China’s Communist Party tries to reclaim glory

July 1, 2011

The Chinese Communist Party has been pulling out all the stops to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its founding. There have been concerts, commemorative coins, exhibitions of revolutionary paintings, saturation coverage in the state-controlled media and even a “red games” sporting competition.

But although the party has used Friday’s anniversary to try to renew interest in its past glories, the hoopla may be having an unintended consequence, causing some to question whether the current leaders have lived up to the original ideals of the party’s founders.

In a 90-minute nationally televised speech to mark the anniversary Friday, Chinese President Hu Jintao said the party must fight corruption to retain public support and continue its uncontested rule.

“In some historical periods, we once made mistakes and even suffered severe setbacks, the root cause of which was that our guiding thought then was divorced from China’s reality. Our party managed to correct the mistakes by the strength of itself and the people, rose up amid the setbacks and continued to go forward victoriously,” the Associated Press quoted Hu as telling the several thousand party stalwarts inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Nearly each day brings new revelations of corruption and excesses by senior and provincial-level party officials. And China’s security apparatus, shaken by the fall of authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, is engaged in a broad crackdown on dissent, jailing bloggers, lawyers and anyone else who questions the party’s right to rule.

Many Chinese are asking whether the party has lost its way.

“A real Communist Party member should always remember that their aim is to serve the people,” said Li Qingrong, who owns a travel agency in Yan’an, the city known as the birthplace of the communist revolution. “Nowadays, when you read the newspaper, you see so many cases of corruption. Maybe they should come here to Yan’an to see if their soul can be touched by the revolutionary spirit. Then maybe they would change their behavior.”

Li, who is not a party member, has seen her business double over the past year, with the influx of mostly communist tour groups organized by schools, government offices and workplaces to glimpse the party’s more humble early years.

Visitors file daily into a simple concrete building on a hillside in this remote part of central China to see two sets of small, wooden benches, with 13 rows each, and a stage adorned with dingy red banners and faded black-and-white portraits of Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Greater power, new woes

The Communist Party today, at the apex of its power, occupies far more opulent quarters in Beijing, and in every province, county, city and town in the country. The party boasts 80 million members — making it the largest political party in the world — and governs the world’s second-largest economy while sitting atop a sprawling and complex business and financial empire.

But, well aware of its woes, the party has been using its anniversary to try to rekindle popular excitement and support. A new feature-length movie, “The Birth of a Party,” starring 170 of the best-known Chinese actors, was just released to coincide with the anniversary. The normally secretive party threw open its doors to journalists for a series of news conferences over the past month. And people have been encouraged to visit “red tourism” sites such as Yan’an.

Zhu Hui, 31, who works in advertising, took a “red tour” last year and again this year, following communist leader Mao Zedong’s path from his birthplace to Yan’an, where Mao lived for a dozen years during what became known as Chinese communism’s idealistic “golden age.” Zhu said he came away with a new appreciation for the struggles of the early revolutionaries. “The party has changed a lot compared to those days,” he said.

“The party has really serious corruption problems right now,” Zhu said. “I don’t think red tourism will help the party to enhance support for their regime that much. . . . When people see how hard the old Communist Party members worked, and how they lived plainly, they might become more unsatisfied with today’s reality.”

Corruption, disillusionment

Even some top party officials agree that the party is suffering from what one called “a deterioration of beliefs.”

“I believe some party members have become corrupt because they have lost their faith and their ideals,” said Chen Baosheng, vice president of the Central Party School, which is responsible for educating new cadres. “We should strengthen the teaching of morality.”

Chen was responding to a question, at a rare party news conference, about the reason for widespread stories of corruption and bad behavior by party officials, including living lavish lifestyles and keeping multiple mistresses.

A 67-page report released by China’s central bank said that over a 15-year period, up until mid-2008, about 18,000 corrupt officials and employees of government-owned companies fled the country or disappeared with $123.6 billion in ill-gotten loot.

This year, the country was rocked by the sacking of the powerful railways minister, Li Zhijun, who is alleged to have embezzled $125 million by taking kickbacks from firms competing on rail projects, and kept at least 10 mistresses, according to Chinese media reports.

Several sensational cases have been reported recently of party officials who killed their mistresses to silence them, usually when they began making increased demands for money or time. Last month, another official was exposed, publicly making dates and bragging about misusing his government expenses on a Twitter-like microblogging site that the official thought was private.

The party’s top disciplinary chief told reporters in June that 146,517 party members were punished for corruption last year.

“Some people have started to distrust the party,” said Li Yi, 59, a proud member who joined the party in 1974 and was visiting Yan’an with his wife. They donned mock Red Army uniforms and posed for photographs under a giant portrait of a youthful Mao.

“They don’t want to join anymore. It’s not a good trend.” He added, “Right now, China has an unemployment problem. People don’t have jobs. They blame the party for not giving them a good life, and this is totally wrong.”

Even the release of the extravagantly promoted new film has had an unintended consequence. On microblogging sites, many Netizens said the scenes of Mao and the other early leaders staging debates in meeting halls and at universities reminded them of the lack of that freedom today.

“The press could criticize the government; the universities had independence; students could protest in the street; people could launch a party secretly,” said one widely circulating online comment. “Poor people could make a living and young people had dreams.”

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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