Setting new sights

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

At the historic point of its turning 80, the Communist Party of China is all set to have a new generation of leaders at the top to take forward the country's modernisation programme, guided by President Jiang Zemin's 'Three Represents'.

IN the 80 years of its existence, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has demonstrated over and over again that it has a remarkable capacity for survival, that it has an effective rescue remedy, as it were, that enabled it to avoid the fate that has befallen most communist/socialist parties the world over.

This is not the place for a resume of the enormity of the challenges that the CPC has had to face, both domestic and international, often combined, nor of the scale and scope of its domestic socio-political experimentation. Suffice it to say that having faced and overcome these challenges, the CPC is today the most important and the biggest of those parties that still wear the label of socialism or communism, with a registered membership of over 64 million. In the case of China, this loyalty to the label when its social and political reality is fast becoming something else, has a dual significance. It legitimises the revolution that brought the People's Republic of China (PRC) into being, China's successes as well as the continued rule of the CPC. It can also be seen as an act of national self-assertion that establishes how China is different from the West, and as a polite act of defiance and determination in order not to be absorbed into the 'multi-party democracy' system that the United States so aggressively promotes.

The CPC is also the most important of the socialist or communist parties for reasons other than the sheer size of the party and the country. For one, it still upholds communism and survived the rot that destroyed the communist party in the world's first socialist state and in the erstwhile socialist bloc. For another, having also managed to survive the dual challenge symbolised by Tiananmen, it has gone on to make China the most dynamic economy in the world, and a country that is now ranked after the United States in terms of national 'comprehensive power'.

Many ingredients must go into the making of the CPC's special and effective rescue remedy. Perhaps the most important are that unlike the Soviet party, the CPC was primarily a party that came to power riding a countrywide wave of nationalism and it succeeded in winning the civil war. In 1949, it was socialist within and nationalist without. The mantra for making decisions and arriving at policies, was whether these would fit in with Chinese realities and would benefit the country and the people.

Another ingredient is undoubtedly the willingness of the party - meaning the leadership - to acknowledge, review and learn from mistakes, both its own and those of others, especially those of the Soviet experience. At the same time it was not unfilial to its non-socialist Chinese ancestors. Nationalist heroes and revolutionaries were remembered, honoured and given their due; Sun Yat-Sen is nearly always referred to as the Father of the Nation. The party also refused to emulate the Soviets in strategy and policy or to adopt the Soviet model for both revolution and socialist development; or to accept advice blindly. It followed its own course, and made mistakes that were its own and could not be blamed on the Comintern or on Moscow. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, after initial fumbling and a period of uncertainty, the party leadership accepted the post- Soviet realities and took quick steps to recast the fundamentals of its relationship with Russia and the successor states. It did not make ideology or socialism an issue in post-Soviet state-to-state relations with its one-time fraternal allies.

Such willingness to learn was made possible it seems only because the party and its leaders upheld a commitment to that abstraction called 'China'. It tended to link individual and party interests to the advancement of the Chinese national interest and the attainment of the traditional state goals of acquiring power and wealth. The inevitable struggles for power, position and money have wracked the party now and again - the most prolonged and fundamental of which was the disastrous Cultural Revolution. During these periods of struggle state interests may have suffered temporarily. But as often happens in other developing countries, the state was not treated as, and did not become, the 'private property' of those in power. Consequently the party was able to deliver visible results to the people. The improvement in living standards, the enhancement of China's international standing and status, and the great modernisation in the cities and towns, are examples of such visibility.

It is not surprising, therefore, that General Secretary Jiang Zemin chose to make the successes of the reform era, particularly since 1989 when strongman Deng Xiaoping brought him to the centre to be General Secretary of the party, the central focus of his marathon speech. After recalling the achievements of the party in the past eight decades, he claimed that the party had brought about "the most extensive and the most profound social transformation in the Chinese history". He traced the course of the party's history from its founding to the present when this "quarter of the world" could "enter the socialist society". He spoke of the correct road to building socialism; of having established a "state power of people's democratic dictatorship" and of having built "an independent and relatively complete national economic system" including a "modern industrial system with a complete range of production".

He said with pride that the gross domestic product had increased by 56 times since the party came to power in 1949, that China had edged into the advanced ranks of the world in many areas in agriculture, national defence, and science and technology. Finally, if the mantra is to be adhered to, benefits must be spread through the society as a whole. Thus he claimed that "the 1.2 billion-plus Chinese people have not only solved the problem of food and clothing but also secured in general a relatively comfortable life".

Jiang went on to detail the party's successes in unifying the country and the people; in forming a broad 'patriotic' united front; of the ultimate and inevitable reunification of Taiwan with the motherland; of China's adherence to an independent foreign policy and China's advocacy of a new international political and economic order. From being the 'sick man of the East' at the beginning of the last century, and a plaything of the imperialist powers, the "international standing and influence of socialist China," he declared, "are growing with each passing day."

These outstanding achievements, according to Jiang, testify to the fact that "the party is a great glorious and correct Marxist political party" and that as such it "deserves to be the force at the core that leads the Chinese people in the incessant efforts to break new ground". It is not surprising that Jiang sought to underwrite the central role of the party or to legitimise that on the basis of economic, political and foreign policy successes. It is, however, quite surprising that Jiang through that marathon speech chose to so emphasise 'socialism' and Marxism.

When Jiang Zemin as General Secretary of the party delivered this long peroration, he was dressed in a smart, well-cut Western-style suit, symbol perhaps of the new look the party was about to acquire. Yet his speech, in seeming contradiction, presented Jiang the Senior as a committed socialist. As a third generation leader he cannot be ranked with the veterans of the Long March. But as the chief ideologue of the party, committed to building a socialist society with Chinese characteristics, and with rich experience or practice in doing so, Jiang can claim to contribute to the evolution of Marxist theory and so help in both understanding and transforming the contemporary world of China. In short, Jiang clearly wants a permanent place in the history of the PRC as a wise man, like Mao and Deng before him, who was able to guide China through the turbulent present into a successful future.

The footprint that Jiang hopes to imprint on the future, clumsily called The Three Represents, formed the core of his speech. This formulation, after taking into account the international trends of the times, identified three things that the party must do. It must always, he said, represent:

* The development trend of China's advanced productive forces,

* The orientation of China's advanced culture, and

* The fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people.

What exactly all this means is not quite clear at present. The last merely reiterates the traditional mantra of testing policy and achievements by the benefits that accrue to the people at large. The second reiterates China's willingness to borrow and learn from the advanced cultures everywhere, including the West, in order to "develop culture with distinct Chinese characteristics and to build socialist spiritual civilisation."

It is the first of this triad of 'represents' that is of interest. It introduces a new and significant element in Jiang's 'socialist' thinking. In brief it opens the door of the party to admit those that were earlier not permitted membership. As Jiang put it, the party should now be willing "to accept those outstanding elements from other sectors of the society who have subscribed to the party's programme and constitution". Jiang, therefore, argued that a person's "political integrity" should not be judged by whether property is owned, and how much. It should be judged by "political awareness, moral integrity and performance" and by the contribution to the cause of Chinese socialism. In sum, the party will welcome the patriotic entrepreneur, capitalist and professional, which is likely to weaken if not erode the class base of the party, and may over time transform the party into a representative of China's new, brash and growing middle class.

Jiang's thinking/ideas/views, whatever they may be called, will in all likelihood be enshrined in the party resolutions and documents when the critical 16th Party Congress meets early next year. Already a Leading Group of the State Council has been formed for editing the selected works of Jiang Zemin, which are likely to reach the market at that time. This is all part of a well-established procedure of enshrining a Leader, as is the praise being heaped on the Three Represents by leading figures in the Party Army and from among the intellectuals. This formulation has, for instance, been described as "the latest achievement in theory innovation"; is said to have "carried forward and enriched Marxism, Mao Thought and Deng's Theory"; and can therefore serve as a guideline to the party for accomplishing its tasks in the 21st century.

A new leadership - the fourth generation of leadership - is due to be installed at the coming Party Congress, when Jiang retires on turning 75, together with almost half the present members of the powerful 22-member Politburo. The norms for the selection of the new leadership put a premium on youth, on economic expertise, on an understanding of international economic norms and rules and the functioning and operation of the market. Already party secretaries of some important provinces have been selected on this basis, all of them in their mid-50s, and of course because of their loyalty to key leaders. Broad agreement on the new leadership line-up will be made, after some manoeuvring, at the usual meeting at the seaside resort of Beitahe, scheduled to be held towards the end of July. It would not be surprising if some of the new elements find a place in the Central Committee and the Politburo. This would hasten both the re-identification and the rejuvenation of the party on the lines indicated by Jiang Zemin as the necessary adjustments the party must make to ensure its continuance in power.

It can be speculated that the party will find it difficult to bridge the increasing and fundamental gap between its label of socialism and the changing character of its membership. Sooner or later this gap will have to be bridged. Perhaps, in time, the only way to do so would be for the party to abandon the label that is already in tatters, for change from within in this direction has been the major characteristic of the party since the beginning of the Deng era. Jiang's speech in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the party incorporated every possible ideological position of the past, making the party line a potpourri of empty phrases. And, neither in China nor elsewhere in this big wide world do ideas or forces exist that could give substance to the label of socialism with or without Chinese characteristics.

If the past is any guide, the party will continue to wield power for the foreseeable future, because it takes as its principal task the completion of its ambitious modernisation programme, designed to make China a great, perhaps world power, and not the building of a true socialist society.

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