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Communism at a Crossroads in China

November 03, 2002|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

CHONGQING, China — Yin Jiaxu is the model of free-market success in a land where market was a dirty word until only a quarter of a century ago.

The head of an auto maker here, Yin helped transform a floundering state-owned enterprise into a thriving business. His company is listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange; a new line of cars will roll off the factory floor within weeks. Prospects have never seemed brighter for Yin.

From his corporate headquarters, it's a six-hour drive to where Gu Xiuquan plows away at her job, which could hardly be less glamorous. She runs a crossing signal on the Yangtze River, a monotonous, government-provided post she has held for 19 years.

But not for much longer. Next year, the massive Three Gorges Dam is expected to flood her lonely outpost, washing away her job. "I don't know what my colleagues and I will do after that," she said.

Their fortunes may run in opposite directions, but one thing unites Yin and Gu: Both are card-carrying members of Communist Party who will attend a crucial gathering this week in Beijing that could shape the future of the world's most populous country.

The 2,120 delegates to the 16th National Congress are the most diverse in the party's 81-year history. They include businessmen like Yin, who have benefited from China's development, and state employees like Gu, who will suffer because of it. There are intellectuals like Cao Zhenli, a Canadian-trained scientist, and rural cadres like Chang Desheng, who went from collecting dog droppings for fertilizer as a boy to becoming a local party boss.

All four -- Yin, Gu, Cao and Chang -- are attending their first national party conclave, an event held once every five years.

The congress that opens Friday is significant because China's ruling graybeards, such as President Jiang Zemin, 76, are expected to make way for a new crop of leaders in what would be the most orderly transfer of power in the history of the People's Republic.

Whoever succeeds Jiang at the helm of the Communist Party inherits a 66-million-member organization in the grip of something of an identity crisis.

The party has ruled China absolutely and often disastrously for the last 53 years. But it is now struggling to stay relevant -- and in power -- amid the profound changes sweeping the country. Two decades of explosive economic growth have unleashed creative forces, new ideas and limited social freedoms among China's 1.3 billion people, who increasingly view the party as an anachronism, if not an outright hindrance to progress.

Jiang has made it his mission to haul the party abreast of the times and to co-opt China's growing economic elites -- to the point of inviting private business owners to join the party, a policy that turns Communist orthodoxy on its head.

This week's congress is expected to write Jiang's ideas into the party charter, enshrining them alongside the theories of Marx and Mao. Analysts say the party may even introduce a limited form of internal democracy, although it would not extend to the rest of the people, who still have no power to pick their leaders.

Yin, Gu, Cao and Chang were chosen as delegates to the congress at low-level gatherings this year. None will have a say in who takes over the top spots in the hierarchy. None sits on the Central Committee, which will set the party's agenda for the next five years.

But their views and experiences point up how the world's largest Communist Party has evolved from its origins as a ragtag band of uneducated farmers and workers.

In interviews, the four delegates show themselves willing to come to an accommodation with the party and its new brand of communism, which some old revolutionaries think hardly merits the name. They take a flexible, fuzzy or forget-about-it approach toward Marx but embrace Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China's market-oriented economic reforms, who supposedly once declared that "to get rich is glorious."

For them, as for many Chinese, communism has ceased to be a grand nationwide experiment or mass ideological movement. Instead, party membership has become a personal, pragmatic matter: a way to get ahead and enrich yourself or your hometown.

"Society has changed," Chang said. "The party should follow the trend and catch up."

The Cadre

Chang, 58, knows firsthand just how much the country has changed and in how short a time.

He joined the party as a young man, convinced that it was China's best hope for ending the grinding poverty he experienced growing up in Jiangsu province near Shanghai.

The third of five children, Chang helped his father dredge mud in the river and picked through human waste at outdoor toilets for worms to feed the family's pigs and ducks. His parents gave away one of his sisters four times because they could not afford to keep her.

"My strongest memory is of going hungry," he said. "My childhood was all about being bullied, humiliated and famished."

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