Mao Inc. China's Terribly Successful Communist Party Turns 90
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.