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.

Jason Lee/Reuters
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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.”

Transformation bound?

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.”

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