The secret of the CCP's success
By Justin Vela
A photograph ran on the Associated Press wire on September 18 showing a tank rolling down a Beijing street towards Tiananmen Square.
Unlike the more famous photo of a line of tanks being stopped by a single protester during the Tiananmen protests in 1989, the tank in this picture moves unopposed. A soldier stands on a turret. The only other person in the image is a white-hatted, neon yellow-vested traffic policeman. The tank was among others involved in a rehearsal for the grand military parade in front of Tiananmen on October 1 - the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The backdrops of the two pictures are in sharp contrast, but, in a way, they symbolize well the state of affairs as the CCP marks 60 years of its rule.
Following the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, many pundits predicted the imminent collapse of communist rule in the Middle Kingdom. This view was further enhanced when, shortly afterwards, the Soviet empire collapsed, in 1991.
Twenty years later, the CCP is still in power and appears more confident in its continued rule, as shown by the grand military parade and fireworks display held at Tiananmen Square on Thursday.
The importance of the 60th anniversary of the founding of communist China is "a display of power and control", said Dali Yang, a Chinese expert at the University of Chicago. "The Communist Party dominates the discourse and the airwaves, and most people buy into it."
There certainly was an overwhelming amount of pomp and formality on display, but in Chinese culture, 60 is one of the most important years to commemorate. According to the New Delhi-based China expert Bhaskar Roy, "[In China, 60] marks the completion of a life cycle and the beginning of a new one."
A Chinese friend named Jiang told me the same thing as we taxied, bussed and motorcycled around the mountains of Guangdong province this past February. "The 60th birthday is the big one. Everyone comes to celebrate your birthday at your house," Jiang said.
The "secret" of CCP's success perhaps lies in its ability to adapt itself to changes of politico-social environment. Indeed, 60 years of rule has also transformed the CCP itself. It is no longer a revolutionary party but tries to attract elites from all social sectors to be its members. Today, the CCP boasts 75 million members out of the country's 1.3 billion population.
Jiang was 24 years old and had just joined the CCP. She was as far from a struggling member of the proletariat as they come. She had been born in a small village, but grew up in decisively middle-class surroundings after her family moved to the town of Dabu in Guangdong, which is now in the process of quickly becoming a city.
A few days after our trip through the mountains, Jiang came to visit me in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong. We walked through one of the city's many shopping malls. She peered inside each of the stores, sprayed me with perfume, and described the products as "overwhelming and wonderful". Dressed in capri jeans, a silky blouse, and sandals with long, stiletto heels, she was interested in fashion and felt the expensive products were within her grasp.
In Shenzhen, a fishing village little more than 30 years ago and now home to millions after being at the forefront of China's export-led economic transformation, she fitted in. What became clear, however, was that she never had seen much real poverty. One night in the mountains I interviewed a peasant woman. Afterwards, Jiang said, "I think that is the poorest person I have ever met."
Despite being a party member, Jiang did not have much experience with the people who, more than 60 years ago, had formed the party's original base. She had joined because she wanted a job in business or government. She felt the CCP would give her that.
"I thought it would be a good idea to join," she said. "Maybe I think joining gives me some kind of status. I don't know. They haven't done anything for me yet. I really don't think it is so different from your country. Without a lot of contacts, you cannot do anything."
She had first joined the CCP's youth wing - The Chinese Communist Youth League. Then, after several exams and interviews, she was nominated to join the party. The final question before joining was, simply, "Why do you want to join the Communist Party?"
"I told them it was my patriotic duty," Jiang said. "Actually I don't know. I want to control relationships between people. I want a good job. Also, if I get a job with the local government, there is not very much to do. There is much time for relaxing."
I asked how she felt about the CPP's actions at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
"Tiananmen Square? I know something bad happened. I do not know exactly what. Something bad happened with the government. I do not want to know. Some good things happen and some bad things happen. I only want to know the good things. I let everything else go through my head."
Under the CCP, China has become the world's third-largest economy. Thanks to a $586 billion stimulus package, the country is weathering the economic crisis better than most countries. Many analysts believe that the country will reach its goal of 8% growth by the end of the year.
The CCP has gone from being an underground organization founded in Shanghai in 1921 to being the largest political party in the world today. It has emerged from the Long March and chaos of the Cultural Revolution stronger than ever.
Critics might say that this is due to repression the CCP has foisted upon the Chinese people, but Chinese history is full of uprisings against unjust rulers. Repression alone cannot explain how the CCP has held onto power for so long. Adapting to change, rather than repression, is the CCP's greatest strength.
The CCP has made a great effort to learn from the successes and failures of many political parties throughout history. The theory of "adapt or die" has proven itself. Successive political leaders from Mao Zedong to paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to current President Hu Jintao have shaped the party to mirror the Chinese people while at the same time maintaining an iron grasp over the country. Once it was the impoverished peasantry who were the core of the CCP. Brutally, they massed to give the party total power. The core of the CCP is now China's rising middle class. The people who work in businesses and industries, like exporters and entrepreneurs - the people who are largely responsible for making China what it is today.
No one can argue that China has not risen quickly under the leadership of the CCP. The country has been in a constant state of flux since Mao raised the flag of the People's Republic of China in Tiananmen Square 60 years ago. Adult illiteracy has dropped to 3.5%. There is free compulsory education at the elementary school level. The economic stimulus package that is helping the country to maintain growth as others struggle in recession is backed by the amassed resources of $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves.
In short, the CCP is keeping its promise to develop China into a modern nation. And more than that, China is an expanding global power, the only country alongside the United States seen as able to drag the world out of the economic crisis. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has apparently gone as far as to put more value in China's economic power than its human-rights situation.
Reality is a harsh, but evolving process. In 1983, factory manager Zhou was dispatched by the military to live in Shenzhen, then a fishing village. But with its capacity to have a large port and proximity to Hong Kong, the CCP had decided to make Shenzhen one of the country's "special economic zones" and the place to spearhead the country's first experiments with market economy.
Zhou was assigned to manage a state-owned plant that made plastic zippers, a job he stayed in until 2003. "Unlike many others, the people who were dispatched to Shenzhen came with the mentality that they were going to work and settle down," Zhou said. He has seen Shenzhen grow into a city of over 10 million people. Like so much of the growth in China, Shenzhen's development did not happen gradually. There was a sudden influx of money and capital that gave rise to the skyscrapers and constantly expanding city. Land was allotted for development area by area, handed out to meet the CCP's demand for constantly rising figures.
Although Zhou is very proud of what has happened in Shenzhen, he adds, "China still faces two major issues. That of social inequality and environmental destruction."
Of the reform process he says, "It has not been equal. Before we were all partners. Now the owners and managers have taken the most. This happened all over the country and in their hearts and minds the people believe this is wrong."
The main reason why the CCP is so strong is that the Chinese are aware of the improvements that have been made in such a short period of time. They can reach out and grasp them with their hands. For as much as the CCP is changing its focus to the rising middle class and other elites, many of the old problems remain. In some ways Zhou is disappointed by what has not been achieved.
"Why is it that even though China is 5,000 years old it still cannot be considered a modern civilization?" he says. "It is because we still do not have justice and equality."
Such sentiments are strong in China. The CCP, however, has become a master in breaking the lines of communication of any that might share these thoughts. It is the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic. The parade is moving forward at full speed.
Justin Vela is a freelance journalist currently based in Helsinki, Finland.