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.
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.
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.
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.
So for the first time since the Soviet Union established a communist state, we have a country in which the leftists constitute the main opposition to the rule of a communist party. This is especially confusing to outside observers because traditionally in China and everywhere else opposition to communist rule had come from the political right. Sometimes it is even confusing to those inside China who would habitually call the attackers of party authority rightists. But of course, they are ultra-leftists through and through.
They are calling for more equal distribution of wealth even at the expense of slower economic growth. They are attacking privileges of any kind. They are seeing all social ills as results of the party’s coddling of the elites and abandonment of the masses. In fact, they started singing red long before Mr. Bo launched the movement in Chongqing. What is mistakenly viewed by many as China’s right because it opposes the party’s rule is actually on the left and redder than the Communist Party itself.
Can party reclaim its traditional power base?
Piercing through all the noises about left and right, what we see is a movement – singing red – that is in effect an effort by the party to reclaim its traditional power base that is in danger of being claimed by its dissenters in the media and the intelligentsia. And of course Bo correctly sees the same thing. Without the support of the Chinese masses, it would be impossible for China to continue on its current path of development and the self-interests of the elites themselves would be in jeopardy.
There are two implications of this development.
First, although this movement is a reaction to opposition from the left, through it the party will probably succeed in strengthening its political power. Its alliance with the masses was forged in blood and remains in its DNA. Once it decides to move in that direction, the populism of the media-intelligentsia axis is not likely to be able to out-left the Communist Party. In Chongqing, where it all began, rapid economic development seems to be synchronizing with and is even reinforced by the reaffirmation of the power of the masses. And early results of the singing-red campaign elsewhere in the country point in the same direction.
Second, populism everywhere is usually coupled with nationalism, and China is no exception. In the media and especially on the Internet, a vehement strain of nationalism is accompanying the populism that is challenging the Communist Party’s rule. From advocating a more aggressive military posture in the South China Sea to denouncing the Chinese government’s continued purchase and holding of US treasury bills, the duo of populism and nationalism is pressuring the party to alter its long-held policy of moderation toward the West.
As China enters a sensitive period before the leadership transition in 2012, critical questions remain.
Domestically, can the party maintain the delicate balance of reclaiming its mass roots and protecting the interests of the elites that are essential for continuing economic success, which in turn ensures the long-term support of the masses?
Internationally, can the party tame, or even co-opt, the rising nationalist fervor while still maintaining a relatively moderate foreign policy that provides for a peaceful external environment crucial for China’s successful rise?
For the party itself, can it succeed in truly transcending the concept of a conventional political party and becoming a stable governing organization for the largest and fastest changing country on earth? If it does, it would forever change how China is governed and, along with it, political science itself.
Eric X. Li is chairman of Chengwei Capital. He is a Shanghai-based venture capitalist and scholar at Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs.