Chinese communists celebrate 90 years
The National | Aug 18, 2010
by Daniel Bardsley
BEIJING // Ninety years ago this month, a small group of leading left-wing thinkers met in Shanghai and founded a communist organisation for the city – the first in China. That inauspicious start gave rise to a party that is now the largest political organisation on the planet and has steered the country to become the world’s second largest economy.
But while it has overseen a period of phenomenal economic growth and modernised large parts of the vast nation, analysts say the party appears no closer to adopting political reforms than it was 20 years ago.
The Communist Party of China, which officially came into existence in July 1921 and now has about 73 million members, has retained a grip on every significant lever of power in China.
The top echelon has a more consensual structure than during the autocracy of Mao’s era, with the presidency rotated after two terms and executive power shared within a coterie of senior leaders. But there are few signs China’s economic opening up will herald wider political reform such as tentative moves towards democracy.
According to Dr Ding Xueling, a professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, there have been a series of false dawns that were set to herald political reform. This, he said, suggested any current predictions that later generations of leadership, who have grown up in China’s more internationally influenced society of the past three decades, will bring about reform will also probably prove to be incorrect.
“People in the past made forecasts 10 years ago, 15 years ago – when China becomes economically advanced, when China’s international status improves, then the leadership will be more self-confident, more enlightened, more open to political reform,” he said.
“Many, many senior scholars would make such forecasts 10 years ago, 15 years ago, but nothing came out. It wasn’t on the central political agenda 20 years ago, it’s not on the agenda today.”
The party, he said, was responsive to some popular demands, but he said only “after huge cost on the part of ordinary citizens”.
“For very small improvements, very many people have to suffer for a long time,” he said.
Yet while the Communist Party of China’s power has not diminished, despite the existence of several political parties without ties to the ruling group, some have questioned the extent to which this matters to the day-to-day lives of citizens in modern China.
While the one-child policy and the large urban-rural divide, for example, still exist as potential sources of discontent, individuals have far more freedom in their personal lives than was the case in previous decades, said Richard McGregor, the author of the recently published The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.
They can more freely travel overseas, adopt the lifestyle of their choice and enjoy far greater spending power.
“The greater personal freedom they have given to individuals has allowed the party to exist underground,” he said.
“Most people in China have little day-to-day contact with the Communist Party [of China]. It’s like a radio in the background.
“As one young woman said: ‘We don’t care about the party, we only care about parties.’”
He also suggested there was a “so what?” attitude among foreign governments about China’s lack of political reform and the party’s “instinct for secrecy”, given that the Chinese model was unlikely to be replicated overseas, apart from in neighbouring Vietnam, and because many other nations were benefiting from trade with China.
However, domestic concerns remain about corruption within the party, with widespread reports of officials taking bribes, an issue regarded as one that could spark increased social discontent.
Also, corruption and preferential treatment can extend beyond merely the financial, with the Chinese media having recently given extensive coverage to a case in Hubei province in central China where police apologised after beating up a woman who approached the local authorities – but only because she was the wife of a party official. The official People’s Daily newspaper said the episode showed some felt it acceptable to allow “habitual beating under the mindset of maintaining stability by violence”.
The view among many analysts is that political stability can last as long as China’s furious double-digit economic growth continues.
According to Ren Xianfang, a China analyst at IHS Global Insight, the current “focus on economic development” was the party’s way of “help[ing] maintain the legitimacy of the regime”.
“The lesson of the past few decades suggest it’s impossible to maintain stability without solid economic growth,” she said. “They want to keep up growth for as long as possible, but to delay political reform for as long as possible.”
Mr McGregor said he believed the party has also successfully created a perception that “if the party fell apart, the country would [too]”.
“That’s deliberate. ‘You can’t do it, so leave it to us.’”