China's opposition: redder than the Communist Party itself
Opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule is actually coming from the left, with cries that the party has forgotten the masses and coddled the elite. Can the party co-opt this nationalist fervor to remake itself – and all of political science?
China watchers are all talking about one of the most interesting recent developments in the country’s political and social scene: singing red – the revival of revolutionary songs epitomizing the leftism of the Maoist era. It began in Chongqing, a major city of 20 million in the nation’s hinterlands under the leadership of one of the country’s most enigmatic politicians, Bo Xilai. After 30 years of what many describe as capitalism in break-neck speed, old Communist revolutionary songs with their high-minded lyrics are taking the country’s public spaces and television screens by storm.Skip to next paragraph
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Many say with grave concern that it signals an imminent turn to the left as horrifying as a return to the Cultural Revolution. On the other side, some of the old guards and their new adherents, the so-called “new left,” are elated that the party has rediscovered the populist roots it seems to have abandoned in the name of economic development. Both are overly simplistic and mistaken.
To examine this phenomenon, it is critical to understand the origin and evolution of the Chinese Communist Party. At the founding of the party in 1921, the Chinese nation, after more than half a century of rapid decline, was in tatters. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 finally proved that China’s elite classes were simply too impotent and corrupt to establish a modern nation-state able to provide livelihood and security, let alone national dignity, for its people. Again, as happened many times before in China’s imperial past, the masses composed mostly of the peasantry rose to the occasion.
How the party rose to power
The difference this time was that the overwhelming trauma caused by foreign invasions of modern industrialized powers required a social movement that could utilize the power of modern ideology. It was here the Chinese Communist Party played its unique role by borrowing first Marxism and then Leninism in leading the Chinese masses in the revolution that ultimately established and consolidated the People’s Republic. The communist ideals of Marxism found resonance in China’s Confucian cultural tradition of egalitarianism, and the Leninist organizational tools effectively mobilized a peasantry that was otherwise inherently weak and disorganized.
As such, the party as a revolutionary organization represented the masses in its origin and this continued through much of the first 30 years of the People’s Republic (1949 – 1979) as the young nation-state consolidated its existence. In contemporary political lexicon, the Chinese Communist Party was a quintessentially leftist political force. Those who fought against it before 1949 and those who dissented to its rule thereafter were from the political right.
The party is actually right-leaning, pro-capital
Then came 1979, the year Deng Xiaoping launched China’s reform that was to change history. China’s economic success since has been widely noted, but the subsequent evolution of the party into a right-leaning pro-capital ruling party is a story the world has largely missed. This evolution was finally articulated and formalized by Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, in 2000. Jiang’s so-called “Theory of the Three Represents” was placed in the party’s constitution in 2002 and redefined the party as representing China’s advanced productive forces, advanced cultural forces, and the majority of the Chinese people.
More than 80 years after the Treaty of Versailles, a confident and dynamic Chinese nation enabled the party to move to claim representation of the country’s new elites, including business entrepreneurs. Furthermore, the party has recognized that the interests of the masses are in alignment with the interests of the elites and only in such alignment has China been able to achieve its success to date, and only in maintaining such alignment can it continue to pursue the development it needs. In this, the party has decisively transcended its dichotomous mindset of class struggle.
The concept of political party was imported into China from the modern West in the late 19th century. At its founding and through its struggle to gain and consolidate political power, the Chinese Communist Party was never really the same kind of political organism as the term "party" meant. It might have had the organizational trappings of a political party, but in reality it was a leftist-nationalist political movement.
IN PICTURES: Beijing today
But today the party clearly is no longer a political party as the term is defined in modern political science. It is not a group that seeks to represent the ideas and interests of a part of the Chinese population. It claims representation of the totality of the Chinese nation.
Instead of being a "party," it is a political coalition that governs China by encompassing a wide range of classes, interests, and ideas – arbitraging among them and thereby determining a course that serves the best long-term interest of the nation as a whole. As it originated in mass movements, this shift necessarily involves a more inclusive approach toward the elites. In short, a move from the left to the right.
Opposition from the left, not right
Then, an interesting development occurred in the 10 years since the Three Represents became official party doctrine.
Much of the dissension to the party’s rule has come from the left, both populists and liberal democrats. Many in the intelligentsia, much of the liberal media, and expressions on the Internet have generated waves of voices of dissatisfaction in the national condition. Their attacks are centered on the wealth gap created by the market economy, the lack of a welfare state, the commercial and technical elites that are receiving a larger share of the rapidly increasing economic pie, and the officialdom that presides over this national transformation.
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Corruption is also a significant source of complaint, but it is incidental to the overall line of attacks from the left as these conditions would be present with or without corruption.