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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Next week, China begins a sweeping once-in-a-decade transition of power. The moves comes as its Communist leaders grapple with the scandal that paints a damaging picture of their party: corrupt, nepotistic and ruthless. All this week, we'll be reporting on China's big transition and whether the Chinese model, both political and economic, has reached its limits. Today, we focus on the political and on rising disillusionment with the Communist Party inside China. Here is NPR's Louisa Lim.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: China's Communists still wage war against their Nationalist enemies at 11 o'clock every morning for the tourist hordes. This is the old Communist stronghold of Yan'an, where Chairman Mao lived for 13 years starting in the '30s. Now, every morning gunshots blaze as a battle from 1947 is recreated.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: An actor playing Chairman Mao has just come out, and everybody is clapping him.

LIM: This is history as spectacle. Yang Xiaowu, an alcohol distributor, has brought his employees here.

YANG XIAOWU: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: We come here to learn revolutionary sprit, he says. It helps us sell booze. And Yan'an today is all about the commodification of China's Communist past.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Even here, few noticed the party's U-turns. But they're in plain view. Banners from the 1940s call for democracy. Even Chairman Mao advocated multi-party democracy, a position he abandoned after gaining power. Some have not forgotten, like 90-year-old revolutionary He Fang.

HE FANG: (Through Translator) Our purpose was to achieve freedom and democracy. But now, there is neither freedom nor democracy. The road we chose was wrong.

LIM: He Fang ran away aged 15 to join the Communists. He dug those caves now visited by tourists out of the hillside. He rose high in the party, then fell far and was exiled to the country for 19 years. He is critical of Chairman Mao. Mao, he says, had a temper like a child and treated China like a toy that could be tossed around. He's critical too of today's party.

FANG: (Through Translator) The Communist Party wants to realize communism, but no one today knows what communism is.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: In Yan'an, young party members swear oaths of allegiance to the party. But inside its temples, the party schools training the elite, they worry about a crisis of faith.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: At Beijing party school, Professor Wang Binglin is addressing this head on. He's lecturing on why China's Communists aren't as devout as religious believers. Some party members don't believe the Communist classics, he admits. Some don't even read them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

LIM: For many, faith in the Communist Party died in Tiananmen Square when the army opened fire on unarmed protesters in 1989. From then on, political reform was off limits. The unspoken contract was that the party would bring economic change to the people. It has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. But the gap between rich and poor has widened into a chasm. That idea, far from the Communist ideal of equality, has become engrained. The Communist Party was supposed to be the party of workers and peasants, but now city dwellers enjoy privileges like subsidized medical care and social welfare that farmers can only dream of.

GUO HAIYUN: (Through Translator) City folk definitely live and eat and do everything better than us. Of course, I envy them.

LIM: That's Guo Haiyun. He lives across the yard of his cave home close to the revolutionary base in Yan'an. He was injured as a migrant worker and survives on an allowance given to the disabled. He's a big supporter of the Communist Party. But with one child at university, he barely gets by.

HAIYUN: (Through Translator) I borrowed money for several years for my daughter's education, and I can't return it. Probably I have only two or $3 at home.

LIM: Today, such rural poverty is harder to bear, knowing the elite are enriching themselves using an unholy alliance of patronage and power. Bao Tong was once an insider, secretary to Zhao Ziyang, the reformist party boss who sympathized with the protesters in 1989.

ZHAO ZIYANG: (Through Translator) Bao met me in a noisy fast food restaurant in Beijing. Seventy-nine years old, he lives under surveillance after spending seven years in prison after Tiananmen Square. He's despairing about China's current situation.

(Through Translator) It may be worse than the feudal era. Then, when the emperor found a landlord bullying people, he could put them on trial. Now there's not just one landlord in each village. There's at least 10, including the village head, the party secretary, their deputies and their predecessors.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Fiefdoms of power are being carved out. This was clear in this bombshell moment. State television announcing the powerful politician Bo Xilai faces criminal charges possibly including abuse of power, corruption and involvement in covering up a murder. His wife's already been found guilty of killing a British businessman over a business deal gone wrong. Bo is the son of a revolutionary hero, a creature of the party. Bao Tong believes he symbolizes all that's wrong with it.

BAO TONG: (Through Translator) If the father becomes an emperor, the son must become an emperor too. That's socialism with Chinese characteristics. It's false socialism. It's about keeping their power. The guiding principle is: I must have power. I must be an official. I must be corrupt and lawless. This is the Chinese model.

LIM: Such cynicism is widespread. At one Communist pilgrimage spot, Chairman Mao's cave in Yan'an, a man who gives his name as Mr. Su says he believes all officials are corrupt.

SU: (Through Translator) If every official serving at county level or above was shot by a firing squad, I don't think any innocent blood would be shed.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: Communist songs echo throughout this revolutionary base. Mao's Communists prided themselves on their discipline, standing against the corruption of the Nationalists. Now, China's new leaders have to act fast. The dividends of double-digit growth are over, but they've enriched a princeling class, whose vast wealth and influence has turned them into the new emperors representing all the party once opposed. China's Communist Party is no longer communist. Even its name is a big lie. And those double standards are chipping away at its legitimacy day after day. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

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