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China's Communist Party marks 90th birthday

Adrienne Mong

Statues of the Long March survivors greet visitors inside the Yan'an Revolution Museum.

YAN’AN, Shaanxi Province—It’s known as the cradle of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

A sleepy city of two million that is regularly overrun by millions of visitors paying homage to the CPC’s founding fathers, Yan’an is near the final destination of the legendary Long March the Communists undertook from late 1934 to late 1935 to escape the tightening grip of the Nationalist Party and its army.

It was here that Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and thousands of other CPC members made Yan’an their Central Committee headquarters from 1937 to 1947.

And in recent months, it’s been THE place to visit.

“We’re here to pay tribute to the Communist Party and to mark its [90th] anniversary,” said a Beijing man who reluctantly gave his name as Zhao and identified himself as a Party member.  He was joined by at least a dozen or so other Party cadres from the capital’s Pinggu district.  “Yan’an has a lot of meaning to us.”

Zhao had been encouraged to divulge his Party credentials—a rare gesture for cadres—by State Council officials who had organized a media trip to Yan’an a couple of weeks ahead of the CPC’s founding anniversary on Friday.

“Go on, you can talk to them, let them ask you a few questions,” said one minder as two or three of us journalists waited expectantly.

Training cadres

Adrienne Mong

A group of Party members from Beijing pose in Zaoyuan, Yan'an.

Government-organized trips are best avoided for obvious reasons, but on this occasion the media were going to be allowed access to tour the China Executive Leadership Academy in Yan’an.

This CPC school is one of three so-called national training bases for Communist Party cadres.  The other two are in Jinggangshan in Jiangxi (where the Long March began) and Pudong in Shanghai. 

Overseeing these three are the Chinese Academy of Governance and the Central Party School in Beijing (“the highest institution charged with the task of training senior and middle-ranking leading cadres of the Party and fostering Marxist theoretical cadres,” according to a brochure).

It’s instructive just visiting the website for each institute. 

The Jinggangshan academy’s site looks much like any other Chinese government bureau website, and the language is the familiar Party rhetoric one hears from officials all the time.  Take the mission statement, for instance: “Seeking truth from facts, keeping pace with the times; maintaining the style of arduous struggle and exercising state power for the people.”

The Pudong academy’s website, on the other hand, is sleek with a simple design and font.  Its mission statement couldn’t be further from its Jinggangshan counterpart in tenor and jargon, sounding very much like the management training center it strives to be: “CELAP, by the integration of ‘value education, capacity building, and behavior orientation,’ strives to foster and sustain strong, ethical and effective leadership for coordinated development of economy and society.”

A corporate retreat

The tone of the Yan’an academy website strikes a note somewhere between those of Jinggangshan and Pudong--much like it appears in reality.

Its spacious campus, lush gardens, and clean, modern facilities rival that of any modern Western institution.  At the same time, it serves as a dramatic backdrop for a chorus of cadres belting out “impromptu” revolutionary songs.

Since the site was completed in 2005, the Yan’an school has trained around 28,000 cadres in ten-day or two-week sessions.  The tuition is free, and cadres are encouraged to take advantage of the courses—depending on their rank and need.

At any given time, only 240 to 260 Party members are on campus, steeping themselves in the lore of the Communist Party—whether it be through classes in Marxist-Leninism, learning traditional rural Chinese dances, or performing “red songs” of the revolutionary era.

The “students” we saw one night practicing a fan dance on the tennis court were director-level cadres.  It was a compulsory lesson, replete with live music and female instructors in Party uniform shouting out instructions, but it was clear from the expressions of the students that they were enjoying the drill.

Adrienne Mong

Party cadres learn traditional dances at the Yan'an Executive Leadership Academy.

In fact, there was something about the whole enterprise that suggested a corporate retreat with a heavy emphasis on team-building exercises or an Outward Bound session.

All these activities weren’t simply about reinforcing Party doctrine and Party history but a means of forging bonds between the cadres and the Party itself and fostering a greater camaraderie among Party members.

“I’ve been to Yan’an many times since the 1980s, just looking around, but this time it’s different” said Liu Hong, Secretary-General of the China Flower Association.  She was sitting in on a lecture about Mao Zedong Thought.  “I feel as though I have a deeper learning and understanding of Yan’an, our Party history, and our Party.”

“It’s important to walk the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” said Yang Zhihe, the course instructor from Xi’an.  “I believe each step we take will be better than the last.  The change of the last thirty years…is proof of that.”

"Serve the people"

Classes are held every morning at the academy.  In the afternoon, however, cadres are given tours of Yan’an’s historical sites.  In Zaoyuan, where Mao and his cohorts lived from 1943-45, a small group of cadres sat on folding stools in the shade, listening to Jiao Liansan give a spirited account of the Long March.

“This isn’t like what you’ve seen in the movies,” Jiao told his rapt audience.  “It wasn’t a neat file of soldiers.  It was messy….  Men didn’t even have shoes, just maybe cloth to wrap around their feet as they hiked.”

Jiao, in fact, had no shortage of colorful sayings that stayed on message: serve the people. 

“If you don’t put the people in your heart, they won’t put you on their shoulders,” he said, quoting an old CPC saying.

Much like the message the CPC Central Committee Party School Vice-President Chen Baosheng gave in a recent press briefing in Beijing.

Adrienne Mong

One of the original beds in Yan'an, where the chain-smoking Mao once slept, is covered with cigarettes--an homage by visitors.

“Our charter says the CPC has no self-interest.  Our overall interest is to serve the people,” said Chen without a trace of irony, despite a persistent line of questioning by reporters that suggested exactly the opposite.

Corruption also features as a subject in academy classes.  If there’s one thing that threatens the fabric of the CPC and its very existence it’s corruption—widespread and endemic among the 80-million strong Party ranks. 

So much so that President Hu Jintao addressed it in his speech on Friday marking the CPC’s founding anniversary:

“And the whole Party is confronted with growing danger of lacking in drive, incompetence, divorce from the people, lacking in initiative, and corruption. It has thus become even more important and urgent than ever before for the Party to police itself and impose strict discipline on its members.”

So much so that despite all the celebrations and happy, smiling cadres being televised across monitors around the country on Friday, many Chinese are too cynical to buy into the mantra.

Which is why the Party leadership also takes great pains to rehash its history—a time of great turmoil in the country—in order to remind Chinese everywhere that it’s still best positioned to steer the country.