Turning 90 but far from grey

Anniversary gives outsiders a peep inside China’s ruling Party

Turning 90 but far from grey

Candid about candidates: Shanghai’s Party boss, Yu Zhengsheng gave eye-opening speech at Jiaotong University

Imagine if the Washington Post was edited by Rush Limbaugh and Jon Stewart on a rotating basis. One week the front page might decry America’s slide towards European socialism, while days later it might lampoon those who believe the quickest way to solve the deficit is to cut taxes.

In recent months the readers of the People’s Daily have experienced something roughly akin to this. As the website China Media Project (CMP) has noted: “What the heck is going on at the People’s Daily?”

It cites the example of recent editorials that have called for “tolerance” and “reason”, as well as speaking out against those who would “nullify expression”.

For the People’s Daily this constitutes a rather liberal line.

However, CMP adds that a day after one such editorial, another was to appear under the pen name Zhong Jiwen that took a much more intolerant stance on dissent and freedom of speech: “A small number of Party members and cadres have made irresponsible remarks on matters concerning basic theories, basic line, basic programmes and fundamental experiences of the Party.”

“This newspaper is suffering from a serious split personality,” observes CMP. It then suggests that these divergent editorial lines point to tussles within the Party.

The Party celebrates its 90th anniversary on July 1, which makes these factional disputes all the more newsworthy. Founded in Shanghai in 1921, only 13 delegates turned up for the Chinese Communist Party’s inaugural congress. Today, it has 80 million members, and to the outside world often looks a monolithic force.

However, as the battles at the People’s Daily suggest, it can be anything but. Mark Leonard’s book What Does China Think sketches out the reality. Imagine what would happen if America merged the Republican and Democrats into a single party, and you have a rough idea of the divergent views among China’s Party members, on everything from the economy to elections.

Within the Party’s broad church you have people at one extreme who venerate Mao Zedong, dislike market forces and believe another Cultural Revolution could be a good idea. At the other extreme are right-wingers who believe in deregulation, privatisation and laissez-faire economics.

Interestingly, these disputes are increasingly being played out in public. A good example is the recent controversy over the statue of Confucius that briefly stared back towards Mao’s portrait in Tiananmen Square. A statue of an ancient sage might seem uncontroversial, but to the neo-Maoists it was an affront to the Party’s revolutionary credentials. After all, Mao himself had associated Confucius with reactionary behaviour and rightism. In a victory for the leftist faction, the statue was moved at the end of May, barely four months after it was unveiled. Once again, Mao’s visage reigns supreme in Tiananmen.

It is of course simplistic to talk of just two factions. There are many more: the products of powerbases derived from control of institutions like the Party School or the Communist Youth League, through to the privileges of birthright (being the ‘princeling’ child of one of the Party’s founding elite). You would have to be a senior figure in the Party to map out all of these rival groups with any real accuracy (WiC likes the idea of Hu Jintao explaining it all to Obama via a Venn diagram).

That said, the dominant ideological split is between the more reform-minded and the more conservative thinkers. Wen Jiabao, for example, gave a speech in London this week that once again used the term democracy, implying his own drift towards the more reformist wing. “There can be no real socialism if there is no real democracy, and there will not be protection of economic and politics rights if there is no real freedom,” he said.

The Party’s number two, Wu Bangguo, on the other hand, might be seen to belong to the more conservative grouping known as the Weiwenpai (the stability preservation clique).

At the National People’s Congress this year Wu dismissed the idea of multi-party democracy, and called for a strong central control: “If we waver… the fruits of development that we have already achieved will be lost and the country could even fall into the abyss of civil strife.”

There are similar divisions among the next generation of leaders set to be elected next year to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee (it has just nine members). Conservatives see Chongqing’s Party Secretary Bo Xilai as their standard bearer. As WiC has reported before (see issue 101), he has endeared himself to the Maoist wing by resurrecting ‘red’ culture, and insisting on the singing of propaganda songs from the revolutionary era such as The East is Red. As The Economist puts it: “He has been trying to foster a mini-cult of Mao, perhaps in an effort to appeal to those who are disillusioned with China’s cut-throat capitalism.”

Another rising star, and potential candidate for the Standing Committee, is Shanghai Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng. He looks, like Wen, to be closer in his sympathies to the reformist wing. The Southern Weekly reports that he gave a speech to students at Jiaotong University on June 20, in which he took questions (an act that in itself espouses a more liberal outlook). A student asked what he thought about the phenomenon of independent candidates (i.e. non-Party members) standing for election to the National People’s Congress (see WiC 107 and 109). These candidates – a product of the internet era – have used their Twitter-like weibos to garner popular support. Yu didn’t dismiss it as a bad thing, instead saying that “recommendation by the masses cannot be considered an abnormal phenomenon”. He even said he’d encouraged Qianjiang’s Party Secretary to support adding Yao Lifa, an independent candidate, to the ballot. That’s not going to endear him to the Neo-Maoist faction.

Thus, as the Party turns 90, discussions about its future direction have never been more vibrant. For foreign CEOs – especially those who are increasingly reliant on China’s growing market – this is a debate that should probably be tracked. Times have changed. In the last two decades China was very much a business story, epitomised by Deng Xiaoping’s slogan ‘to get rich is glorious’. But as it has grown wealthier – with the rise of new classes of homeowners and businesspeople – the political story is edging to the fore once again.

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