FYI: Where and when did China's Communist Party first convene?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am

Believe it or not, the party first met in a room just around the corner from what is now Shanghai's hippest lifestyle zone, the achingly trendy Xintiandi, where the city's nouveaux riches enjoy the hedonistic fruits of contemporary capitalism.

As office workers stroll to enjoy their lunchtime lattes and Caesar salads in the cafes and restaurants of Xintiandi, busloads of out-of-town tourists in orange baseball caps are herded inside the restored building, now a museum, where Mao Zedong and a dozen or so of his fellow Chinese revolutionaries, supervised by two agents from Communist International, held the party's first national congress.

That was on July 23, 1921; a meeting that was ultimately to have a cataclysmic effect on China's history. Few in that smoke-filled room could have dreamed it would be the first step in a chain of events that would lead to the 1949 defeat of the nationalists, and the party's control from then until the present day.

Few apart from Mao, perhaps, who even then, according to the official version of events, was leader of the pack. The museum's wax-dummy tableau of the meeting is careful to portray Mao as a tall, magisterial figure who dominated the group.

But a recent biography, Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang and her historian husband, Jon Halliday, claims the man who was to later style himself as the Great Helmsman was a minor player. 'Mao spoke little and made little impact,' the authors claim. 'He did not strive to impress and was content mainly to listen.'

Their take on Mao's role, made after extensive research in previously untapped Russian archive material, is unlikely to make much of a dent in the official version. The party line, fine-tuned and embellished over 80 years, even has a dramatic ending: the participants were forced to flee after being rumbled and had to conclude their meeting some time later, on board a boat cruising around a nearby lake.

After half a century in power, the party pursues a system that is a far cry from its revolutionary roots. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is the euphemism for the mix-and-match political formula that allows Starbucks, McDonald's and a Ferrari showroom to be located just a stone's throw from where the cadres voted to follow the Marxist course.