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.
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China today displays one of the most unequal wealth distribution patterns in the world. Its Gini coefficient, which measures relative wealth in a society, stands at 0.47 – well above the level generally thought liable to provoke social conflict.Skip to next paragraph
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The problem of corruption
More worryingly for those who look to the party to preserve social stability through honest leadership, party membership has become the single most important route to personal wealth in today’s China, where corruption has become endemic.
“Officials’ basic interest is in maintaining their power because if they lose it they lose their ability to make financial profit,” charges Mr. Yang, deputy editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu, a magazine published by reform-minded Communist party members.
Party leaders from President Hu Jintao on down publicly and regularly about the evils of corrupt officials, who have to be party members to be officials, using their positions to enrich themselves. There is no sign, however, that internal party investigations, public trials, and the occasional execution, have done much to control the problem.
“The machine is viewed as so corrupt…that they have no moral appeal to make whatsoever,” says Mr. Rittenberg.
Once, he recalls, “corruption just was not allowed because they understood that this was the moral basis of their leadership: As long as people saw their leaders were clean, they were willing to suffer. Today people with power are almost expected to use it to their own advantage.”
Ms. Li, as she steps into this world, would not go that far. But like many of her generation she finds official corruption particularly abhorrent, and she also fears the threat it poses to her party’s standing and future.
“I’m quite concerned that corruption may harm the party’s legitimacy,” she says. “Absolute power leads to absolute corruption and that leads to absolute failure.”
Li is confident that will not happen, and that “the party will warn itself and stimulate itself to avoid failure.”
Rittenberg is not so sanguine, but says that he hopes the party can overcome corruption “because one hopes to see a relatively easy transition rather than let things get so bad it leads to turmoil.”
What such a transition from one party rule might look like is anything but clear, and the Communist party is not publicly entertaining any such idea. Indeed, since jasmine revolutions broke out earlier this year in North Africa, the party has seemed more jealous than ever of its grip on power, and the government has launched a particularly harsh crackdown on all criticism and dissent to ensure that it does not face similar unrest.
Eventually, Yang predicts, it will be the force of public opinion and civil society that will oblige the party to change its ways, to allow more space for opponents, and to risk losing power. But he does not expect this to happen for decades, and nor does he want to see the party relinquish power too suddenly.
“The ruling party has been in power for decades,” he points out. “It has government experience. In a power vacuum the future would be very hard to predict. We have to carry out reform within the framework of one party rule, and move forward gradually to avoid great disorder.”
Whatever the Communist Party of China has been in the past, and whatever it may become in the future, says Rittenberg, one fact stands out. “At this point,” he says, “There is absolutely no alternative.”