Beijing's communists are among the world's most successful capitalists, but their economic ascent is often overshadowed by its human rights violations. The Communist Party now faces a crucial test: Can it become more democratic without jeopardizing its hold on power?
China needs heroes, shining role models, ordinary people who can bring positive change to society through their actions. This was true at the time of Confucius, but it has been particularly true since China has had a communist party. And because the Chinese Communist Party channels, organizes and monitors everything, it didn't take long after its victory in the 1949 revolution to establish a "Foundation for Altruism and Courage" that selects China's heroes. Its various decisions over the past decades reveal a surprising and even sensational development.
In the 1950s, the government in Beijing celebrated Shi Chuanxiang, a model worker. In the pre-communist era, he had worked hard as a day laborer, was often hungry and was ashamed to be exploited. According to the official version of the story, it was only after the party had come into power that Shi found work that allowed him to be more independent: as someone who literally collected excrement for socialist development, and who even managed to increase per capita transport capacity from 50 to 80 buckets of feces. "To make the world a cleaner place, I happily put up with the stench," Shi said as he accepted the party's award, standing next to the president in the Great Hall of the People.
A New Hero for a New Age
Until a few years ago, the phrase "to breathe the spirit of Shi" was still being chanted as a slogan in schools. But now, in 2001, a new spirit is in the air. Today's official role models show how thoroughly the party has adjusted to conform to a globalized era. Enter Duan Wenyin, 27. He is the man the communist authorities are currently touting as their latest hero of the revolution.
Mr. Duan runs his hand over his impeccably tailored suit. His hair is perfectly gelled. He speaks smoothly and chooses his words carefully. An eloquent, practiced sense of modesty is part of his persona. "No, I don't want to be a hero," says Duan, a graduate of an elite university, in the village of Beigou 60 kilometers (38 miles) east of Beijing, "but a patriot."
Portraits of Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng Xiaoping hang next to each other at the entrance of the local party headquarters building. Duan looks up at the wall, where a slogan reads: "Li dang wei gong," or "Commitment of the Party to the Community."
Following the government's advice to new university graduates, Duan first spent three years working as a volunteer in the countryside. He turned the village upside-down with his ideas, which included setting up a small library of books on proper family planning, organizing a contest for the most well-kept house and even helping to organize an internal party election for the post of mayor. In doing so, he helped turn Beigou into a model community that now attracts tourists, who bring funds into the local coffers. He can even imagine staying longer, perhaps working as an entrepreneur in the tourist industry or as a local party official.
His pride and joy is having been accepted into the party. "Hundreds in my graduating class applied, but only a few received a response," says Duan. Acceptance into the party was "extremely helpful" to his subsequent professional development, he says. Now Duan, a young party official, makes himself useful by settling disputes over a new road and compensating the farmers "as fairly as possible" for the land grab, learning about the problems encountered in the local chestnut harvest, issuing reprimands and words of praise, and creating incentives -- all with the goal of achieving the "harmonious society" that the party proclaims as its highest objective. Duan, unlike the "heroes" of past decades, isn't expected to sacrifice himself. He is allowed to show initiative, behave like a capitalist and even get rich. He can even criticize the party leaders in Beijing on purely procedural matters. There is only one thing Duan cannot do: position himself outside the system.
Duan, the model Chinese from a model village with his sights firmly set on a model career, has no intention of doing that. He waves as we say goodbye, satisfied with himself and the world and his party. Perhaps he doesn't love the party, but he needs it, because although it isn't capable of achieving everything for him, nothing is possible without it.
Paving the Way for Consumer Communism
This week is a particularly Chinese week. On Monday, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, 68, is coming to Berlin with 13 of his cabinet ministers, carrying a questionable "gift" in his luggage: the release of the now-muzzled Ai Weiwei, the most famous artist-dissident in the People's Republic. And the Chinese Communist Party is celebrating its 90th birthday on Friday, July 1.
The momentous event has already cast its shadows, as the party employs original methods to drum up enthusiasm in advance. For instance, thousands of Beijing residents have been sent classic communist songs on their mobile phones and asked to forward them to others. Those who can prove that they have forwarded the songs to at least 10 people they know are entered into a prize drawing. The party seems to be paving the way for consumer communism.
Television programming has been purged of anything even remotely resembling social criticism, including crime films and family dramas. "Red" programs that publicize the progress of the People's Republic are now in demand instead. The high point of the Communist Party's culture festival is an elaborately produced movie called "The Founding of a Party," which was financed in large part by General Motors. In return for its funding, the American automaker stipulated that the actors would always drive Cadillacs on the set of the melodrama about the hardships of the early days of the revolution.
China's communists have not been shy. Little is sacred, while almost everything can be bought, even the Great Hall of the People. When the party is not in session in the magnificent building, with its more than 300 rooms and enormous paintings, companies like Ford and Kentucky Fried Chicken can rent space at astronomical prices.
A Dinosaur Which Has Learned to AdaptThe membership of the Chinese Communist Party is almost as large as Germany's population. Its 78 million members make it the largest political party in the world, and a very successful one at that -- a terribly successful party, say many anxious Western observers. Soviet communism ended up in the dustbin of history. The parties in North Korea and Cuba led their people to economic downfall and are considered discredited. Communist parties stood -- and continue to stand -- for an incurable sclerosis, while their leaders are viewed as dinosaurs. The outcome of the socialist idea has served as ample proof that it cannot work in practice.
In China, this quasi law of nature seems to have been suspended. The dinosaur has learned to evolve, and adaptation instead of agony shapes the picture, as Beijing rushes from one economic success to the next. In the last 30 years, China has increased its gross domestic product by about thirty times and has overtaken Germany and Japan as an economic power, and it will likely leave the United States behind by 2020, becoming the world's largest economy. No other country has amassed such large foreign currency reserves as the People's Republic. If it wanted to, Beijing could buy up all the companies listed on Germany's DAX index with only one-third of its $3 trillion (2.1 trillion) in reserves.
Politically and militarily, China is becoming increasingly self-confident in its role as the only superpower next to the United States. Beijing intimidates its Pacific neighbors with new land and naval weapons systems, making territorial claims in waters from Japan to Vietnam to the Philippines.
The Biggest Challenge of Our Time
The party has come a long way in the last nine decades. It consisted of all of 57 members when it was founded as an underground organization in Shanghai in 1921. In 1927 its brigades, worn down by a superior adversary and on the run, were on the verge of demise. In 1949, they triumphed on Tiananmen Square in Beijing and united the giant country. Today, as the only force that can take on the United States, the Communist Party is understandably bursting with self-confidence. At 90, and (at least) a little wiser, the party now strives to permanently correct China's economic course without diverging from the rigid one-party system.
Can this balancing act across all ideological Grand Canyons even work? What are China's communist functionaries doing right and what signals have they heard -- signals that have remained hidden from other nations? How is the world's largest party faring internally? Is it run by a meritocracy in which the best make it to the top, or are family relations more important? And why can it be so flexible and modern and yet so thin-skinned vis-à-vis its critics, often operating with Stalinist harshness?
A few countries in Asia and Africa have stopped treating Western democracy as the measure of all things, and are instead trying to imitate the "Beijing model" of a capitalist economy combined with authoritarian policies. China is the biggest challenge of our time and raises central issues, such as whether the party can maintain the giant country's position at the top of the global economy in the long term without opening up politically. Or whether the communists will eventually fail because of the contradictions produced by a rapid rise to power unimpeded by any opposition: the extreme differences between rich and poor, rampant corruption, environmental destruction and brutal clashes with Tibetan, Uighur and Mongolian minorities.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored the contradictions in a recent interview with The Atlantic, in which she was highly critical of Beijing. The Chinese system is doomed, she argues, adding that Chinese officialls are "worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand."
The United States has the White House, France has the Elysée Palace, Germany has the Federal Chancellery -- and the People's Republic has a secret.
China is ruled from a mysterious location that very few foreigners have seen from within. The country's leaders operate from a shielded complex behind high, red walls. Some of the buildings date back to feudal times, while gray, utilitarian structures were added following the Communists' victory and the proclamation of the People's Republic in 1949. The secluded and well-guarded district in the middle of Beijing is called Zhongnanhai, or "Middle and Southern Sea." Formerly part of the Forbidden City, Zhongnanhai was a place where emperors, concubines and eunuchs once concocted courtly intrigues.
The Top Nine, or Permanent Committee of the Politburo of the Communist Party, the most powerful group in China, meet in the southern part of this refuge. Their meetings are businesslike and completely off-limits to the public. They are never called upon to smile for news cameras, they only appear in public together on very special occasions, and they rarely appear for more than a few minutes.
They are nine men in dark suits, muted ties so similar that they could have been bought together at a group discount, and obviously dyed hair. No one within the ranks of China's stiff technocrats is known for his charisma. They even clap in unison at official events. President and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, 68, has a degree in hydraulic engineering, and all but one of the members of the Permanent Committee are engineers. They have all been professional politicians for several decades, with careers that seem almost as interchangeable as their physical appearance.
For some, their path to the top was facilitated by the fact that they had been born as "princelings" into influential families. But to make it to the very top and hold their ground there, they also had to prove their worth as capable bureaucrats. They learned to forge coalitions within the party and anticipate positions capable of producing consensus. According to leading experts on China, the view of a monolithic Chinese Communist Party widely held in the West is wrong. In fact, they say, the party's leaders are often sharply at odds over the right approach. But once internal compromises have been reached, all senior leaders usually form a united front in championing these decisions in public.
According to US diplomats whose secret cables from Beijing were published by WikiLeaks, the expanded Politburo, consisting of 24 men and one woman, is characterized by a "consensus system in which members can exercise veto power." In fact, the cable continues, "true democracy" prevails in the Politburo.
Record Figures for Red China Inc.It is certainly true that China's impressive economic figures can outshine everything else. Hardly a day goes by in which Red China Inc. does not report new record figures. And the more helplessly world leaders, from US President Barack Obama to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, struggle to reform their traditional market economies, to free the United States of its debts and to keep Europe liquid, the more enviously the West eyes China's rapid growth.
At first glance, China's recipes for success should not be effective: five-year plans, manipulated exchange rates, no private ownership of land. But these factors represent only one side of things in the giant country. The other is an unbridled capitalism that the party manages in a thoroughly non-ideological way that includes investments in the future. For example, Beijing has increased its research and development spending by an average of 21 percent a year since 2000 (as compared with 4 percent a year for the United States). "Socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics" -- the term alone underscores the Communist Party's flexibility. And what exactly the "Chinese characteristics" are remains vague -- and expandable as needed.
"Zou Chuqu," or "swarm out," is the slogan the party uses to encourage the economy to acquire know-how and buy up companies abroad. The policy represents the best of both worlds, as Chinese business executives go on shopping sprees armed with loans from state banks. And in the giant country itself, the party plays the "barbarians" off against one another. Like a powerful groundskeeper, it assigns foreign companies to local partners, with which they are to modernize China's industry.
A Party as 'Omnipresent as God'
In the process, the party never budges a centimeter from its sole claim to political leadership. China, says party leader Hu, is and remains a "democratic dictatorship of the people." The party's octopus arms encompass far more than government functions. Through its "organization department," the Communist Party controls virtually every important position in the country. In the words of a Beijing professor, the party is as "omnipresent as God." It controls the army, the intelligence service, the press, the courts and the state-owned companies, placing them in a more privileged position as they compete with private enterprise.
A look at license-plate numbers reveals the true hierarchy in a city like Shanghai, where the local party chairman's plate number is 00001, while the mayor and deputy party chairman has 00002. Other insignias of power are even more telling. All 300 high-ranking party officials have a special telephone called the "red machine," with which the members of this top echelon can communicate with one another on a secret, secure line.
"If Vladimir Lenin were reincarnated in 21st-century Beijing and managed to avert his eyes from the city's glittering skyscrapers and conspicuous consumption, he would instantly recognize in the ruling Chinese Communist Party a replica of the system he designed nearly a century ago for the victors of the Bolshevik Revolution," Australian communism expert Richard McGregor wrote earlier this year in the US journal Foreign Policy.
However, comparisons with the extinct Soviet Union are as unwanted in Beijing as references to the current turmoil in the Arab world. The calls on the Internet for a Chinese " jasmine revolution" have made the country's normally self-confident leaders so nervous that they have banned the use of the term on the Internet.
'Seventy Percent Positive'
Hardly anyone is as familiar with the Communist Party's sensitivities as Professor Xie Chuntao, who teaches at the Beijing Cadre School. He looks thoughtful as he sips his cappuccino in a café in Xidan, a popular watering hole for the capital's smart set. He answers "13 Questions for the Party" in his new book. Xie admits that the Communist Party does not have a handle on important social issues.
Nepotism is Xie's biggest concern. The central bank recently revealed an astonishing number when it claimed that corrupt officials had illegally moved 800 billion yuan (about 85 billion) abroad in the last two decades. Xie also worries about the growing lifestyle differences between rich and poor and between the urban and rural populations, as well as the dramatic aging of society. The privileges enjoyed by the children of senior party officials are also not a taboo subject for Xie. "The cadres I teach want me to address everything openly," he says. "They are familiar with the problems."
And the solutions? The shrewd intellectual struggles with the question. "There is no corruption in Singapore," he says. "That should be our role model."
Would that include Singapore's elections, which include opposition parties?
The professor says he can imagine this happening in the long term. In fact, he has already sent his daughter to Singapore to study. And as far as further economic development is concerned, the advice of Western experts is more than welcome. "I try to get the best professors from Harvard and Yale as guest lecturers."
However, the views of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei are non-negotiable for the cadre educator. "Those who attack the party so directly and want a completely different system are placing themselves outside of society." According to Xie, the Communist Party must remain responsible for the interpretation of history. And no one should be allowed to challenge the image of the Great Chairman. In his view, Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping's assessment of the dictator and revolutionary should remain valid for all time: "Seventy percent positive."
A Journey into Chinese Communist History
Two excursions to different regions of China are like two journeys through time into the historic heart of Chinese communism.
The first stop is at the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai, a city of 23 million. The museum is housed in a brick building in a former working-class neighborhood of a city once subjugated by foreign powers. It offers a look back at the 1920s, when Shanghai was the epitome of excess, a paradise for trading companies from the West but a hell for most local residents, a place where life was shaped by child labor, prostitution, gang crime and opium dens.
Mao Zedong, the eldest son of a relatively affluent farming family, a rebel against authority, came to Shanghai in July 1921 to secretly launch the Communist Party, together with 12 others. The main exhibit at the museum, a room filled with "faithful reproductions" of the revolutionaries, suggests that Mao was already their leader at the time. He is the only one standing at the table, a shining light, a Jesus among his disciples. In truth, however, the ambitious delegate from Hunan was more of a tagalong at the beginning, although that would soon change when he retreated to the mountains and, using a combination of his charisma and tangible threats, led the farmers in uprisings.
The Renaissance of the 'Whore of Asia'The museum on Xingye Street, which gets very few visitors, feels like a left-over socialist foreign body in the midst of a glittering capitalist world. The relic sits in the midst of the commotion of Xintiandi ("New World"), an exceedingly chic neighborhood today, where bars, boutiques and German beer attract the rich and the beautiful. Once again, anything goes nowadays. The Bar Rouge, not far from the showroom of an Italian racecar maker, is the top attraction on the nearby Bund, Shanghai's waterfront boulevard. The Shanghai of 2011 is no less than a renaissance of the "Whore of Asia," as the city used to be known in the 1920s and 1930s. This city is indeed red, but it is the red of a Ferrari.
The second stop is Yan'an, a city of 2 million near the Yellow River, in Shaanxi Province in central China. If the religion of Chinese communism has a Mecca, it is the city's yellowish Loess Plateau with its mysterious caves, the endpoint of the legendary "Long March" that led Mao's troops through 10,000 kilometers of the country over 370 days as they fled from the rival Kuomintang, the Chinese Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-shek.
Mao survived the ordeal and attained the unlimited leadership of the Communist Party in Yan'an, but this was partly the result of his having had a horse at his disposal and the fact that he even rode in a litter for a time. Mao, who preached equality, never had a problem with the notion that some were more equal than others. Of the 86,000 soldiers who had set out with him and suffered terrible ordeals, often barefoot and without food, less than one in 10 survived.
A Revolutionary Disneyland
Mao set up his headquarters in the Yan'an caves in October 1935 and remained there for the next decade, gathering his strength. He had no objections to funding his movement with the proceeds from opium poppy cultivation, and he was happy to accept the help of the Soviet Union. However, his communist project was always primarily a national and independent project. In fact, Mao oriented himself more heavily toward the Chinese emperors, who had united the realm with dictatorial severity, than toward Marx and Lenin.
Today the Yan'an caves, with their whitewashed walls and colorful strings of lights, resemble a revolutionary Disneyland. In Mao's former quarters, the guide introduces am eight-year-old schoolgirl wearing a pioneer uniform. She has won a contest and, as a reward, is now permitted to recite a few words she has learned by heart: "The Great Chairman was very sincere and honest. He unified our nation and lives in our hearts forever."
Battles between the Red Army and the Kuomintang are reenacted outside twice a day. As smoke and the sound of heavy artillery fill the air, Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek's troops stage a treacherous attack on a wedding party. But Mao's guerillas carry the day with their cunning and superior fighting spirit in this cowboys and Indians version of the Communist Party's sage. Nevertheless, the background is dead serious. "Patriotic education is essential to our survival. The future of the party lies in the spirit of Yan'an," Wang Yimei, the director of the brand-new history museum, says with a steady voice. An enormous statue of Mao stands guard in front of the architecturally impressive circular building. It seems almost defiant, as if the old man were trying to compete with the hypermodern television towers and skyscrapers of modern-day China.
On the evening before the anniversary fireworks, China's communists agree on a few things. For one, the Communist Party is thrusting aside "setbacks," such as Mao's "Great Leap Forward." The campaign, which forced farmers into communes in the late 1950s and claimed the lives of an estimated 45 million people, has not been seriously scrutinized to this day. The same approach is taken to the witch-hunts of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s.
Instead, the party proudly highlights its positive achievements, such as national unity, the liberation of more than 300 million Chinese from poverty and widespread stability in a modernized, autocratic system. It believes that without its firm grip, the country would drift apart and descend into chaos.
The Sharp Contradictions of Modernization
But parts of the Communist Party leadership and the intellectual elite are deeply divided over the most important issues of all: the party's path into the future, and how it should react to the increasingly sharp contradictions brought about by modernization.
The two most prominent advocates of the different schools of thought are Prime Minister Wen, who is increasingly telling the foreign media that he supports opening up the system. He has even said that, "yearning for democracy is unstoppable, and freedom of speech is indispensable." On the other side is Wu Bangguo, 69, the chairman of the National People's Congress, officially the country's second-in-command. "If we waver, the achievements gained thus far in development will be lost," says Wu, "and a multiparty system is out of the question for China."
Wu and the party's hardliners, such as Zhou Yongkang, the head of the Central Political and Legislative Committee, are now setting the tone. They are responsible for extreme increases in the military budget and spending on national security. The people must fear the government, or the country will fall apart, China expert McGregor has quoted a high-ranking Chinese official as saying. At the same time, it is also clear that the system still places more emphasis on enticement and career opportunities than on naked repression.
The new urban middle class now has a lot to lose: the possibilities of social advancement, and the freedom to shop and go out, seem more appealing to many Chinese than the vague promise of democracy and the separation of powers. As long as the party achieves economic growth hovering around 8 percent, and as long as inflation (currently 5.5 percent) remains reasonably under control, little more than regional pockets of unrest are to be expected in China.
Growing Influence for the RichThe wealthiest individuals are to play a prominent role in the Communist Party, which is astonishing when one considers that businessmen, the former "class enemies," were not permitted to join the party until 2002. One in three of China's 189 dollar billionaires is now a party member, one in eight of the country's super-rich holds a "significant" political advisor post, 83 are members of the National People's Congress (a number that is likely to rise), and 38 Chinese "parliamentarians" are wealthier than the wealthiest member of the US Congress. They include delegate Zong Qinghou who, with assets of $12 billion, is the richest man in the People's Republic of China.
Zong meets with visitors in his native Hangzhou, which, with its idyllic setting on West Lake, is nothing short of a paradise. He is wearing an ordinary blue shirt, basic dark trousers and inexpensive linen shoes. His office is also plainly furnished, with almost nothing but management books from around the world on the shelves.
This much modesty is demonstrative. Zong's mantra is not to show off with one's wealth. The 65-year-old multibillionaire, who made the roughly 30,000 employees at his 58 production sites shareholders long ago, tries to set an example with his own work ethic. He works 14-hour days, smoking and drinking tea are his only luxuries, and he spends no more than $20 a day.
Zong started life at the very bottom, the son of poor parents, and had only a middle-school education. He worked on a salt farm as a teenager. Together with two retired teachers and 14,000 in loans, he finally managed to produce milk-based soft drinks.
The business eventually blossomed into Wahahah, which later entered into a joint venture with the Danone Group. When the French accused Zong of undermining the joint venture with parallel products, his employees came to his aid with strikes and protests. In one campaign, which had strong nationalist overtones, the protesters berated the foreigners with their signs until they were so unnerved that they gave up and allowed the Chinese to buy them out.
Does Zong, a member of the Communist Party, see himself as more of a communist or a capitalist?
'If There Is Anyplace in the World Where Socialism Prevails, It's Europe'
He smiles. "That's a very German question," he says. "I'm a pragmatist." As such, he says, he fights for the rights of business owners and workers. "If there is anyplace in the world where socialism prevails, it's Europe," he says. In Zong's opinion Europe, with its high taxes and welfare states, is a dead end. "People in your country should work harder," says the richest man in China, sounding almost sympathetic.
American political scientist David Shambaugh's recent book about the Chinese Communist Party is subtitled "Atrophy and Adaptation." The astonishing thing is that the party's atrophy and adaptation are opposing tendencies, and yet they move forward at the same time. "Some observers predict a collapse of the system in the long term, some predict a prolonged stagnation, and others are convinced that they are seeing signs of a real reform process." Shambaugh believes that a successful cleansing of the party is the most likely future development.
If that happens, however, the Communist Party will have to move well beyond the current nostalgia for Mao. It is possible that heightened patriotism could be used to develop a new, but hardly controllable ideological cement for society. The country's leaders seem themselves confronted with entire new problems following the saturation with consumer goods. They will have to provide a population whose age structure is dramatically changing with services that were practically unknown until now: adequate pensions, insurance, healthcare.
Whether they are prepared for this seems very questionable. However, the skeptics, who never thought the Chinese Communist Party was capable of the impossible, have been disabused again and again. The party leaders still manage to pull off every sleight of hand and Mao paradox. The Great Chairman of communism is simply being repurposed, and turned into a role model for globalization, into the Great Board Chairman.
What is the closest comparison to this strange Chinese party, this admirable but despicable institution with its quasi-religious aspirations, partly ossified and partly willing to reform, fluctuating between total repression and the recognition of pluralism?
The Catholic Church, at least to an unofficial envoy of the Chinese Communist Party during a visit to the Vatican in 2008. "We have the propaganda department, and you have the Heralds of the Gospel. We have our organization department, and you have the College of Cardinals," China expert McGregor cited the envoy as saying in his book "The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers". When the Vatican representative asked the Communist Party envoy what he thought the differences were, he replied: "You were sent by God, but we were sent by the devil."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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