Saturday, July 9, 2011

Neo-leftists and pro-Western liberals debate Mao legacy

JULY 1 marked the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China

(CPC), and the reflection and commemoration has been well under way for months. Current dialogue over the legacy of Mao Zedong suggests an escalating debate between conservative neo-leftists and pro-Western liberals. And a big-budget movie titled “Beginning of the Great Revival,” which depicts the founding of the Party, has drawn considerable public attention to a topic that has been largely ignored by the Chinese people for a generation.

The anniversary is prompting a modernizing China to take stock of its revolutionary past and to put the traditional Party structure in perspective. Over its 90 years of evolution, from a guerrilla movement to a ruling party, the CPC has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing circumstances and maintain its authoritarian hold over the state. But the Party has also grown distant from the people, who have come to realize how elite its base has become.

At a time when China is producing a rising middle class and facing greater social and economic uncertainties, the Party may have to rethink its course to keep from becoming merely a proxy for the wealthy and powerful, hardly what it was conceived to be almost a century ago.

Vanguard revolutionary party

The CPC was founded in July 1921 by 13 Chinese intellectuals who were anxiously seeking a way out for China in the chaotic post-Qing dynasty period. The 13 founders represented a total of 50 Party members, one tiny political group among many in China at the time. Calling for a class-based revolution by urban workers and rural peasants, the Party was assisted by the Communist International (known as the Comintern), though it cooperated with the ruling Chinese nationalist party, the Kuomintang (KMT), in resisting the Japanese during World War II.

Eventually the Party was able to unify the country’s urban workers and create a series of movements to undermine the KMT’s power. Later realizing its weaker appeal in China’s urban areas compared to the KMT, the CPC shifted its strategic focus to the countryside, establishing a rural base to unify China’s vastly larger peasant population.

Nine decades later, the Party’s status rests primarily on these rural revolutionary roots and its role in creating the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This legacy has helped sustain and reinforce the Party’s absolute control over the state during a series of political movements and internal power struggles from 1949 until the late 1970s, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, all of which had a disastrous impact on Chinese society.

During the revolutionary period and after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the CPC’s ruling strategy was ideological. It sought to draw a clear line between the so-called capitalist class, which had caused so much torment in China, and the proletariat, which the Party claimed to represent. After coming to power in 1949, the CPC implemented land reform, cracked down on the private sector and targeted the capitalist class as an “enemy” of the state. This not only strengthened the Party’s political, social and economic control, it also created the perception among the people that they would derive great benefit from all this.

Naturally, this perception made the Party very popular and powerful, further reinforcing its authority despite the extremely weak economic performance and social strife that characterized China for the next three decades.

Economic legitimacy and representation

Beginning with Party leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979, a degree of ideological liberation combined with an economic “opening up” gave the society a temporary reprieve. Discussions emerged about alternative approaches to the evolution of both Party and state. But rapid economic growth and new socio-political demands led to Tiananmen Square, and the discussions were abruptly shut down. The changing political atmosphere in 1989 and the need to restore the country’s economy also prompted the Party to rethink its legitimacy.

The market liberation reasserted by Deng in 1992, which involved legalizing the country’s private sector, was a significant turning point for the CPC, which went from a focus on the past and the proletarian revolution to a more forward-looking focus on rapid economic growth. On the ideological front, this move effectively bridged the chasm between capitalism and socialism that the Party had espoused since 1921.

Paralleling this economic liberalization was a shift in the underlying values of the Party. In 2000, Jiang Zemin proposed the concept of “Three Represents,” which formally stipulated that the CPC should “always represent the requirements of the development of China’s advanced productive forces, the orientation of the development of China’s advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China.”

The most important message in this, essentially, was an invitation to members of the business class to become members of the CPC. Years of privatization in China had created a large number of entrepreneurs outside of the Party, and the state increasingly saw the potential for this wealthy and powerful class to undermine its authority. The answer was to assimilate this group into the Party, which would absorb the capitalists and enhance the CPC’s legitimacy in a modernizing China.

Red capitalists

For many Chinese entrepreneurs, the simplest way to affect policy and maximize its economic benefit was to join the CPC and participate in politics. These politicians became known as “red capitalists,” and they developed strong ties between businessmen and politicians. This collaboration of political power and big business was not unique in Chinese history — examples of it date back to the Ming dynasty — but marked a new beginning since the early CPC had nearly succeeded in eradicating China’s capitalist class. Now, with China’s rapid economic development, this nexus has been renewed, and it may be more powerful than ever.

In the most recent National People’s Congress, the 70 richest members out of a total legislative body of 2,987 had a combined wealth of 493.1 billion yuan (about US$75.1 billion). The collaboration between politics and business has formed various connections in pursuing the two groups’ needs — protecting their political power and economic benefits. It has shaped an extensive chain of interest and intrigue, drawing in other groups and extending to their children and grandchildren — the so-called rich second generation or power second generation. This chain of interest also created a powerful barrier limiting the rest of society’s access to wealth and public services. Furthermore, the elitist structure suppressed the entrepreneurial spirit, instead focusing only on preserving elite benefits through the politics-business nexus, hindering creativity among new entrepreneurs as well as productivity among many established entrepreneurs. This suppression of innovation and productivity raises a worrying sign for the country’s economic development.

The nexus between political power and big business in China has contributed to the CPC’s sustainability. Party members are now the least likely to favor radical political reform, since it would hurt them the most. But as the power brokers become wealthier, the economic gap between Chinese leaders and the majority of Chinese people grows wider, fueling popular resentment. And this could lead to Beijing’s biggest fear — widespread social unrest that unites to demand sweeping political change.

The CPC has proved to be creative and tenacious in adapting to changing times, but as the expected slowdown in economic growth rates sets in, new challenges to the Party will emerge. A rethinking of the CPC’s strategy may be necessary if it wants to prevent the kind of class conflict that created the Party in the first place. Manila Times

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