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The Communist Party of China’s 90th Anniversary: Grappling with Ideology in New Era

From a 50-member Party founded in July 1921, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has grown to a mammoth organization with over 78 million members.

It could have grown much bigger had not its organization department put strict criteria. As laid down by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping the selection process emphasizes youth, education and vitality. Party members always enjoyed an advantage over others. In the earlier years ideology was the main driving force. Today, however, ideological rigidity is being debated. For senior leaders the pitching of ideology in certain forms is done for their career progression. For the youth, it is also the same – better jobs, faster promotion as well as influence. But there is also a large exception who hold Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought as China’s religion.

Overall, therefore, diverse interest groups come together to ensure that the primacy of the CPC is not diminished. Which interest group or groups dominate at a particular time is another question, but it is again Deng who ensured, with personal example, that no individual or group will fully dominate at any time as Mao Zedong and the “Gang of Four” did.

For the veteran Long Marchers alive today, the times are perplexing. Most of them who held some senior positions were persecuted during Mao’s Great People’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), but that is not the point. For them, Mao’s ultra-leftism, his disastrous economic policy (1958), the “Great Leap Forward” and the earlier policy of “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought prevail”, launched to identify his intellectual opponents and demolish them, were sins against the Chinese people. But Communism, Marxism and the CPC delivered the Chinese people from feudalism and united the country. Today’s China with widespread corruption, increasing wealth gap and neglect of the workers and peasants when millionaires are born every day, dismays them. The only candle in the wind for them is that they still have some followers among the present generation.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping, who was purged from the Party three times by Mao, ensured that the CPC officially judge him 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. There was no denying Mao’s great contribution to the new China. At the same time, Mao was ruthless and even attacked his most loyal servant, Premier Zhou Enlai, as a “Capitalist roader”. The problem with Mao was he never trusted anybody, and after the desecration of Stalin’s Mausoleum in the Soviet Union, he began to see ghosts in all who voiced an independent opinion as Russian and Western influenced leaders out to overthrow him. Deng Xiaoping had spent time in Paris, Zhou Enlai was perceived to have been influenced by Henry Kissinger, Marshal Peng Dehuai as close to Moscow, and his putative successor Liu Shaoqi as Western oriented and upper class.

Although the Mao Zedong judgement was settled by the Party, there are signs that some groups or factions may be trying to further denigrate Mao’s legacy. There were some unsubstantiated reports in the Hong Kong press that the Politburo of the CPC had decided to publicly downplay Mao. More striking is the exposition of Mao on the eve of the Party anniversary by Professor Xie Chuntao, Vice Director of the Party History Department. He said Mao did it all wrong because he tried to develop the economy in a revolutionary way, and Mao tried to impose democracy by letting the masses supervise the government, leading to chaos and disaster. This view takes us back to Mao’s, call from Shanghai “Bombard the headquarters”, which started the Cultural Revolution.

Such an open remark from a senior official of the Party’s History Department cannot be ignored. This department is the writer and custodian of the CPC’s official history, and could not have been made without the direction or clearance from a powerful section in the politburo. Is Mao’s legacy being rewritten or, at least, under consideration. If so, it will bring a momentous change in the CPC’s ideology and have wide implications for the Party’s progress.

It must also be noted that in the course of its rule, the CPC broke away from Mao’s politics of class struggle, power struggle, draconian actions and politics of isolation, neglecting economic development. Deng introduced his theory of reform and opening which catapulted China to the high table of the world. Today, it has emerged as the second largest economy in the world, with a foreign reserve of $ 3 trillion, the biggest exporter and the second largest importer, and a huge modernizing military force overshadowing most of Asia. There can be no major international conclave in which China does not play an important role.

It cannot be denied that China has become far more transparent than it was 30 years ago. Even with regard to human rights it has greatly improved and efforts are being made to enact laws. Much of it has come from international pressures, and is still far from meeting international standards. But political decisions continue to take precedence over law, and most statutes remain in the books only.

China’s progress also has a serious downside. Social instability and corruption have emerged as the biggest challenges to the political system. While social aspirations are increasing in step with modernization, income disparity continues to increase. According to official statistics, public demonstrations and protests have crossed 90 thousand a year, many of which were violent, forcing deployment of the army in several cases.

Corruption, which has crossed any conceivable level for a country like China, has begun to raise serious questions about the Party’s ability to rule. The main problem is that corruption is no longer localized at high levels. It has come down to the lowest level where even poor peasants and street vendors are not spared. This includes beating, killing and custodial death at the hands of the police, land mafia and officials. This has angered the large majority of the people.

That social stability and corruption form the core of every speech of top leaders and major official media articles reflect the intensity of the problem. Unlike a multiparty system where people can vote out a government that does not deliver, China has to solve the problems within this single Party rule.

This is not an easy task. The minority issues, especially Tibet and the Uighurs of Xinjiang have compounded the problems.

Having studied the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union over the last two decades, the CPC feels any real political reform or relaxation will take them down the same road. They also have not been able to appreciate the main minority issues and think rigid handling will resolve them in due course of time. Having shut the door firmly on religion and human philosophy they have lost the capability to understand human beings where religion and not Marxism forms the core. There is also the issue of Han chauvinism, since the Han Chinese view the minorities as inferior.

There is an intense debate in China now on political restructuring, democracy with Chinese characteristics and rule of law. How far the Party can go to address the people’s issues and not shout empty slogans of “People first”, and how tight the iron fist of the Party should be remains to be seen. Some movements to examine these issues inside the Party leadership is certainly visible.

The most significant aspect of inner Party democracy noticed recently is there appears to be a consensus that the top leadership reserve individual rights to air their political views publicly. This was spearheaded by Premier Wen Jiabao with his call for greater democracy, rule of law and listening to voices of the people. Initially his speeches on this topic were censored by the national media, but now even the People’s Daily, the Party mouthpiece has started reporting them in full.

In UK recently, Wen Jiabao underscored the point that without guarantee of economic and political rights, there is no real freedom. His theme is that without democracy and political rights, China’s economic development cannot be guaranteed and could even roll back. He includes corruption, unfair income distribution and other ills to the rigidity and closed nature of the Party. It is interesting that Wen has been taking his political campaign abroad. Premier Wen’s political ideology seems to be catching on in China.

Addressing the grand celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the CPC in the Great Hall of the People on June 30, Party General Secretary, Hu Jintao warned that tackling widespread corruption within the Party was key to ensuring the Party’s survival, and the biggest priority of the Party was to ensure stability. He assured an active and prudent process to carry out political reforms but under the core leadership of the Party. Hu also spoke on democracy and supervision of the Party.

A third prominent political line has emerged in the name of Mao Zedong and the singing of “Red songs” the revolutionary songs some even taken from the Cultural Revolution period. This was conceived and spearheaded by Chongqing Party Secretary, Bo Xilai son of veteran leader Bo Yibo, a close associate of Deng. Bo Xilai , a “princeling” has been endorsed by central leaders including Xi Jiping, another princeling and putative successor to Hu Jintao and others. His “Red songs” were very visible in Beijing during the Party anniversary celebrations.

Bo Xilai’s father was also purged by Mao and sent to the countryside. He himself fought and demolished the Triads of Chongqing. He is a politburo member and hopes to be elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee next year at the Party Congress. He is projecting himself as a people’s leader, a tall leader of the new princelings’ faction, and has drawn some support from another powerful faction, the Communist Youth League (CYL) to which Hu Jintao and the next premier Li Keqing belong. But he is yet to reveal his mind on political reform or restructuring and democracy as Wen Jiabao has done. There are, however, questions being asked about Bo Xilai’s line. Is he playing a clever political game to garner support from all factions? Is he getting too ambitious and trying to take a quantum leap to a decisive political position at the 18th Party Congress next year? Can his line be hijacked by hard line Conservatives who only show their hands at times of their advantage? These questions will always be there in an opaque country.

Very few people even in China are privy to the mind of the CPC’s Central Committee, a powerful body which endorses all critical long term policy decisions and wields tremendous power during sudden emergencies. This is the body from which different faction leaders draw their power.

Therefore, one small incident, which may not be so small must be noted. The Beijing CYL was holding a seminar on the 100th anniversary of the 1911 democratic revolution. But it had to be cancelled hastily without any explanation. This revolution had overthrown the Qin dynasty and the feudal system. It was inspirational during the civil war for the Communists. During the 1960s Mao listed it as counter-revolutionary, but it was rehabilitated under Deng Xiaoping.

The only reason for cancellation of the celebration that this writer can see is that it represents “Westernization”. It may be noted that in parallel with other political questions being considered is a parallel campaign against “Westernization”. This political campaign has recently become prominent in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), too. It is, therefore, impossible to predict which way the CPC’s ideology is headed because a conclusion remains elusive. The only brief conclusion that can be drawn that is the debate will continue on how to keep the Party in power, eradicate the cancerous problems, keep the doors shut on a multi-Party system and prevent emergence of the government as a power to contend with the Party. Within these parameters a best possible compromise has to be reached.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New Delhi.Email:

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