Selling Purity in Yan'an

China draws on history to train a new generation of officials in loyalty to the Communist Party.

yanancaves-305.jpg A Chinese girl stands outside her cave home in Yan'an, May 28, 2005.

Faced with rampant official corruption and a groundswell of popular mistrust in its rule, China's ruling Communist Party has started sending its cadres back to management school to "cleanse their souls."

Sent back to the cave complex of Yan'an, where late supreme leader Mao Zedong spent the formative years of the Chinese Communist Party during the war with Japan, middle-aged cadres are forced to learn colorful peasant drum-dances and rediscover their political roots with revolutionary songs.

Experts say that the setting up of the China Executive Leadership Academy in Yan'an six years ago marks a strong concern among China's ruling elite with consolidating their grip on power.

"The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party was built on a belief in the ideals of communist ideology," said Guizhou-based political commentator Zeng Ning.

"If the Communist Party doesn't put much emphasis on them or stops engaging in education that promotes revolutionary ideals, then it will lose its basis for legitimacy."

'Passion education'

Meng Xuan, commentator for the U.S.-based Chinese language World Journal newspaper, agreed that the ruling Party needs to consolidate its grip on power.

"Historically speaking, the Chinese Communist Party is still a traditional dynasty from imperial times," Meng said. "Contemporary China may have modernized, but we can still see the cultural DNA of traditional times reappearing before our eyes."

While some contemporary writers have described that period to be anything but egalitarian and idyllic, Yan'an in the Chinese political imagination still seems to stand for youthful fervor and ideological purity.

"China's attempt to inculcate traditional values into its officials isn't entirely fake," Meng said. "It's a very big challenge; how does China ... produce the next generation of clean officials?"

The Yan'an cadre school calls its program a form of "passion education," designed to rekindle a revolutionary spirit and proletarian principles in its trainees.

Revolutionary base

Communist troops arrived in Yan'an, on the poverty-stricken loess plateau of the Yellow River, in 1935, making their homes in caves and eating millet gruel every day.

Yan'an was the main revolutionary base for Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi, and Zhu De until 1948, the turning point in the war against Japan and the beginning of the civil war against the incumbent Kuomintang Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek.

"The communists considered Yan'an their spiritual home and stories of hardship, idealism and good governance were told and retold from generation to generation," the official Xinhua news agency said in a recent article on the training school.

The Yan'an period of Chinese history is useful to the Party because it came before the brutal power struggles and political campaigns launched by Mao against his political opponents threw the country into years of turmoil and cost millions of lives.

According to Meng, it still carries a message of hope for many Chinese.

"Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi all had a personal wish that China could become an independent, free, and strong society," Meng said.

"Subjectively, they all wanted their country to get better. I don't have many doubts on that score," he said.

Still relevant?

But Beijing is also under pressure to demonstrate that Marxist principles and communist ideals are still meaningful in the face of the collapse of communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

"Internationally ... Marxist ideology and communism have already been consigned to the rubbish-heap of history," Zeng said.

"But the Chinese Communist Party is the only force available to rule China, and so it has to keep up its efforts to preserve that status," he said.

"They have to keep pushing all this communist ideology into ... the heads of their own officials, if they are to preserve their status as ruling party."

The reason for this lies precisely with the fact that most people in China don't believe in Marxism or communism any more, he added.

"Personally, I think that the number of people who still believe in Marxism and communism in mainland China now is very small indeed," Zeng said.

Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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