Pragmatic revolution

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2011, 12:00am


A forty-something man emerges with a swagger from a Mercedes-Benz at a four-star hotel in Jinggangshan, Jiangxi, a Prada pouch under his arm and a beautiful woman in her early 20s, in a Gucci dress and high heels, at his side.

They look like aliens in China's communist Mecca as it gears up for the celebration of the Communist Party's 90th anniversary. Red hammer-and-sickle flags are everywhere, along with red posters with revolutionary slogans, red lanterns, and people, mostly tourists, in Red Army uniforms, red stars on their caps and red armbands on their arms.

The scene exemplifies the dialectic in today's China, where a vigorous and pragmatic capitalism flourishes in an avowedly socialist country under the leadership of what is, in name, a Marxist party.

As the party looks back on its first 90 years, triumphantly but selectively, on Friday, focusing on its wartime glory and the economic successes of the past three decades, it is hard to tell exactly what is communist about what is being celebrated.

But contrast China's rapid development and vibrancy with the 80 years before 1921, when the weak Qing dynasty ceded Hong Kong to the British and China became a semi-colonised country, and the 38 years under Nationalist rule between 1911 and 1949, when the nation endured famine, rule by warlords and a Japanese invasion, and there is certainly a lot to celebrate.

The Chinese Communist Party, now the world's largest political party, with 80 million members, has evolved from a revolutionary party based on the theories of Karl Marx into an institutionalised party characterised by nationalism and authoritarian rule.

In the mid-1920s, the Soviet Union told its Chinese comrades a proper communist revolution could only be led by the urban proletariat after a bourgeois revolution had put an end to feudalism. The party was, therefore, first directed to ally itself with the Nationalists. However, Mao Zedong changed that strategy and positioned the party to lead a successful, rural-based revolution.

The party's first acclaimed achievement, in 1949, was to unify a destitute country after a century of civil strife and colonialism. Now it claims that its rule is legitimised by its ability to deliver prosperity to the world's most populous nation.

But the tributes to material development serve to obscure older revolutionary ideals that have been thrown out in the rush to get rich.

The wealthy businessman with the Prada pouch said he saw much to celebrate in his pilgrimage to Jinggangshan, a cradle of the revolution that aimed to eradicate exploitation, landlords and the bourgeoisie.

'Without the communist leadership's policies, I would not have got rich,' he said.

More than four million relatively well-off tourists come here each year.

His companion said she wasn't here out of nostalgia.

'I come here for the greenery, not for the reds,' she said, glancing at the forest-covered mountains.

Yanan, a poor plateau city in Shaanxi that was the Communists' base from 1937 to 1947, has also become a fashionable tourist destination for mainlanders. Local officials speak proudly of the 'Yanan spirit' that enabled Mao and his followers to bounce back from near annihilation in 1935 to rule China.

'The Yanan spirit is still alive, encouraging people in today's modernisation drive,' said Li Shaoting , director of the party's propaganda office in the city.

A more recent slogan, more often heard by visitors, is 'Go west' - China's new push to overcome poverty in its backward hinterland.

The businessman visiting Jinggangshan lauded the party for managing an economy that has averaged double-digit growth for three decades. In just over a decade, it has leapfrogged six of the Group of Seven industrialised economies to trail only the United States in gross domestic product.

But the evolution of party ideology and policy that made that possible came only after the Chinese people had endured three decades of communist misrule.

During the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1961, millions died of hunger chasing unrealistic production goals under Mao's extremist, Stalinist-style policies. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, from 1966 and 1976, human lives and values were destroyed in an orchestrated campaign that ended only when the chairman died.

China's renaissance began when Deng Xiaoping launched capitalist reform in the late 1970s. It is now widely praised for bringing prosperity and relaxing the party's grip on people's personal lives, if not their political choices.

'In many respects, the suffering during the Mao years convinced Chinese leaders from the 1980s onwards that they had to embrace economic reforms,' said John Lee, a China watcher with the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

'Reforms were undertaken to rebuild legitimacy and retain power.'

Lee said the party had based its modern legitimacy on rapid economic growth rather than on communist ideology.

China analyst Ben Simpfendorfer, the managing director of Silk Road Associates, said: 'The pragmatism of today's leadership is partly a response to the problems of the 1960s and 1970s, when the country learned hard lessons about economic mismanagement.'

The world is wondering how the Communist Party has survived numerous upheavals, while others, in Soviet bloc countries, could not.

Professor Liu Kang, a US-based China watcher at Duke University, said the party began as a revolutionary, rebel political force engaged in violent insurgencies and wars, and that was its history and legacy.

Liu said the fundamental change from a violent revolutionary force to a modern ruling party occurred only after the political upheaval of 1989, when the leaders realised economic growth would ease social discord.

'That's the turning point, which put the Communist Party squarely into the driver's seat of the economic race car, shooting out at an incredible speed with no return,' he said.

However, since China's reform and opening up, the party leadership has struggled to resolve its ideological and legitimacy problems, as economic reform and integration into the capitalist world order resulted in ideological crises and social injustice.

Liu said the mainstream ideology was pragmatism - Deng Xiaoping Theory, Jiang Zemin's theory of 'Three Represents' and current party general secretary Hu Jintao's 'scientific development concept' and his emphasis on the building of a 'harmonious society'.

'Pragmatism is the 'magic wand' for the party to survive the upheavals and create miracles in its leadership and governance,' Liu said.

Party scholars agree pragmatism is the secret to the party's longevity.

'It is the spirit of 'serving the people' initiated by chairman Mao that won the people's support for communist rule in China,' said Chen Yannan , vice-president of the China Executive Leadership Academy in Yanan, a training base for senior party cadres run by the party Central Committee's powerful Organisation Department. The academy aims to indoctrinate cadres in the Yanan spirit, as outlined in Mao's famous speech 'Serve the People'.

Wu Jianmin, former president of China Foreign Affairs University, is more candid about the secret, saying 'no ruling party in the world would lose power so long as it could deliver double-digit growth'.

Lee said the party had maintained its grip on power by trying to co-opt the existing and emerging middle-class elite. He said China's state-led political economy was gradually extended to ensure that the 'party remains the dominant dispenser of business, economic, professional, career and social opportunity'. Under Jiang, Hu's predecessor, the party that claimed to represent the proletariat decided to admit private entrepreneurs into its ranks, a move that analysts say has fundamentally changed its composition and nature.

Lee said the party's longevity was based on a threefold foundation.

First, unlike the former Soviet Union, which alienated the elite in the country, China, through its state-dominated economy, was tying the future of the elite to continued communist rule.

Second, China's partial free-market reforms had allowed rapid economic growth to take place, while the Soviet economy was stagnant before it imploded.

Third, as the country became a major trading partner, it became important to the governments in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul that China remained stable, even if that meant the Communist Party remained in power.

Simpfendorfer said: 'Unlike leaders in many developing economies, China's leaders understand the importance of giving back to the population, rather than just taking. In short, China is no Tunisia.'

That's a conclusion shared by most academics inside the party and overseas and one that's likely to please the wealthy businessman who was touring Jinggangshan.

He said he didn't want to see China tossed by the turmoil now sweeping the Arab world.

When asked whether she supported continued communist rule, his companion had a simple answer: 'I don't care who the ruler is, so long as we live well.'