HONG KONG — Oh, what a difference a few decades make! Back in the days of Chairman Mao Zedong and his little red book, China was proud to proclaim the Communist Party as the party of workers, peasants and soldiers.
And now? Two of the new members of the standing committee of the Politburo, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who are expected to take over the jobs of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in five years’ time, both have doctorates.
While the standing committee of nine men elected in 2002 consisted only of engineers, Xi and Li are delightfully different. Xi is an economist and Li has a Ph.D. in law.
In fact, the Central Committee, the highest authority within the party, is a reflection of the change that the party is undergoing. Almost half of the 183 members of the Central Committee — 49.3 percent — are newcomers. As for the 127 members of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, almost 80 percent are new.
Of the Central Committee members, more than 90 percent — 92.2 percent to be exact — are university graduates, including nine academicians from the Chinese Academy of Sciences or the Chinese Academy of Engineering. This is clearly not a cross section of the Chinese population, but a very elite group.
The Central Committee members ultimately chosen came from a much larger pool of 43,300 party officials, whose credentials were reviewed by 60 investigation teams who were sent around the country beginning in the middle of last year.
Chapter one of the party constitution sets out the criteria for membership. It says that “any Chinese worker, farmer, member of the armed forces, intellectual or any advanced element of other social strata” who is at least 18 years old and who accepts the party’s program can apply to join.
This is quite different from the constitutional criteria 30 years ago. The 1977 constitution says of membership: “Any Chinese worker, poor peasant, lower-middle peasant, revolutionary soldier or any other revolutionary” who has reached the age of 18 can apply for membership.
Then, poverty and revolutionary credentials were vital. Now, the word “revolutionary” has disappeared. Instead of poor peasants, entrepreneurs are encouraged to join the party.
In fact, just before the party congress opened, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that, last year, 1,554 private entrepreneurs joined the Communist Party. They include the board chairman of the Wanfeng Auto Holding Group, described as Asia’s largest aluminum wheel producer, the chairman of the Chongqing-based Lifan Group, a privately owned motorcycle producer, as well as the chairman of detergent manufacturer Chuanhua Group.
The party has also changed in other ways. In the 1970s, Mao alone represented the party. He did not even condescend to attend meetings of the Politburo, sending instructions to the party’s highest decision-making body through the handful of females who were allowed to be in his presence.
Now, the constitution says that “the party forbids all forms of personality cult,” a clear allusion to the cult around Mao, who during his life was hailed as “great leader, great teacher, great supreme commander and great helmsman” with the little red book of his sayings being treated as a talisman with special powers.
Moreover, the constitution now insists on intraparty democracy. Beginning this year, the Politburo is supposed to report regularly to the Central Committee and accept its supervision and all party organizations must “accept oversight by the masses inside and outside the party.”
But despite its much more modern and seemingly even democratic trappings, the party — and probably China — appears to be still mired in a feudal mind-set.
This was evident from media reports of how the several thousand nameless, faceless delegates to the party congress in Beijing were treated when they returned to their native counties and provinces. While in Beijing they were tiny fish in a vast ocean, back home they became big fish in a small pond, big fish that had a chance to be in the presence of the emperor in Beijing.
Thus, the party secretary of Pizhou, a county-level city in Jiangsu, was given the red carpet treatment par excellence when he returned home. The Pizhou government organized a grand ceremony to “welcome Secretary Li’s glorious return from the 17th Party congress.”
And, it would appear, the same scene was enacted all across the country, with lowly officials hailed as triumphant heroes simply because they had journeyed to the capital and sat in the vicinity of all-powerful leaders.
No doubt, in their own locality, they would be close to being all-powerful as well.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.