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,
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.”
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?”
Early records are sparse because it was hazardous for party members to be caught with revolutionary materials, but the reconstruction of the first congress was a political, not just historical, act.
In one room a tableau of waxwork figures shows Mao, clad in a flowing blue scholar’s gown, holding forth to rapt delegates. However, he was not then the party’s pre-eminent figure. As Yeh pointed out, it was Chen Duxiu (陳獨秀), who was elected general secretary, albeit in his absence.
Samuel Liang, an assistant professor at Utah Valley University and visiting research fellow at Shanghai Jiaotong University, has described the monument as “an empty shell that attempts to eternalize a reinvented past by terminating the place’s living, natural history.”
Mao noted that a revolution is not a dinner party
“Neither is revolution, I might add for Mao, a peaceful pilgrimage to a revolution museum,” Liang wrote.
That the birthplace of Chinese communism now stands in one of Shanghai’s ritzier shopping and entertainment areas, Xintiandi, makes an odd sort of sense. Superficially, the complex’s developers preserved the traditional housing. In reality, they reconstituted facades and remade interiors. Residents made way for boutiques and restaurants. Both party and neighborhood retain their shells, but the spirit that animated them has long since vanished.
“The transformation of the area into what today is known as Xintiandi is indicative of how the party has changed from leading political — or ideological — driven governance to leading economic or developmental-driven governance,” Liang said.
How the Communist Party will evolve next remains to be seen. When Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) took power a decade ago, many hoped it would bring significant change.
“The major challenge for Xi Jinping is that he will have to confront things to convince the public that they are really serious in political and economic reform,” said Zhang Jian (張健), a political scientist at Peking University. “The steam of reform has been lost in the past 10 years and the deterioration of those economic and political conditions is making reform more and more urgent.”
Upstairs at the museum, there are no such doubts: the achievements of Hu’s tenure fill two large walls detailing the 16th and 17th party congresses. No mention is made of this November’s meeting.
“The 18th congress? It hasn’t even started yet!” exclaimed a receptionist, when asked how it might be recorded.
It would take several years to add, she suggested.
To include it, the party’s historians must once again rearrange the past.