phone does not do it justice. When the red machine’ rings,” a senior executive of a state bank told me, you had better make sure you answer it.”

The red machine is like no ordinary phone. Each one has just a four-digit number. It connects only to similar phones with four-digit numbers within the same encrypted system. They are much coveted nonetheless. For the chairmen and women of the top state companies, who have every modern communications device at their fingertips, the red machine is a sign they have arrived, not just at the top of the company, but in the senior ranks of the Party and the government. The phones are the ultimate status symbol, as they are only given out—under the orders of the Party and government—to people in jobs with the rank of vice minister and above.

The phones are encrypted not just to secure party and government communications from foreign intelligence agencies. They also provide protection against snooping by anyone in China outside the party’s governing system. Possession of the red machine means you have qualified for membership of the tight-knit club that runs the country, a small group of about 300 people, mainly men, with responsibility for about one-fifth of humanity.

Richard Mc Gregor, Financial Time’s man in China has a new book on inner workings of the Chinese communist party.

China Books

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