China's Communist Party - different in all but its name

Ideology is scant at the Party Congress, which reveals new leadership Thursday.

It's an old Chinese proverb: Change the substance, but don't change the name. As China's Communist Party meets in preparation for a complete turnover of top leaders expected tomorrow, that proverb rings like a Beijing bell tower.

A party that once doted on former Chairman Mao Zedong's "little red book" and sought to export its "forever correct" aphorisms worldwide is undergoing major alterations to its core ideology and identity. The change is part of an effort to keep pace with market forces and national sentiments already far advanced in Chinese society.

After 13 years at China's helm, President Jiang Zemin is stepping down, though he is expected to retain many levers of power and influence. The tone he is setting is clear: China is open for business. Communism, in turn, is increasingly outdated in a party that now seeks legitimacy by appealing to a proud 5,000-year-old Chinese national identity.

Indeed, the greatest applause lines in Mr. Jiang's work report - a 68-page speech that opened the 16th Party Congress - were not old saws about workers or party ideology, but a line repeated throughout the text, and eight times in the final four minutes: "the great cause of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

One of the hallmarks of this Congress, moreover, is the acknowledgment and acceptance of entrepreneurs in the party. Once derided and occasionally arrested, the private business class now represents the growth engine of China - and the party is clearly signaling a freer hand.

Private businesses will be allowed to compete against state-run enterprise, Zeng Peiyan, chief of the powerful State Development Planning Commission, stated in a press conference this week. They will also enjoy policies such as applying to state banks for loans that "level the playing field," Mr. Zeng said.

In speeches and press conferences by top leaders, and in off-the-record interviews with party officials, it is clear that China's leaders are seeking new non-Marxist pathways to deal with a globalized economy and with problems of banking and ownership not anticipated in earlier eras.

In elite party circles, this is not only well understood, but it is the way officials speak.

"The problems of the CPC [Communist Party of China] are forcing us to change and evolve," says one senior party member. "These problems have no answer from classical Marxism. Some of us may not like that, or want to say it. But it is the reality of China."

An example of such party "problems," according to the official, are instances when state enterprises in different cities may want to own shares in companies in other provinces. Currently, no party rules govern how state enterprises should interact. The need for such regulations will likely "force the party to adapt even further," the official says.

The Party Congress, which meets every five years and is expected to vote current Vice President Hu Jintao into its top slot (the official term is chairman), has also used the language of nationhood to an unprecedented extent. "Socialism," for example, was rarely used in Jiang's speech without the qualifier "with Chinese characteristics."

At the same time, no words were officially spoken at the meeting on behalf of China's role as an international promoter of communism. Instead, party officials are stressing a promise that China has no plans for expansion or adventurism outside its borders.

"For the first time, you are not hearing that there are hostile forces out there ready to thwart China's communist ideals," says one diplomat. "I'm not hearing anything about the unbeatable Communist Party. Nothing."

"Please note," urges the party official, "that in the 16th Party Congress, there is no mention of an international movement. Chinese communism is a world-struggle ideology, but we don't think it is very vital today. Not many nations are communist anymore. The task today is to nationalize communism, to combine communism with traditional Chinese virtues."

National feeling has risen in China, analysts say, partly due to a sharp increase in national wealth and the pride Chinese feel in their glittering new cityscapes. China has moved away from the emphasis on workers' power that characterized the orthodox communist 1950s, toward the power of managers in the 1980s. Today, increasingly, the focus is on the power of capital and those who produce it.

The nation today has 2 million entrepreneurs, up from zero in 1978. Some 23 million Chinese work for companies with foreign investors, according to Shi Guangsheng, the minister of foreign trade, who spoke at a press conference yesterday.

The country is replete with success stories like that of Liu Yonghao. His Sichuan-based New Hope Group had earnings last year of $494 million in a portfolio that moved from pig feed to finance, and now includes dairy products, real estate, and chemicals. Or Wang Wenjing, whose UF Soft evolved from a $700 investment in 1988 into a software firm worth - after a downturn - $160 million.

Several endeavors further define China as a "nation," rather than a "communist state." Experts point out that China now has a space program, that it made the World Cup soccer finals for the first time this year, and that it's pushing to make traditional Chinese wu shu martial arts a competitive sport in the 2008 Olympics - which Beijing will host.

Still, what is unlikely to change anytime soon is the name "Communist Party of China." As one Chinese expert here pointed out, China is a society with deep roots in ancestor worship. While a family may move and change, in the words of another Chinese tradition: "The name of the father should not change."

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