Youthful ideals abandoned in the pursuit of power

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2011, 12:00am


You may think of the Chinese Communist Party as a conservative and secretive organisation that resists modern, universal values - but did you know that when it was founded, it was the champion of liberal ideals such as democracy, social justice, freedom of speech and the emancipation of women?

At the time, China was reeling from foreign occupation and immersed in poverty under a corrupt and dictatorial Kuomintang government. Its cities were swept by demonstrations and strikes and ordinary people suffered amid a yawning rich-poor divide.

Against this backdrop, a handful of intellectuals inspired by the Russian Revolution formed the Communist Party. Feeling betrayed by Western democracies after the Versailles treaty transferred German concessions in Shandong to Japan, they looked to Marxism as a prescription to cure China's ills.

Chen Duxiu, an intellectual and idealist who co-founded the party, famously wrote in 1940: 'All authoritarian regimes are inseparable from brutality, deception and corrupt bureaucracy.' He was expelled from the party in 1929, and, not long after, the collaboration with the KMT collapsed.

Chen's successor, Mao Zedong, also condemned the KMT's one-party rule and spelled out his vision of a new China.

'China has one big shortcoming - its lack of democracy,' the Liberation Daily quoted Mao as telling foreign journalists in 1944 in Yanan , then the Communist Party's power base during the civil war with the KMT. 'Only with democracy can China march forward.'

The party condemned the KMT government's violation of rights. The Xinhua Daily and Liberation Daily - then opposition party publications - published articles hitting out at the lack of press, publication and academic freedom, election rights, freedom of assembly and association, and the ills of one-party rule.

'The key to pushing democracy is to end one-party rule ... only then can the country's talents whole-heartedly dedicate themselves to the public and do what they need to do,' a 1941 Liberation Daily editorial said.

Retired Xinhua journalist Peng Di, now 90, was an idealistic 24-year-old in 1944 when he left his home and changed his name to join the Communist Party in Yanan. Peng said he was attracted by the party's advocacy of social equality and freedom and its toleration of different voices.

Students and intellectuals were disgusted at the way the KMT government arrested and assassinated dissidents, controlled the press and persecuted journalists, he said.

'Mao wrote extensively on democracy, freedom and equality ... that's what made the party attractive,' Peng said. 'Most of the young people who joined the Communist Party didn't really know much about Marxism, but they yearned for democracy and equality ... so people were full of high hopes.'

Mao's most influential essays - On new democracy (1940) and On coalition government (1945) - declared his early aspiration for a multi-party democratic government, but when his party seized power in 1949, it reneged on many of its promises. Mao announced the party would pursue 'the people's democratic dictatorship' - a phrase incorporated into the constitution, meaning that the party and the state may use dictatorial powers against reactionary forces.

'Mao changed after the Communist Party defeated the KMT; he had a 180 degree-change,' Peng said. 'The party itself became a dictatorship.'

Mao launched movements in the next three decades targeting intellectuals, political figures, journalists and anyone who expressed dissent, culminating in the Cultural Revolution.

Critics say the Communist Party played an important historical role as an opposition party under the KMT's authoritarian rule, but its gravest mistake was its failure to embrace democracy - a promise that won it many supporters in its early days.

'It was an advancing force in its opposition to corruption and dictatorship and its pursuit of equality, and it acted as a check and balance force [for the ruling KMT],' said commentator Chang Ping. 'But its mistake is that it has since established an authoritarian rule ... and it has no chance of correcting its wrong ways.'

Many of its early followers, the liberal-thinking youths now in their 80s and 90s, say they feel betrayed because the party has not honoured a range of promises - on freedom of the press, speech, publication, assembly and association - even though they are written into the constitution.

'They need to go back to the Communist Party founders' noble ideals ... you have to respect people's wishes and listen to different voices,' Peng said.

The signs are not encouraging - Premier Wen Jiabao suggested last year that China could introduce political reform, but in March, Wu Bangguo , chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee and officially No 2 in the leadership structure, said China would not become a multi-party democracy because that could plunge the country into civil disorder.

'It would be better to establish a modern political system with checks and balances, so when they don't honour their promises they can be voted out,' Chang said.