Can China's style of rule continue in an age of citizen uprisings and social networking?

The Chinese Communist Party is celebrating its 90th birthday. Clifford Coonan argues that if it is to survive, reinvention cannot be avoided...

Friday 01 July 2011 00:00

Not far from Starbucks and Zara, in an alleyway off a refurbished shopping precinct in downtown Shanghai, stands the building where 90 years ago, the Chinese Communist Party held its first congress.

Modern members have come from far and wide on a pilgrimage to Xintiandi, which means "New heaven and earth".

It's a decidedly non-proletarian environment – the Party people are sleek and confident; dressed in brand-name clothes and carrying the latest mobile phones; New China's elite.

Xintiandi has a Covent Garden feel and most of the biggest Western brands are represented here. Pizza Express is crowded, Zara is full of shoppers and, at the local high-end T8 restaurant, tables are hard to find.

Nestled in the former French Concession area of Shanghai, it's not where you'd expect the world's largest political party to have been born.

The official version is that on 1 July, 1921, 13 Communists held their first national congress to mark the birth of the Party. The meeting room, a shrine to Marxism, Leninism and the works of the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong, is juxtaposed against the surrounding consumerist palaces, but in another sense it fits right in. It is emblematic of something entirely new – a new dynasty of Chinese rulers that takes its mandate from the 1949 revolution, not from a democratic election.

Today, the Party has many reasons to celebrate. It has overseen China's ascent to its place as the world's second-largest economy, which has lifted millions out of poverty, put men into space and boosted the country's international standing dramatically.

But this rise has, predictably to Western eyes, come at the expense of individual freedoms. No dissent is allowed. However, some believe that rising wealth could undo this level of authoritarianism.

Nevertheless, the Party believes the Chinese model of communism is something entirely new. It says its system of control is better than Western democracy and the most effective way of running a country with such a huge population. The hardcore Marxist-Leninist principles of the heady early days have transformed into a socialism with Chinese characteristics, which is how the Party describes its ideology of freewheeling capitalism matched with iron rule.

As you might expect, the Party is enmeshed in Chinese society. To many it is an inconvenience, but a necessary evil that has secured stability in a country of 1.3 billion. Few truly love the Party, but similarly, not many people are openly critical of its achievements.

This is partially because dissent could get them into trouble, but it's not just that. People are very open with their opinions in China these days and you get a sense that the people have an ambivalent relationship to the Party, which is everywhere.

In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings of North Africa and the Middle East, the recent harsh crackdown on dissent in China showed that, despite the robust confidence it communicates to mark the 90th anniversary, the Party is in a peculiar position. Democratic urges are finding outlets in authoritarian regimes all over the world and this is something that the Party cannot tolerate.

It's probably fair to say that democracy is not a big talking point in polite Chinese society. People are enjoying the new wealth that the three decades of opening up and reform has brought them and even those who dislike the Communist Party are grateful for the stability it has brought.

And yet, as incomes rise in China, more people are paying tax. And when you pay tax, you want a say in how your tax money is spent. But having a say is risky, even for the famous.

The controversial artist Ai Weiwei, whose life work is linked inextricably to criticism of the Party, was held for three months without any official charges being levelled against him. And he is a Communist blue-blood, in that his father, the poet Ai Qing, is a legendary figure and a major player in the revolutionary history of China. But Ai went too far.

Since his re-emergence he is a different person. He won't talk about what happened to him and won't make any statements. As a critical voice he has been neutralised. Ordinary people, therefore, are even more cautious. Han Yueli, 30, has mixed feelings about what Communism means to her.

She says: "I think the feeling between the people and the Party is kind of fading these days. My grandparents' feelings are closer than my parents, while my parents' feelings are closer than mine. I felt a kind of distance even though I'm a Party member. Me and my friends – we never talk about Party things, history or politics at all. It's something that relates to our life, but is far beyond our life. I can hardly feel it, except some activities organised by my company which I have to join as a Party member.

"I think people now are more numb than before. They don't care that much about spirit. They are more materialistic. The Party, for them, is something that helps them keep their feet on the ground, but not something spiritual. It has changed," she says.

The change to which she refers is the Party's transformation from an underground Marxist-Leninist guerilla organisation – that had an ability to wage war as one of its central tenets – into a political organisation that controls the world's fastest growing major economy. Last year the number of Party members swelled to 80.27 million, an increase of more than two million from 2009 (of which, it's worth noting, only 18.03 million are women).

In the beginning, the Party had 50 members, rising to 4.5 million when the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Part of the explanation for the continued, sustained increase in membership in the modern age is that joining the Party can help you advance in your career.

This is probably why the chief executive of most big Chinese companies is always a Party guy and the deputy head is the one with the operational expertise who runs the day-to-day operation. I once visited a large brewing company and met the CEO, who spoke solely of the Party's achievements and displayed only a vague understanding of the company's business.

The computer in his vast office had no electric cable.

The vice-chairman was the man who made stock exchange announcements and who understood the way the company ran.

Here in Xintiandi – a reconditioned neighbourhood of low-rise "Shikumen", the essentially Shanghaiese stone-arched gate houses in narrow alleys – most of the Party seems to have shown up. They are here to see the anniversary exhibition, which showcases years of struggle and revolutionary fervour, mostly orchestrated by Mao. There are revolutionary relics, documents, photos and a model of the first meeting.

It's a sanitised version of Party history, for sure, but it is an interesting entry point to study the incredible arc that the organisation has followed during its nine decades of existence, from the era of Mao, who persecuted "capitalist roaders" during the Cultural Revolution, to the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and then the decision of Deng's successor Jiang Zemin to allow entrepreneurs into the Party.

It's true to say that some events to celebrate the anniversary are straight out of the propaganda handbook.

In Ritan Park in Beijing, people are belting out patriotic songs, such as "I Love You, China".

In fact, there has been a lot of singing to mark the event and a particular favourite is "Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China".

At an event in Beijing, 90 ministers and deputy ministers sang a chorus of "red songs", basically propaganda ditties, to mark the anniversary.

Much of the enthusiasm tends to come from older citizens. Li Fangfang, a 57-year-old woman from the State Forestry Administration, said: "It is a rare chance for 90 ministry-level officials to join a singing performance. This shows that all of them attach great importance to the Party's birthday.

"The song we will sing is 'Today is Your Birthday, My China', which is full of our love for the country and thanksgiving for the Party." Surprisingly, the Party is trying to play down the ideological aspects of the anniversary. At a recent news conference, Wang Xiaohui, vice director of the Central Committee's propaganda department, said the wave of singing red songs does not signal an ideological return to the past.

Wang said it is traditional to sing red songs and that this year was "a special occasion for Chinese citizens to get together and remember the revolutionary martyrs who helped to create the country as it is today".

"Today we have a very rich and diverse culture. Some like red songs, others like pop songs. And there are still others who like rock and roll," he said.

Online, 67.2 million Chinese webizens have wished the Party a happy birthday and more than half a million have taken part in a Party history contest on Weibo, China's version of Facebook which, like YouTube and Twitter, is banned by the Party in China.

One online commentator wrote on "It's a profound truth expressed through the plainest words. It's what ordinary people feel during our daily life. It's built upon [Party] members' own theories and practices. In predicaments, it unites us; in hard work, it encourages us; in victory, it leads us forward..."

Such language is reminiscent of the old school Communist dialectic, but the writer displays good sense. The reason sites like Facebook and Twitter fall foul of the Great Firewall of China is because they are hotbeds of critical thinking and this kind of dissent is not tolerated. If you post a sharply negative comment about the Party online, there is a good chance you will have the Public Security Bureau knocking on your door before too long.

For the faithful, another emerging trend is "red tourism" as citizens visit sites of great revolutionary achievements. This has given an economic boost to places like Jiangxi province in the south-east – one of the cradles of the Chinese revolution – and Nancheng, where the People's Liberation Army was founded, or Anyuan in Pingxiang City, which is the birthplace of the Chinese labour movement.

To ensure its grip on power stays firm, the Party has ruled out anything that might resemble multi-party democracy. In a current round of local elections, a handful of "independent candidates" put themselves forward online to stand and the reaction was swift. There is no such a thing as an "independent candidate" as it is not recognised by law, the leadership warned, the latest evidence that it wants tight political control as it prepares for a succession next year from President Hu Jintao to his presumed heir, vice-president Xi Jinping. Peaceful transition of power is another achievement of which the party is particularly proud and a jealously guarded one it is too. In imperial times, the change of dynasty would often come at the expense of stability, but no longer.

Probably the biggest complaint that people have of the Party in China is that some of its members are clearly corrupt. The leadership is constantly announcing plans for better supervision of cadres and it is clearly worried about the problem. Graft appears to be getting worse and the Beijing leaders are concerned that it could threaten political stability. Corrupt cadres selling public land to greedy property speculators causes anger and public unrest, which is not itself allowed.

Wu Yuliang, deputy secretary of the party's powerful administrative body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, said this week that 146,517 people were given disciplinary punishments last year and 5,373 were transferred to judicial agencies for criminal proceedings.

Clampdowns on corruption have become an annual event, but it is proving difficult to shake a payola system among cadres. Wu said investigations had paid special attention to embezzlement and bribery by officials, breaches of discipline and violation of laws in key sectors and abuses of power and corruption cases related to serious accidents and mass incidents.

Last year China experienced 280,000 of these so-called "mass incidents", including petitions, demonstrations and strikes, both peaceful and violent.

They were largely linked to anger over corruption and other forms of abuse of power such as illegal land seizures. The figure marks a steep rise from 2005, when there were 87,000 incidents. There is a feeling that as long as the economy keeps growing so strongly, these demonstrations will be kept under wraps.

A big question is what happens when China stops growing so fast, or if inflation starts to spiral out of control. A major bugbear among the population is the issue of organised groups fleecing local government coffers and absconding overseas. A report by the Chinese central bank last week said that thousands of officials had stolen more than £75bn and fled since the mid-1990s, mostly going to North America.

"The Chinese government attaches great importance to the issue of corrupt officials fleeing overseas," said Wu, who added that the figures were exaggerated. "We have conducted many campaigns to catch those officials and return their money."

China, he added, was "strengthening international co-operation in law enforcement to catch and prevent corrupt officials from fleeing abroad.

Back among China's citizens, a major part of the anniversary celebrations is the propaganda film Beginning of the Great Revival, which features 170 stars, including Hong Kong actors Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau. It dramatises the events that led to the founding of the party.

But Party purists are annoyed by a scene where Mao Zedong is given a gold Omega fob watch by his girlfriend.

Certainly, the use of the sought-after Swiss brand seems quite a leap from the revolutionary spirit that inspired the Long March.

Meanwhile there was some anger in the US that the film was being sponsored by General Motors, which was bailed out with government cash two years ago. The irony of Cadillacs being involved in a film about the Communist Party says a lot about China today.

Despite these setbacks, confidence is riding high among the Party faithful, given that the economy continues to expand and China's influence continues to grow. Li Zhongjie, a senior figure at the party's History Research Centre, said recently: "Over the last 90 years, especially the last 30 years of reform and opening up, we have made major achievements. This is something the world basically recognises. The Communist Party has built China to what it is today."

This success – in transforming what was a sprawling, backward agrarian country into the world's second biggest economy – is one of the great miracles of our time.

But the sheer pace of change means that, nine decades on, the Party is forced to constantly reinvent itself to stay relevant and to keep people onside.

The question that everyone is asking – but that no one can answer – is how long the Party can keep doing this in the face of change?

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