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This might be the most mysterious school in China.
The gates are closely guarded by the People's Armed Police, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Headmasters of this place, a training ground for future leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), are always one of the country's vice-presidents, if not the president. Former headmasters include Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and Hu Jintao.
Group interviews were on the agenda last June when about 70 journalists from home and abroad visited the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. By influencing decision-makers, experts say, the Central Party School is partly navigating the country's development. Provided to China Daily
It is also a haven where possible cures for China's economic and social ills are discussed and debated, and where policy trends are set.
Situated next to the Summer Palace, an 18th century imperial retreat in suburban Beijing's northwest, the Party School of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China - the Central Party School - is like no other university or college in the country.
Without the usual hustle and bustle, the 100-hectare leafy campus is extremely quiet, and almost empty. There is no bicycle congestion. Instead, the roads outside school buildings are lined with black Audis, the German brand selected as the government's official sedans.
The serenity and security are prepared for those who study there - provincial governors and ministers, young and middle-aged officials, their guest speakers and sometimes the country's top leaders.
The speeches that top leaders deliver at the Central Party School, and their articles printed in the school's publications, often signal new strategies and policies that will be adopted by the central government.
Seeking new solutions
The most recent example is the notion of innovative social governance - keeping a handle on social issues while fulfilling people's fundamental interests - brought about amid growing public concerns over unbalanced and unsustainable development.
In February, at the opening ceremony of a seminar for provincial and ministerial officials at the school, President Hu Jintao called for new methods of social management in a bid to "ensure a harmonious and stable society full of vitality", Xinhua News Agency reported. Hu acknowledged that the country is "still in a stage where many conflicts are likely to arise", despite remarkable social and economic development.
In his speech, Hu highlighted the necessities to "improve the structure of social management", which must be achieved through the Party committee's leadership, government's responsibilities, support from non-governmental organizations and public participation.
In March, at the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee, a proposal high on the agenda called for establishing a sound social management system with Chinese characteristics during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) period.
More detailed plans have since been drafted, including one for a comprehensive and dynamic national population database. Zhou Yongkang, secretary of the Central Political and Legislative Affairs Committee of the Communist Party of China, made that proposal in an article published in Qiushi, the CPC central committee's biweekly journal.
Steering the policymaking in China is a tradition for the Central Party School, according to Wang Haiguang, a professor in the school's history department.
Broad range of programs
The Central Party School, founded in 1933 in Jiangxi province, has trained 61,024 officials under different types of programs.
Provincial and ministerial-level officials usually undergo two months of training on political science, public management, economy and history. Young and middle-aged officials spend six months to a year at the school, usually followed by a promotion.
Since 1981, the school also has offered postgraduate and doctoral programs for about 500 non-official students. They focus on philosophy, economics, laws, politics and the history of the Communist Party of China.
"The Central Party School has played an important role in several critical stages in China's history," Wang said. "In some way, it is partly navigating the country's development through influencing decision-makers."
Following the end of the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), Hu Yaobang, then headmaster of the Central Party School, led a fervent discussion about the criterion for "testing truth" among the officials receiving training at the school.
At the time, whatever Mao said was regarded as the truth or principle to follow. The discussion led by Hu was whether this rule should continue.
The discussion was held in a stubborn social environment still dominated by the notion of "two whatevers" - "we will resolutely uphold whatever policy and decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave."
It led to the publication in May 1978 of a commentary piece, titled "Practice Is the Sole Criterion for Testing Truth," in Guangming Daily. The concept put forward in the article won approval by the majority of Party members, but it also touched off a fierce national debate. The debate was believed to be a great movement to free the minds of Chinese people from personality cults, and also a solid ideological foundation for the economic reforms and opening-up that would follow.
Freedom of speech
Although outsiders expect the Central Party School to be conservative, the school tolerates free internal discussions, even without limits. Li Tao, a 27-year-old postgraduate student at the school, was surprised by the freedom of speech in class.
"Teachers told us there were no taboos in their teaching, and officials can debate on almost any sensitive issues in the country," Li said. "This is actually a place of mind emancipation and free speech."
"Officials might be discreet in talking to strangers or in public, but their internal discussion in class is unbounded," said Wu Zhongmin, a professor at the Central Party School who focuses on social justice research. "Sometimes their opinions can be really audacious and revolutionary.
"The Central Party School is a place where officials and researchers debate about the future of the country and the Party," Wu said. "They have to face the problems and find ways to solve them. Speaking empty words or simply flattering makes no sense here."
Discussions are closely linked to the most sizzling social problems, such as illegal land grabs, inequality between rural and urban areas, and corruption. To give trainees a better understanding of these problems, the Central Party School sometimes invites outspoken scholars to give lectures.
One speaker, in 2009, was Yu Jianrong, head of the Rural Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a prominent advocate for farmers' rights. He addressed the rapid urbanization that has resulted in farmland being taken up for construction projects and the use of the petition system for redress.
Some farmers, believing they had not been adequately compensated for their land, appealed to the petition system. But going over local officials' heads by petitioning can lead to ill treatment by officials whose job performance is downgraded when they do not handle problems well locally.
Wang Changjiang, director of the school's Party Building Teaching and Research Department, said officials are aware that mishandling such social problems could create greater chaos.
"China has so many problems now," Wang said. "As the country's governors, officials have no reason to ignore those problems. They must bear in mind that only reform and changes to the Party can help it stay in power."
Social and economic changes also have led to changes in officials' mindset, he said. In the early 1990s, higher ranked officials were unaware of some of the problems at the grassroots.
Wang said he met strong opposition from trainees when he tried to talk about democratic reform in 1996. But in recent years, more high-ranking Party leaders began to realize the need to carry out government reform following economic progress.
"The Central Party School might be the most ideal place for such discussions," he said, "because you can't find anywhere else where hundreds of high-ranking officials gather for months."
Since the mid-1990s, the Central Party School has welcomed another group of guest speakers - top leaders from foreign countries - in a bid to give Chinese officials a wider horizon and better understanding of different cultures, values and political systems.
Most recently, Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, gave a speech titled "Europe and China in an Interdependent World" on May 17 during his visit to Beijing. Besides talking about the economic crisis, he also addressed human rights, climate change and other concerns common to both Europe and China.
Xu Wei contributed to this report.