China's Communists Chart a New Course

Party Congress to Annoint New Leaders, Embrace Capitalism

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On Friday, the 16th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party — used by political leaders to lay out their policies for the next five years — opens with great fanfare, and heavy security, in Beijing. But as NPR's Rob Gifford reports, politics are far from the minds of many ordinary Chinese as the nation becomes increasingly more diverse and modern.

"If you want an idea of some of the paradoxes of life in modern China, you just have to come to Oriental Plaza, a huge shopping mall in the middle of the Chinese capital," Gifford says. "You'd be hard-pushed to even tell there was a Communist Party in power here, let alone that an important congress was going on."

The overriding sentiment among the people Gifford meets is that politics is not an important part of everyday life. One man tells Gifford: "We're more interested in getting a better job and earning more money."

The congress may be a public, internationally touted event, but the real deal-making is a secret, behind-the-scenes process. The outcome, says UCLA's Richard Baum, will be a significant changing of the guard.

"For first time in modern history, no one from (the original Communist Party) generation will be in power — they are all dead or out," Baum tells Gifford. "Also for the first time, there are no ideological conflicts in leadership. They are pragmatists, technocrats... (and) more relaxed about Communist ideology."

The party elite are downplaying the biggest change of the congress — a constitutional amendment that will allow entrepreneurs, once dubbed "exploiting capitalists," to join the party. The private sector now contributes more than 30 percent to China's gross domestic product. "In effect, the constitutional change authorizes something that has already occurred — the death of traditional Communism in China," Gifford says.

The Chinese Communist Party has in many ways abandoned its traditional power base — the peasants and "exploited classes" — and is embracing the new intellectual and business elite and the emerging Chinese middle class. "But as well as creating millions of winners, economic reform has created an army of losers," Gifford says. "Laid off workers and poor peasants who benefit not at all from the new party-business nexus... are starting to show their discontent in demonstrations around the country, on an almost daily basis."

The unanswered question facing Hu Jintao and the new leaders is whether to actively pursue political reform — before it's forced upon them by a huge, restive population of have-nots.

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