China’s great transition: the next party

A month that began in China with official celebrations of the communist party’s ninetieth anniversary ends with furious public criticism over its reaction to a fatal train disaster. The contrast symbolises the epic political task the party is facing, says Kerry Brown.
Kerry Brown
29 July 2011

A public furore is continuing in China over the accident on 23 July 2011 involving a collision between two of the country’s new high-speed trains near the eastern city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, which killed forty people. The early response of the authorities to the disaster, combining scant information and a perfunctory investigation, has provoked intense criticism. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, was obliged to make a belated visit to the scene and expressed the government’s intention to undertake a thorough inquiry.

The episode is all the more telling as it comes at the end of a month when the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) has been celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of its foundation in 1921. A range of official events and ceremonies, films and exhibitions, programmes and publications have marked the moment; and the party’s economic and social achievements - including the rapid construction of fast new railway lines across the country - feature prominently.

Even as its ripples still reverberate, the affair tells much about the nature of power in China and - a recurrent theme in the series of articles I have written for openDemocracy - the problems the CPC has in governing a society in ferment (see, for example, "China's shadow sector: power in pieces" [14 September 2009], and "China: inside strain, outside spleen" [25 March 2010]). In the context of the rail accident, the way the party has represented its history in July 2011 reveals anew the scale of the task it faces.

The past in focus

The CPC’s official version of its own history - finally published after almost a decade of writing, rewriting, revising and perfecting - is monumental: almost 1,000 pages in two volumes. And this, it has to be remembered, only covers three of the party’s nine decades: from 1949, when the CPC won the civil war and came to power, to 1978, the dawn of the reform and opening-up era which continues to this day. This, then, is the history of the CPC under Mao Zedong (who died in September 1976). That indeed is the reason even writing such a work posed such a challenge, and why its appearance is meaningful.

The CPC’s own celebration of its ninetieth birthday took place on 1 July 2011. The party secretary Hu Jintao - who, like Wen Jiabao, will pass the baton to his successor in 2012 - spoke to the party’s 80 million current members. He reflected on the transformation of a political force that had started with a clandestine meeting of just eleven people on the same day in 1921 in Shanghai, and that now enjoys command of the world’s second largest economy. Hu talked proudly of the CPC’s long record of success - including victory in the 1937-45 war against the Japanese (which was shared with the nationalist Kuomintang, though that of course went unacknowledged), unification of the country, and inaugurating economic reform in the late 1970s.

The very fact that this official history of the CPC is so limited in scope - and that the period from 1921 to 1948 remains unwritten (or at least unissued) - serves to highlight how contentious the earlier era was and remains. Only two of those eleven attendees in Shanghai (Mao Zedong himself, and Dong Biwu) ended their natural lives in the CPC fold; the other nine were murdered, exiled, or expelled. Whatever else its rewards, founding a Marxist party in China was not for those in search of a safe or quiet life.

The rise of Mao to power is an especially sensitive issue of the post-1921 period. The CPC’s use of violence and coercion under his leadership is one of the great untold stories of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) - and at the moment, unwritable. One day, the central archives in Beijing may share their secrets (like other authoritarian systems, the CPC has been a scrupulous record-keeper). But that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

But the party has had many difficulties too in dealing with the 1949-78 era. Since 1980, there has been political sanction to criticise the cultural revolution (1966-76) as a disaster for the CPC and the country that was brought about by Mao’s mistakes - though Mao’s overall contribution is still venerated.

The residual respect for Mao was recently on show at the “red song” campaigns championed by Bo Xilai, party secretary of the vast city-province of Chongqing; and reflected in a book about the CPC for foreign readers by Li Junru, former deputy head of the central party school (the CPC’s main think-tank), which describes Mao as a “genius and a great man who will never be forgotten by the Chinese”. Those who attack Mao’s legacy do so at their peril; the writer Mao Yushi, for example, received death-threats after publishing an article critical of the “great helmsman”.

More broadly, the CPC seems to be going through a third moment - after 1942 and 1980 - of reflection and stocktaking. These earlier occasions came at the point of a historic shift, when (in 1942) the party needed to re-evaluate its anti-Japanese military strategy and (in 1980) it had to shape the reform process. The equivalent change this time is twofold. First, the CPC is undergoing a major leadership transition in which as much as two-thirds of its elite leaders (those at director-general level and above) are about to retire. A new generation will take over following the party congress in 2012 (see "China's next elite: 2012 and beyond", 16 August 2010).

Second, Chinese society is entering a phase of huge transformation, with a booming economy and dynamic society bringing new forces and challenges into play. Again, the government’s panicky reaction to the rail accident in Zhejiang is revealing here. In the age of the internet and 24/7 media, and of an increasingly educated and aware population, the old Maoist-era “supervision of mass opinion” approach doesn’t stand a chance.

Most observers of the red-song campaigns realise that they were merely nostalgic exercises with zero political meaning. Chinese citizens are becoming as demanding, fussy, complaining and irritable as people anywhere else on the planet. Beyond anniversaries and other staged events, the CPC is embarked on a vast exercise to keep them content, to administer them efficiently, and to prove it is their best guarantor of a stable, prosperous, and stronger China in the years ahead.

The task ahead

The CPC must change - and to their credit, its leading officials and most of its members know that. By the time it marks its centenary in 2021, it will face some tough decision-points when major issues need to be clarified - about the speed of political reform, the role of the rule of law and of civil society, and the contract between the state and citizens. To meet them, the party has to modernise by becoming more transparent, accountable, and better able to discipline and manage its own members.

It has to implement strict internal rules, and regain some of the credibility it has lost through repeated cases of corruption. It has to show to the public that it is listening, that its policies are convincing and effective, and that it offers the best option for the short- to medium-term future (see Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China [Anthem Press, 2009]).

What is required is at once evolution, adaptation and communication. The CPC is going to have to sell policy to citizens, campaign to ensure there is sufficient support, and show that it has responded to people’s concerns about the choices it is making. As a result of this complex process, Chinese leaders will become more like western ones - less administrators and technocrats than policy salespeople. When that happens, aloof figures such as Hu Jintao will have become a thing of the past.

China is often regarded as unique or exceptional. But only in terms of size is it really that different. The emerging bottom-line is that politics in the PRC will more and more resemble politics elsewhere - a game of negotiation, compromise, and gradual steps to consensus. And the CPC knows in its heart that somewhere along this path, perhaps sooner than anyone currently imagines, there will be an opposition standing before it which it will not and cannot push away.

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