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China's partying at 90

The Communist Party has transformed China to the approval of most of its people. But the party has no answers for a quietly spreading demand for change. Reshma Patil writes.

world Updated: Jul 03, 2011 01:20 IST
Reshma Patil

The blogger hailing from President Hu Jintao's hometown, looked baffled when asked why he is not a member of China's ruling Communist Party, an entity that turned 90 years old on July 1.

"The Party already has 80 million members," said Chunliu Xu, 31, slouching over a latte in an upscale Beijing square. "Why do they need one more?”

In May, Chunliu declared his independence on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, promptly collecting a few thousand more followers. The online journalist in trademark shorts and checked shirts will contest grass-root elections this summer, as an independent pitted against staid official nominees with dyed black haircuts.

The world's largest political party, in charge of the world's fastest-growing economy, marked its 90th anniversary with a prolonged campaign of revolutionary Mao-era lyrics sung in schools, universities and parks. Television stations pulled out soaps and crime shows to air red propaganda. Employees of state-owned companies were told to troop into cinema halls to ensure that the film Founding of the Party, made with 108 actors, could claim blockbuster status.



Rebel yell

At the same time, a new urban movement emerged from northern Beijing to southern Chengdu as a few dozen micro-bloggers used the Chinese Internet to announce independent election campaigns. The rebels are few but are still the highest number in the Party's two-decades of "controlled" elections for low-ranking positions.http://www.hindustantimes.com/images/HTPopups/030711/03_07_pg19a.jpg

China's non-elected political leadership that converted a backwater economy of paddy fields into an industrial power surpassing Germany and Japan, now confronts a challenge it cannot resolve by building world record-setting bullet trains, sea bridges and skyscrapers.

"Without freedom there is no real democracy," said Premier Wen Jiabao this week in Britain. Political thinkers in Beijing say the Premier's words have no influence beyond setting his own record on the right side of history before he steps down next year.

The Party's greatest success, the creation of a middle-class, is getting restless and irreverent as it wakes up to its right to information, policy-making and protest. Mass incidents or protests per year have gone up from an estimated 60,000 in 2006 to 90,000 in 2009. Stunned by the jasmine revolts in West Asia, the Party has reacted with a widespread clampdown on dissent, imposing Internet blackouts on information deemed sensitive, including a search for 'jasmine'.

"It is about two agendas," Victor Yuan, chairman of Horizon, a leading polling agency that conducts public assessment of officials, told HT in Shanghai. "Of the government, and of the public."

This crossroad looms in Shanghai where 13 people including China's founder chairman Mao Zedong held the Communist Party's first surreptitious meeting in 1921. Say 'first meeting' to any taxi driver in Shanghai and he will drop you at the stone gate of a low-rise house where the Party was born. Ahead of anniversary day, the exhibits showing the rise of the party, including wax statues of the founders staring awe-struck at Mao, had attracted only a school group and a family from central Hubei. "We're a red family," said a teenager. "My father and grandfather are Party members." His sister giggled, saying she wasn't interested in becoming a Party member. In the luxury malls near the museum, conversations with young Chinese inevitably became complaints about inflation, corruption and information controls. Less than 25 per cent of Party members today are under 35 years.

Simply red
In the soaring glass-and-steel heart of China's New York, a corporate employee born in Shanghai's Pudong told HT she was preparing to quit China and move to Australia for a better life. "I want the right to know the truth," she said. "I want to live in a society that is less suspicious."

However, when Horizon conducts domestic polls asking if China's on the right track, it regularly records figures of 80 per cent results in favour of the present system. "When the economy and society is developed," said Yuan, "then people want something new. They want more political involvement and less media control. The senior intellectuals want to change the system. Life has improved according to the non-intellectuals, migrants and ordinary people. They want to give the Party a chance and get specific demands fulfilled."

So the Party is reacting to discontent with economic sops instead of political reforms. Ahead of the symbolic anniversary, the Party raised the personal income tax threshold to 3,500 yuan (Rs 24,500). They yielded to a middle path between the official proposal of 3,000 yuan (Rs 21,000) and 5,000 yuan (Rs 35,000) limit demanded by netizens. Official anti-corruption campaigns became more pronounced this year but websites to report bribes --- inspired by India's civil society movement --- were shutdown ahead of the anniversary.

The Party has declared that independent candidates are illegal unless they secure official approval. The rules don't worry Chunliu, though one candidate in east China was reportedly detained after announcing her candidacy. "I want more people to know that China has an election system and the right to vote," he said. His poll plank is not freedom. He will merely promise improved car parking.

Even Wen Jiabao, the populist face of the Party, is not prepared to concede to demands to expand democracy. By 2010, elections were limited to 604,000 villages that elected over 2.3 million village committees every three years, with votes marked by chalk on blackboard. China's Xinhua agency reaffirmed this weekend that there will be no major political changes ahead. Western multi-party systems can 'repeat the chaotic and turbulent history of the Cultural Revolution,' it warned. "The key to properly managing China's affairs," President Hu made it clear on Friday, "lies in the Party."