In the heart of Shanghai’s glitziest shopping complex, nestled between high-end restaurants and a giant advertisement for Gucci, stands a small, old, stone building containing one of the most revered sites of the Communist party of China.
On the street outside, a hawker selling toy rattles says he has no idea what the building is. This is, however, the house where 13 members of the fledgling party held its first national congress, 90 years ago this month.
Just as he is about to answer a question on what he thinks of the Communist party and its six decades of rule, the vendor is shooed away by a security guard employed by the Xintiandi – literally “new heaven on earth” – luxury shopping complex. “The Communist party is great, it’s great. OK, I’m leaving, I’m leaving,” the hawker yells over his shoulder as he scurries off.
The party was established in 1921 in the name of people like him. But today it is widely seen as representing the entrenched interests of the wealthy elite – the kind of people who spend more on a single meal in Xintiandi than this pedlar would make in an entire year.
As it passes this month’s milestone, the party finds itself at a critical juncture, with a once-in-a-decade leadership transition scheduled for next year, some of the worst income inequality in the world and no consensus on what it must do to ensure its long-term survival as the growth model that has served it so well for three decades begins to run out of steam.
With more than 80m members, it is the world’s largest political organisation. In spite of its insistence that it remains true to its Marxist-Leninist, Maoist heritage, though, it is perhaps better described as the world’s largest chamber of commerce.
The first sentence of the manifesto of the CPC states that the party “is the vanguard of the Chinese working class”. Yet today, fewer than 9 per cent of its members are classified as “workers” while more than 70 per cent are recruited from the ranks of government officials, businessmen, professionals, college graduates and the military.
The ability to reinvent itself and adapt to changing times has ensured the party’s survival long after the demise of the Soviet Union and the shrivelling of global communism. Its economic reforms and embrace of the market have helped make China a rising superpower and the world’s second largest economy – and lifted hundreds of millions out of dire poverty. But in the absence of any serious attempts at political reform, the gap continues to grow between what the party says it stands for and the reality of state-backed crony capitalism.
In the last three decades, “the economy developed fast but political development has lagged behind”, says Yang Jisheng, a former government journalist and author of Tombstone, an investigation into the calamitous Great Leap Forward of 1958. “The fact is that many people today foster hatred for government officials and hatred for the rich.”
Despite the global perception of a more assertive, powerful and rising China, the party appears less confident in its ability to maintain its grip on power now than at any time in recent years. In a speech to 6,000 of the party’s nomenklatura on Friday, Hu Jintao, China’s president and CPC general secretary, lauded his “great, glorious and correct Marxist political party” and credited “all our achievements over the past 90 years to the tenacious struggles waged by Chinese Communists and the people of several generations”.
But he also warned that “the whole party is confronted with growing danger of lacking in drive, incompetence, divorce from the people, lacking in initiative, and corruption”.
His speech was peppered with the theoretical contortions that the party relies on to explain its ideology to the masses. And his dire warnings notwithstanding, his prescription for revival was a confusion of contradictory policies as he called on his comrades to uphold Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong thought while promoting the “socialist market economy” and “socialist democracy”.
Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, describes the modern party’s true stance as an “ideology of power” in which maintaining its own rule has become the overwhelming objective and main justification for its actions.
Many in China have pointed out the irony inherent in the enormous propaganda campaign launched by the party to celebrate its 90th birthday, which officially fell on July 1. Films, singing competitions, television shows, billboards and speeches have all lionised the party’s founders and the revolution they launched against authoritarian “feudal” rule – bizarre things to celebrate in an authoritarian state where opposition parties are banned and the government reacts with overwhelming force to the first hint of serious dissent.
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At the museum in Shanghai, photographs of those original delegates to the party congress provide a reminder of just how unlikely its eventual victory was. Of the 13 who attended the week-long meeting in 1921, five had quit the party a year or two later, four had been martyred or died of illness within a decade or so and one had been expelled for joining the Trotskyists.
Only Mao and one other attendee were still alive and committed to the Communist cause when, his loyalists having won most of the country over from the nationalists, Mao stormed into Beijing in 1949 and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
His attempt to wipe out capitalism and create a worker’s paradise led to disasters such as the Great Leap Forward, a failed economic overhaul in which as many as 45m people died of starvation, and the subsequent Cultural Revolution, a purge that threw the country into turmoil for a decade.
After his death in 1976, the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping eventually assumed the role of paramount leader and set the country on a path of market reforms and economic revival. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Deng accelerated economic reforms while tightening political control, establishing a social contract that exists to this day – people are free to grow rich and live their lives without great interference from the state as long as they do not question the party’s monopoly on power.
Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, took that policy further by allowing entrepreneurs and capitalists to join the party in the early part of the last decade. When Hu Jintao’s government took over in 2003, in the party’s first-ever orderly transition of power, it promised a gentler, greener, more equitable style. But many in China see this administration as characterised by empty rhetoric and weak rule.
“Each generation has been weaker than the last: Jiang was weaker than Deng, Hu is weaker than Jiang and the next generation of leaders will be even weaker than Hu,” says Li Datong, a former magazine editor and advocate of democracy. Mr Li points out that the party’s legitimacy now stems mainly from its ability to maintain rapid economic growth.
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But even many within the party believe it is facing an existential crisis as it prepares for an inevitable eventual economic slowdown, at a time when demands for greater representation for the new urban middle class are growing.
As the country prepares for next year’s leadership transition, in which Mr Hu is expected to hand the reins to Xi Jinping, his heir apparent, hints have emerged of deep fissures among the ruling elite over what direction the party must take to ensure its survival.
A small and relatively weak faction within the leadership believes that the implicit contract put in place by Deng has reached the end of its usefulness and that to avoid serious social upheaval, the Chinese people must be allowed to express their political will.
In his speech on Friday, Mr Hu mentioned the word democracy 32 times. But it was clear from the rest of his words that real political reform remained off the agenda and that the party recognises what is the main key to its survival.
“We should ensure that the party plays its roles as the core of leadership in exercising overall responsibilities and co-ordinating the efforts of all sides,” Mr Hu said. “Pursuing economic development as our central task is essential for reinvigorating China and achieving prosperity and enduring political stability of our party and country.”