Chinese communism: cause or club?

It has long since walked away from its founding principles, but the Chinese Communist Party still has a hammerlock on power in the world's most populous nation. How long will the Chinese people tolerate a ruling clique that can't be voted out of office?

China Daily/Reuters/File
Chinese Middle-schoolers held emblems of the Communist Party of China in Suining, Sichuan province, during a ceremony.

Most organizations launch with unbridled enthusiasm. “Victory is ours!” their slogans proclaim. “From each according to his ability to each according to his need!” Some causes go on to change the world. Others fizzle. And many just keep going and going like a battery-operated bunny long after their original mandate has been forgotten.

That’s especially the case with political parties. In the United States, Republicans began life as radicals. Democrats were so conservative that they were the party of the Confederacy. Over time, both changed dramatically. Closer to the present day, Ronald Reagan redefined Republicanism as the less-government party, and Bill Clinton maneuvered the Democrats toward the political center. At heart, both parties care about democracy and freedom; over time, they have pursued it differently.

But what happens when your party’s past is so checkered that you dare not go back to first principles? In Peter Ford’s vivid Monitor cover story, you’ll see what a head-spinning array of contradictions the Chinese Communist Party has become. 

Mao Zedong’s “great proletarian cultural revolution” has evolved from cause to club. Under China’s 21st-century social compact, the Communist Party has a monopoly on power but has loosened its grip on the economy (though many party members also wear the hats of corporate chiefs), and largely stays out of the private lives of Chinese citizens as long as they do not agitate too aggressively for change. Party members prosper, and the communist-capitalist system they control keeps 1.3 billion people fed, clothed, sheltered, and productive.

That is a signal achievement in Chinese history: Tens of millions starved during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” and the social order was turned on its head by the Cultural Revolution. That toxic past haunts the party’s present. Rigidity of thought is the last thing modern Chinese communists want.

In preparing his Monitor cover story, Peter spoke with Prof. Chen Xiankui, a teacher of Marxism, and asked him at one point about Karl Marx’s classic tenet that “religion is the opium of the people.” “That is a leftist slogan,” the professor said in a shocked voice. “The party has abandoned it,” having decided instead that “religion is helpful to improve people’s morality and social stability because people showing goodwill leads to a harmonious society.”

As for contradictions, Peter notes that the life story of Zong Qinghou, China’s richest man (net worth around $10 billion) is a classic rags-to-riches tale. His first business was a popsicle stand. Now he is chairman of a massive beverage conglomerate called Wahaha. Mr. Zong calls himself a communist. At least he is a member of the party. But what would Mao think?

“The paradox is resolved,” Peter says, “when you realize that ‘communist’ in China does not mean what it means everywhere else in the world: It is just the name of the party in power.”

Movements, organizations, and parties are made up of humans who want their cause to succeed. That inevitably means either changing with the times or withering away. The Chinese Communist Party has survived by walking away from its Marxist foundation and Maoist mismanagement – a metamorphosis that unquestionably has improved the lives of millions of Chinese and transformed China into an economic superpower.

What’s left, however, is a ruling clique with all the inherent self-dealing and corruption that comes from a privileged position. The party’s central belief is that the party must go on. Will the Chinese people always agree?

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor.

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