Yesterday the Chinese Communist Party honored the 90th anniversary of its founding. To anyone in China, the date has been hard to miss. Banners have been draped over freeways and hung on lampposts for weeks, proclaiming “the communist party is the vanguard of modernity!” and asking us to “celebrate the 90th anniversary!” Floral arrangements spelling out “Communist Party” (in Chinese) line boulevards and greet those entering universities and government buildings. TV stations take breaks to show revolution-era dramas and montages of famous moments in CCP history. Security in public places is tighter than usual, and the Internet controls are a little bit more sensitive than usual. In short, it’s a celebration.
In its 90 years of life, the CCP has alternately endured and been responsible for the cataclysms that have afflicted China, from Japanese invasion to the Great Leap Forward. In the period since the reform and opening of the late ’70s, the party has presided over breakneck economic development and brought China to the forefront of the world’s political and economic attention. The accomplishments from this time period that deserve the most emphasis depend on your perspective. Since 1978, China’s economic development has lifted 500 million people out of poverty – arguably more than any global aid program has achieved in the last 30 years. At the same time, the CCP has survived the breakdown of the USSR, global waves of democratization, increasing international connectedness, and the advent of the Internet, all while maintaining a repressive authoritarian regime in charge of nearly 20% of the world’s population.
The CCP’s 90th birthday highlights a strangeness underlying China’s modernization. In the midst of a rapidly developing China, the CCP sometimes feels simply anachronistic. Slogans and propaganda are a facet of everyday life, from the obviously political “Long live the Communist Party!” to the emotionally hortatory “go to work happy each morning, come back home safely each night.” Since the Beijing Olympics, massive spectacles have taken over the advertising and sloganeering landscape of many major cities: the Asian Games in Guangzhou, World Expo in Shanghai, Universiade in Shenzhen, International Horticultural Expo in Xi’An, and more. The worldwide fame of these events (international horticultural expo?) is widely overhyped. In Nanjing, where I live, posters in the subway encourage people to practice standing in line and “being civilized” in preparation for the Youth Olympic Games – which the city is hosting in 2014. There are similar posters tracing the Games to various development projects, with the slogan “A green YOG, a civilized YOG, a cultural YOG.” In Xi’An, popular tourist areas feature multistory International Horticultural Expo souvenir shops, and costumed mascots walk the streets posing for photos.
I say “anachronistic,” because, at least to an American, the all-encompassing gaze of these kinds of slogans and ads unavoidably conjures up images of Soviet-era propaganda. Maybe that’s unsurprising – the CCP is, after all, one of the only remaining Communist Parties in power. But nearly nothing about China is Communist anymore. A Leninist political system sits atop a society that has harnessed capitalist reforms to create growth of unprecedented pace and duration. Ultimately, the fact that these posters are still around is a sign that the government thinks that politics and economics are separable. This is a big question: for decades, Western thinkers have predicted that economic liberalization will force China to liberalize politically. But as of its 90th birthday, the CCP is still very much in power, and with a very firm grip.
But it’s hard not to feel that these slogans are a kind of front, and more intended to manipulate or warn than to express true belief or encouragement on behalf of those in power. The ubiquity of official corruption and the wide disparities between rich and poor make it hard to suggest that there’s much true populist motivation left in the CCP at age 90. And that’s why I don’t feel bad saying this kind of politics feels dated: in China, it’s not the Americans saying “the Cold War is over: Capitalism won.” It’s the Communists.
They just haven’t put it on a poster yet.