Over nine decades, the party has proved extraordinarily adaptable as well as relentless in its pursuit and preservation of power. It has endured violent suppression and war; the devastating purges, famine and political turmoil its own leader created and the alienation of its people through the bloody crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy protests that began in Tiananmen Square. It has survived by jettisoning the ideology once at its core, in favor of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — today’s hybrid of rampant capitalism and the heavy hand of the state.
Under its reign, life expectancy and literacy have soared; two years ago Shanghai topped the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s global rankings of schools. Women’s rights have improved markedly. Hundreds of millions have climbed out of poverty — an achievement described by the World Bank as a miracle.
Yet tens of millions died in the manmade disaster of the Great Famine and tens of millions were persecuted in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Inequality is soaring. Human rights abuses and corruption are rife; the Bo scandal has highlighted the unbridled power of senior leaders and the often lavish lifestyles of their families. Still, facing it down may be the least of the new leadership’s challenges; they face slowing growth in an imbalanced economy, environmental devastation, rising public expectations and an increasingly complicated foreign policy environment.
To trace the “glorious course” of the national congresses, as Shanghai’s museum does, is to trace the evolution of the party and the country. Guards say visitor numbers have climbed as the 18th congress approaches; around 1,000 arrive each day, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and earnestness. In an upper gallery, one man is schmoozing a business contact via his cellphone as he glances at exhibits. At the souvenir counter, official histories of the party jostle for space with Mao watches, kitschy Red Army cellphone accessories and a pencil case reading: “Study hard, earn money.”
The group that gathered in July 1921, “unlike the party of a later time ... had a great deal of idealism but little organizational discipline,” said Wen-hsin Yeh, an expert on the birth of Chinese communism at the University of California Berkeley.
The early years were volatile; only two of the 13 remained in the party by the time it took power in 1949. Others had died, chosen to leave or were purged. Yet by 1927 it had 58,000 members and Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) was alarmed enough to launch a brutal suppression of the party; the following year it would meet in exile, in Moscow. The seventh congress would not take place until 1945, at the Communist rebel base in Yanan, just before the end of the Japanese occupation and the resumption of war with Chiang’s forces.
“It confirmed Mao’s absolute authority in the Communist Party,” said Gao Wenqian (高文謙), previously a researcher at the Chinese Institute of Central Documents and now a senior policy adviser at New York-based Human Rights in China.
Eleven years later, the eighth congress was a celebration of power; the party now ruled China. More than 1,000 delegates, representing 10 million members, gathered in Beijing.
“Mao hoped to become the leader of the world revolution,” Gao said. “Then he started the Great Leap Forward.”