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China’s Communist Party Turns Ninety

Ninety years ago tomorrow—July 1—13 radicals met in a dingy home in Shanghai and formed the Communist Party of China. Today, with 80.27 million members, it the largest organization of its kind in the world.  

The Party is large, but it is also flabby. Once young and vital, the organization has been diminished by almost 62 years in power. Its strength has been eroded by widespread disenchantment, occasional crises, continual reform, and the enervating effect of the passage of time. Although it is big, it is also corrupt, reviled, and often ineffective.

It is “barely operational” in some areas, having been replaced by clans or gangs. It’s doubtful that the Party commands the loyalty of its own members. Many cadres are careerists and opportunists and many, for good or ill, disregard orders from the center. Tens of millions of members have walked away from the organization.

“Now, no Communist official is loyal to or will sacrifice for the Party,” said dissident Peng Ming to me, between periods of incarceration in China. “When I was in jail, the prison warden and guards were very respectful to me,” he noted. “Even when I criticized them, they would not criticize me back. Why? They said, ‘This regime will not last long. Who knows you won’t be our next leader? If we mistreat you now, you will come after us when you come to power.’ ”

Mao Zedong’s Communist Party was structured to take power and remake society, not govern. To change it into a governing organization, a decade ago then supremo Jiang Zemin espoused the Three Represents, which holds that the Communist Party represents not just peasants and workers—its first constituencies—but “advanced production capacity,” “advanced culture,” and “the fundamental interests of the broad majority.” 

This doctrine implicitly replaced Marxism with utilitarianism and made the Communist Party a ruling organization rather than a revolutionary one.

Commentators say this was a necessary transformation, and in a way they are correct. Jiang updated ideology and redefined the Party so that it could have a role in leading a truly modern society.

But that approach created a huge risk. “I don’t know the key to success,” comedian Bill Cosby once said, “but the key to failure is to try to please everyone.” The unworkable concept behind the Three Represents is that competing interests in an increasingly complex society can be balanced, or represented, without representative government. “The theory says that the Party can represent both the exploited and the exploiters,” said an official of a Communist Party institute in Beijing. “How do you do that? Just because you say you do?”

The Communist Party now faces a crisis of identity as do all revolutionary organizations that are successful enough to mature. As it tries to adapt, the Party hopes to switch the base of its support in society, and that is always a dangerous exercise, something the Soviets tried to do but failed. In declaring themselves to be “a party of the whole people,” they became the party of no people.

China’s current leader, Hu Jintao, does not talk about the Three Represents, but he rules a party-state that abides by its principles. His slogan is the Confucian-inspired “harmony.” Yet the country will not be harmonious because he will not sponsor the change necessary to win broad support. He has presided over a general crackdown since the middle of last decade. And since late February when online activists called for peaceful protests under the “Jasmine Revolution” banner, Hu intensified his repressive campaign. Cynical Chinese talk about his increasingly coercive tactics as “harmonization.”

Even if he were to sponsor meaningful change—and that’s especially unlikely in the run up to a leadership transition slated for the end of next year—he will not be able to do so in time to stop the turbulence tearing society apart. In reality, his version of “Communism Lite” is not working.

How do we know the Party is failing? According to one report, there were 280,000 protests in the country last year. That’s way up from the 80,000 to 90,000 demonstrations a year a half decade ago.

Worse, the Chinese are not just protesting more; they are rioting. This month, for instance, thousands of migrant workers in Zengcheng, the “Blue Jeans Capital of the World” in Guangdong province, took to the streets after government thugs knocked down a young pregnant itinerant vendor. Rioters overturned official vehicles and torched government buildings in a three-day rampage.

And in today’s China anti-government figures are praised. In 2008, one of the country’s most popular heroes—executed at the end of November of that year—was Yang Jia, a drifter who entered a police compound in Shanghai and killed six officers while wounding four others. Outside what passed for his trial, middle class Chinese chanted “Down with the Communist Party,” and they carried banners emblazoned with “Long Live the Killer.”

Why was Yang Jia glorified throughout China? He committed his violent acts on July 1.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China" and a columnist for The Daily. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of "The Coming Collapse of China." He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.