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Communists at Ironic Juncture

China: Many believe the party must embrace its old enemies--capitalists--to ensure survival after economic reforms.


SHANGHAI — The self-appointed vanguard of the Chinese people is struggling with an ideological dilemma that goes to the core of what it is and whether it can stay in power: Can a capitalist be a good Communist Party member?

"Without the party's policy and leadership, I wouldn't have my own business today," said Bian Yugao, 50, an aspiring party member who owns a chocolate factory in Shanghai and employs more than 100 people. "The party is encouraging us to make money and take care of ourselves. I want to be a party member so I could make more contributions."

For nearly half a century, people like Bian were portrayed as the essence of capitalist exploitation.

Recent reforms mean that China's leaders already depend on the private sector to maintain economic growth and therefore their political legitimacy. Many believe that the party has no choice but to broaden its membership to include such capitalists.

On Sunday, as the party marked its 80th birthday, President Jiang Zemin all but opened the door for them.

"Whether or not one has wealth, or how much one has, cannot crudely be used as the standard for whether that person is politically progressive or backward," Jiang said. He added that although peasants and workers are still the core of the party, it is "necessary to accept those outstanding elements from other sectors of the society."

But letting old class enemies actually become members would dilute the party's original power base of peasants and industrial workers. On the other hand, keeping them out leaves beyond the party's grip a growing number of economically powerful people who could coalesce into a political alternative.

"The defining feature of the party was that they were opposed to private ownership and foreign trade,' said Arthur Waldron, a China expert at the University of Pennsylvania. "Eighty years later, they are embracing the very things they rejected.

"To describe them as Communists is incorrect--it's an empty title," said Waldron. "It's like saying I'm an atheist but I'm a Roman Catholic." It would be more correct, according to Waldron, to say, "I'm a Communist and I'm a power holder."

That may be why so many entrepreneurs are trying to become party members, or "red capitalists" as they are known. Few want to admit it, but party membership is good insurance. It stands for legitimacy and security.

Die-hard believers maintain that communism's ultimate goal is still to eliminate the capitalists: They are useful partners now, but their demise is just a matter of time.

"This house belongs to the Communists," said Liu Chanfa, a graduate student at a party school in Henan province. "At the very best, the capitalists are our house guests. They stay if we tell them to stay, and they leave if we tell them to leave."

However, such views are falling into the minority.

The whole debate would have been unthinkable before breakneck economic reforms turned China from a backward planned economy into a modern growth engine. The Communist revolution in 1949 wiped out all traces of the landed class and made private ownership a crime.

But Deng Xiaoping, who started his own economic revolution in 1979, told the masses that it was all right to "let some people get rich first."

Suddenly a new class of entrepreneurs sprang up and flourished. Beijing finally had to draw a line. In 1989, it banned owners of private businesses from joining the party.

Communists First, Entrepreneurs Later

In reality, many capitalists were already Communists. Party members were among the first to "plunge into the sea," or go into private business.

"The talk about exploitation is so passe," said Gu Rongqing, head of a private business association in Shanghai. It serves as a gathering place for party members at private enterprises that don't have enough cadres to form a local party branch. Almost all of them are laobans, or bosses of their own private businesses, ranging from real estate to textiles and furniture.

"Most of these laobans grew up under the red flag," said Gu. "Their parents were working class. The first song they learned as children was 'No Communist Party, No New China.' It's hard for them to understand why, now that they are making more contributions to society, the party is shutting them out."

Many of the older generation are still emotionally attached to the party as the savior of China. But a new wave of applicants merely sees party membership as good for their careers.

Workers and peasants, who put the party in power and bore the brunt of economic reforms, now make up just over 49% of the party's 64 million members.

Merchants never held high status within Chinese society. Under the socialist market economy, their role is even more precarious. Despite official tolerance, they continue to lack access to credit, capital and other economic resources. Bribery and backdoors are often the only way to get things done.

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