Asia
4:00 am
Fri July 1, 2011

After 90 Years, Graft Threatens China's Communists

As China's Communist Party celebrates its 90th anniversary, President Hu Jintao has warned that its long rule has led to grave corruption. With 80 million members, it's now the world's largest political party. But facing rampant corruption and growing dissatisfaction, can this revolutionary party survive?

On Friday, the army band played as party elders filed onto the stage at the Great Hall of the People. Downstairs, Zhang Wei was waiting nervously, fingering an enormous red corsage pinned on his jacket. It was his first time at the Great Hall of the People, and he was about to be honored for his 36 years of service to the party, first as a farmer and now as a bank worker.

"The whole world can see the great achievements of the Communist Party," he said, his voice trembling with pride. "It's made Chinese people stand up. It's made them rich. And now it's made China strong."

After the ceremony honoring party workers, President Hu spoke for 90 minutes. His key message could be summed up in one line: "Success in China hinges on the party." This solemn ceremony marks the party's official commemoration of the first meeting, when just 12 members gathered around a table in Shanghai.

A Tale Of Two Celebrations

Across Beijing in the northern suburb of Tiantongyuan, an unofficial act to mark the party's anniversary tells another story. In a scrubby patch of ground hugged between two major roads is a small house painted with the words "Dedicated to the party's 90th anniversary." Above that is painted, "Save me, Communist Party!"

"I did this to embarrass the Communist Party," admitted Wang Jinshu. Three years ago, she and her husband were informed that their house would be demolished for a road-widening project. They were never shown any proper legal permits. And the official plans showed the wider road still lay 30 feet from their house. But their objections got nowhere. The pair was detained, and while they were in custody, their house was torn down. She believes the ordeal was a factor contributing to the deaths of her mother and her father-in-law. Her verdict on the Communist Party is scathing.

"It's rotten to its roots. They don't care how many laws they break," she said. "Nationwide, how much farming land has been taken from us? What are we farmers supposed to eat?"

The pair built a smaller house on the site, now painted with slogans. They say they want justice, not money. Their plight is not unusual; one official survey by a government body, the Centre for Research on Social Contradictions, found forced evictions are the biggest source of social unrest in China. But Wang Jinshu and her husband, Wang Jiang, are reluctant protesters. Indeed, her husband is still a Communist Party member, as he's been for the past 30 years. He said he wants legal redress, and to see the rule of law implemented, rather than compensation.

"Money is meaningless to me," he said.

He believes nowadays the party is communist in name alone.

"I don't know if today's China is socialist, capitalist or feudal. Now their behavior is totally feudal. It's a dictatorship. They don't let you speak. They can just throw you in prison. Now it's like that," he said.

17,000 Corrupt Officials Over 20 Years

Corruption threatens the very survival of the party, as its leaders attest. A recent People's Bank of China report found that $124 billion had been taken out of the country by 17,000 corrupt officials over a 20-year period.

Chen Baosheng, vice President of the Central Party School — the training ground for China's officials – blamed this not on greed, but on a breakdown in Communist values.

"Of course some party members may have become corrupt. But the fundamental cause is their faith and ideals have collapsed. That's not unusual. So the first thing we do is emphasize theoretical education in our curriculum," Chen said.

Protests are no longer rare, and the past few weeks have seen clashes between police and demonstrators in Guangdong, Inner Mongolia and Hubei. There have even been at least two separate cases where disgruntled petitioners targeted government buildings with homemade bombs, in Tianjin city and in Fuzhou in Jiangxi province.

Last year, there were 180,000 "mass incidents," as the government euphemistically calls them, according to one Chinese academic — double the number from four years before. Despite this, Russell Leigh Moses, dean of the Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies, believes there's no real risk to the Communist Party.

"Observers on the outside tend to see unrest and upheaval as a real indicator of a system starting to spiral out of control. I don't think that's at all the case," Moses said. "When the party deals with dissatisfaction, it confronts it in a fairly clever way. It tends to crack down in some ways, but it also tends to open up. The more unrest there is, the more the party has experience in dealing with this."

On Friday, President Hu said, "Without stability, nothing can be done. And those achievements already made could be lost. This is a lesson that all the comrades in the party should keep in mind."

The Communist Party has survived by delivering blistering economic growth and ensuring no alternatives exist to its rule. Ahead of a leadership transition next year to a younger generation, there are questions about what the Communist Party stands for, even among its own members. And this tale of two celebrations shows how distanced the Communist Party is becoming from those it rules.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.