The disastrous attempt to transform the economy and society overnight resulted in tens of millions of deaths in the Great Famine — and a new willingness to challenge the chairman.
“Mao worried that his position was not stable, so the ninth national congress was not held until 1969,” Gao said.
That year a giant portrait of Mao hung above the meeting. He had already unleashed the Cultural Revolution to eliminate his rivals; Lin Biao (林彪) — who would die in a mysterious plane crash two years later — was confirmed as his new successor. “The ideological, political and organizational guidelines of the ninth national congress were wrong,” a caption at the museum states flatly.
Eight years later, after Mao’s death, the 11th congress saw the return of many of his victims; notably Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), who would do more than anyone to turn China into today’s global powerhouse. That year, 1977, saw the establishment of the pattern that still prevails, with a congress every five years. The party is an increasingly institutionalized body that has regulated the turnover of leaders, leaving behind the days when one man could control it.
Many within its top ranks appear to have feared Bo, who sought to harness mass support in pursuit of his ambitions, as a destabilizing figure. These days “the national congress is like a rubber stamp. Before the 18th, all the significant decisions have already been made, such as the personnel arrangements and the policy direction afterwards,” Gao said.
Gao, like others, believes three decades of economic reform without political change have led to contradictions and conflicts which are reaching a critical, explosive point. As growth slows, it can no longer disguise the problems.
The Bo Xilai incident gave the party the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, Gao said.
“In my opinion, they missed it,” he said. “From the trial of Wang Lijun (王立軍) to dealing with the Bo case, it has all been black operations ... It has been about the political struggles, trading by different groups in the power transition.”
“The Communist Party is 92 years old. It is senile and lethargic,” Gao said. “They only want to maintain the present situation, not to make any changes.”
Others hope a new generation of leaders could yet grasp the nettle. Analyst Cheng Li (李成) of the Brookings Institution in a recent paper said they are “collectively more diverse in terms of their professional and political backgrounds, more weathered and adaptable from their formative experiences during the Cultural Revolution and more cosmopolitan in their worldviews and policy choices than the preceding generations.”
“They may contribute, in a profound way, to political institutionalization and democratic governance of the country,” Li said.
Yet, he said, the increasing pluralism of Chinese society and diversity among political elites make reaching consensus far harder.
“Ideological disputes within the leadership are real and they may become too divisive to reconcile,” he said.
While many in China still feel the party has brought stability and wealth, they are increasingly cynical about the motivation and pronouncements of its leaders; even about its founding myths. When one museum visitor said he had come to see China’s past, his friend interjected mockingly: “Is it real history?”