China's Party All Aglow, but May Be Blinkered

Times Staff Writer

The membership of the monopoly Communist Party that rules China is more idealistic, accomplished, creative, capable, earnest and truth-seeking than before, has greater faith, boasts improved capabilities and is of a higher quality.

That's the party's selfassessment outlined Thursday at the conclusion of an 18-month education campaign designed to "maintain the advanced nature of the party." But don't rely on its words alone. There's also the polling data, which showed 97% approval from responding members of the party and general public.

"History will once again prove that the Communist Party of China is a glorious, great and correct party," said Ouyang Song, deputy head of the party's organization department, who helped oversee the campaign.

This rosy view is not shared by everyone inside and outside the party, however, at a time of widespread and growing corruption, social unrest, land seizures and environmental degradation.

"Only 3% were brave enough to disagree" with the poll, said party member Cao, 34, a Beijing-based manager at a technology company who declined to give his first name.

China's 71 million party members have gone through extensive study sessions and talked of ways to become better Communists. They've read and discussed socialist political theory from the likes of Marx to Chinese President Hu Jintao, watched movies of party heroes and attended group meetings, exposing their personal strengths and weaknesses as Communists.

From the outside, the campaign looks increasingly out of step with much of the rest of China, which has seen a capitalist-style leap in economic growth, highlighted by an explosion of consumer choice, including entertainment options from MTV to MP3, soap operas to beauty pageants. The number of party members is nearly identical to the number of stock trading accounts in the country.

Some see the campaign as a colossal waste of time eating up, by some estimates, more than 2 billion man-hours nationwide, not counting reduced productivity in government offices and state-owned companies.

Cao, who recently wrapped up his classes to maintain his membership, said he joined the party in college because the connections were potentially useful for his career, not because he believed in the ideology. "Basically, I'm an opportunist," he said.

During his Communist campaign class, he said, most of his 100 or so classmates spent the time sending text messages, playing video games, dozing off or listening to music.

"The lecturer pretended not to notice how bored everyone was. I can't tell you what we learned because I can't remember any of it."

Even as the campaign underscores the contrast between China's dramatic economic reform and its stunted political reform, it retains meaning in the political context, analysts say.

"Very few people take it seriously," said Wenren Jiang, an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. "But to totally dismiss it is not quite accurate either. They hope to go back to the original party ideals, a cleaner organization that's closer to the people and more disciplined."

The campaign is part ritual, analysts and party scholars say, designed to show that the baton has passed from the leadership of Jiang Zemin to the new team of Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.

It's also useful to send a message that the new leadership is different in style and plans to tackle tougher issues, including the wealth gap, rural unrest and corruption.

"Jiang's theories were comparatively emptier," said He Husheng, professor of party history at the People's University in Beijing. "Hu has touched on more social problems and is more realistic."

As a companion to the extensive job shuffle underway in the army, party and government, the campaign acts as something of a loyalty test, helping to weed out mid- and lower-level cadres still tied to the old guard.

And while high-tech managers and university students in Beijing, Shanghai and the wealthy eastern provinces may view the exercise cynically, some add, the campaign is met with much more idealism in China's impoverished rural interior.

"China's education system also predisposes people to mass campaigns, which start from a very young age," said Shi Yingzhao, editor at New World Press, a book publisher. "And in the face of all the social problems the party faces now, it may be using this campaign to project a message that it's in control."

Behind the image of a unified party moving in lock step toward the horizon are often very different views on how to get there. The party's propaganda department tends to hew to a more traditional, Marxist line, analysts say. The State Council, China's Cabinet, is generally more open minded, they say, and the Central Party School, the main training ground for future top officials, encompasses a range of views.

Among the greatest threats to the party's grip on power and a key target of the campaign is corruption, acknowledged by Hu and others as a crucial challenge. Ouyang, of the organization department, said Thursday that 4,478 party members "with problems" were investigated and dealt with in 2005.

Hu's administration continues to rely on two traditional weapons in its anti-corruption fight -- moral appeals and "strike hard" campaigns designed to intimidate wrongdoers, which include executions. Beijing Vice Mayor Liu Zhihua, who oversaw construction for the 2008 Olympics, was arrested last month on charges of "corruption and dissoluteness" in one such high-profile case.

Many observers, however, say the problem is structural and will only get worse without more checks and balances.

"It's a problem of a one-party system," said He of the People's University. "When power is centralized, power is corrupted."

Hu has tried to strengthen internal party discipline committees and encourage limited elections inside the organization, though it's unclear how much support he has. At the same time, he has cracked down on the media, nongovernmental organizations and most other groups that might play a watchdog function, fearful that loosening up might lead to the sort of pro-democracy "color revolutions" seen in some former Soviet republics.

"It's a real paradox for the party," said Jiang, of the University of Alberta. "They absolutely don't want to open that gate."

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Gu Bo in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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