To understand the long journey of the People’s Republic of China and its rulers you might start at a modest two-story gray brick building in Shanghai’s former French Concession. It lies a short stroll from the Harry Winston store, with its blazing diamonds, past over-priced bars and glassy towers.
It was in 1921 that 13 young Chinese men gathered in this newly built home, then located at the edge of the city, overlooking a vegetable field. Though most were lodging at a nearby girls’ school as the Beijing University Summer Vacation Tourist Group, sightseeing was not on the agenda. In strictest secrecy, with the aid of two Comintern representatives, they were hammering ou t the program for the newly formed Chinese Communist Party.
Threatened with discovery by the police, they fled to the nearby town of Jiaxing, where the Communist Party’s first national congress concluded on board a pleasure boat on South Lake.
Six weeks from now, their descendants will gather in Beijing for the 18th congress and will hand over power to a new generation of leaders, with Xi Jinping (習近平) at the helm. The Communist Party is now the world’s largest and most powerful political movement; with more than 80 million members; it controls a fifth of the globe’s population and the second-largest economy.
The congress is expected to be its shot at returning to business as usual, after a tumultuous year culminating in the announcement on Sept. 27 that the disgraced politician Bo Xilai (薄熙來), who was once tipped for promotion in this transition, faces criminal charges. He is accused of abusing power, corruption and sexual impropriety; and is said to bear responsibility for his wife’s murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood.
Though most of next month’s meeting will take place behind closed doors, the party no longer needs to cherish obscurity; these days the congress is a carefully mounted display of power and unity. More than 2,200 delegates will meet at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in considerable pomp and some splendor. Police will have silenced any hint of discord; activists and dissidents will be detained or put under surveillance.
“The 18th party congress is coming, so we thought we should learn about the first one,” Wang Yao said as he left the site of the first meeting, now a museum. “The first generation had such difficult conditions when they started, but now China is more and more prosperous, and it’s getting better and better.”
Wang and his family are among the winners. He works in sales and marketing; his son Tommy has just graduated from Newcastle University in northeast England.
“The new government will lead China at a new speed, but with the same original spirit from here,” he said.
Others find it harder to see the continuity.
“The internal procedures of the congress have not changed much over the decades since Stalin institutionalized the congress as a showpiece of party unity,” said Jeremy Paltiel, an expert on the party at Carleton University in Canada.
But the party itself is a long way from its roots, he noted.
“Arguably it remained something of an organization of revolutionaries until the death of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) in 1976. Since then it has become a party of functionaries and officials. The party is a party of ‘cadres’ and so is the congress, with a few ‘model workers’ as window dressing,” Paltiel said,