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90 years of China's Communist Party: from secret society to 'harmonious society'

China's Communist Party has transformed from the secretive, illegal revolutionary force that it was 90 years ago to a political party at the helm of a rapidly changing China.

By Staff writer / July 2, 2011

Participants sing in front of a screen showing China's late Chairman Mao Zedong during a revolutionary song concert in celebration of the Communist Party's 90th anniversary, in Chongqing municipality July 1, 2011.

Jason Lee/Reuters

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Beijing

Three days before she was to be admitted as a full member of the Chinese Communist Party in early June, graduate economics student Li Yingzi was blunt about her reasons for wanting to join the ruling party.

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“It’s a good idea so as to ensure a better future for myself,” she explained. “It will be easier if I want to become a civil servant … because membership in the party will show my loyalty.”

That is an attitude that Yang Jisheng, a veteran party member, finds deeply disappointing. When he joined the party in 1964, he recalls, “I wanted to devote myself to social justice. The party stood for justice and equality and for ordinary people suffering hardship.”

But as the Communist party celebrated its 90 year anniversary on July 1, it is a very different animal indeed from the secretive, illegal group that 13 Chinese revolutionaries including Mao Zedong founded in Shanghai in 1921 at their first national congress.

“The party has the same name as before, but the old party was destroyed,” says Sidney Rittenberg, an American who joined Mao’s forces in 1946 and remained a party member for 33 years. “It used to be a moral presence representing a vision of the future and a set of ethics for today. You don’t have either of those anymore.”

It was only three years ago that Xi Jinping, tipped to be the party’s next General Secretary and thus the president of the nation, acknowledged formally that the Communist party was no longer a revolutionary force.

But for decades it had abandoned Communist ideology, and today preaches “a harmonious society” instead of traditional class struggle, while claiming to represent all Chinese people, not just the proletariat.

The party’s primary goal today, say critics inside and outside the membership, is to maintain its own monopoly power over the status quo at all costs.

The party has made “undeniable achievements” for its country in economic terms, Mr. Rittenberg points out. “But the leaders’ core view is ‘après nous, le deluge’ [after us, the deluge"] and you must not challenge the Communist party’s absolute right to rule.”

On reflection, Ms. Li, who underwent an arduous two year apprenticeship before being allowed to join the party, couches her ambitions in more idealistic terms than mere careerism. She says being a party member will “make it easier for me to become a major force in Chinese society, and contribute to society.”

Headlong rush for economic development

But while China’s nominally Communist leaders declare their goal of a harmonious society, their headlong rush for economic development has led to the polar opposite of the dream that motivated the first party members – Karl Marx’s vision of a society founded on the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

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