Mao Inc. China's Terribly Successful Communist Party Turns 90
Part 4: 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.
- Part 1: China's Terribly Successful Communist Party Turns 90
- Part 2: A Dinosaur Which Has Learned to Adapt
- Part 3: Record Figures for Red China Inc.
- Part 4: The Renaissance of the 'Whore of Asia'
- Part 5: Growing Influence for the Rich