Chinese communists still partying at 90

Staff in the lavish library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences were assembling huge display boards last month to commemorate one of 2011’s significant moments: the 90th birthday of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the country’s only governing party for the past 60 years.

Once such displays carried images of workers, peasants and soldiers, united under the party’s red banner. Today they speak of science, technology and modernity.

The party’s birthday is being celebrated at what seems a moment of triumph in all these categories. China has never been richer or more engaged in the world, investment in science and technology is sky-high and the Chinese economy is booming while others splutter. Beijing is crowded with skyscrapers and grandiose cultural monuments, built to show that China’s capital wants to be a world-class city. It seems to be a happy event.

There is another significant anniversary this year of a milestone on the way to this moment of economic power: the centenary of the 1911 revolution, which brought an end to the Qing dynasty and with it two millennia of imperial tradition. But, unlike the birthday of the CPC, it is being oddly underplayed.

The overthrow of what the party still calls the “semi-feudal system” that had delivered a weakened China into the hands of foreign powers is surely a moment any revolutionary party would celebrate. So why the official reticence?

One easy answer is that the revolution preceded the appearance of the CPC by a full decade. Because the party’s preferred historical narrative casts it as the only begetter of China’s liberation and subsequent rise, this awkward complication is hard to overlook. The fact is that the 1911 revolution was a messy, unplanned affair. Its leader, Sun Yatsen, a tireless non-communist revolutionary later adopted by the party as a semi-paternal figure, was away in the United States on a fundraising trip. The revolution ­happened without him.

The events of 1911 are simply too messy to lend themselves to the heroic narrative of leadership that underpins revolutionary history. There was no masterplan, no clear leader, no single ideology — just a ferment of ideas as intellectuals, officials and revolutionaries devoured new theories in science, technology, history and politics, arguing about China’s decline. Some blamed the Manchu emperors, others the suffocating dominance of a backward-looking Confucianism, with its focus on social hierarchy that had resulted in stagnation. A republic with a representative democracy was a widely shared aspiration.

A century later the CPC’s rule has begun to resemble the system that 1911’s accidental revolutionaries overthrew: a large and privileged bureaucracy, hereditary privileges in the ruling elite, a mass of toiling workers and farmers — and, finally, the embrace of Confucius, the man the revolutionaries rejected 100 years ago, as someone with a lot to say about hierarchical government.

In January this year a 9.5m statue of the sage was erected outside the National Museum in Tiananmen Square, hitherto the preserve of revolutionary heroes. In April, without explanation, the statue disappeared.

But Confucian influence remains. The official doctrine today is not class struggle but harmony. In China’s parks and city squares, large numbers of people are coming together to sing the stirring songs of the Maoist era — the latest wave of nostalgic cultural-revolution kitsch to be reinvented as a social trend. But, in the party schools, theorists labour to refashion the Marxist theoretical canon to a task as painful and difficult — and finally pointless — as the legendary Confucian eight-legged essay, the gold-standard examination that imperial bureaucrats had to pass.

But if its ideology is hard to define, there is one area in which the CPC remains true to form: it is still, in its organisation, a Leninist party, dedicated to its own destiny of perpetual rule — though Lenin might have raised an eyebrow at the fact that it is also heavily involved in business. By the time the party is 100 years old, perhaps it will be clearer whether it is a business with a party attached or a party with a business on the side. Its story is not over yet.

Meanwhile, it continues to select and enforce a single version of its own and the nation’s history that, for now, in a neatly executed circle, embraces Confucius over both Marx and its former supreme leader, Mao Zedong, now reduced to the empty homage of a photograph on Tiananmen Gate — and his portrait on every banknote. —

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