NOEL KING, HOST:
Today China's Communist Party starts celebrations for its 100th birthday. The country has been hosting party history lessons. And in the capital of Beijing this morning, the party threw itself a birthday parade.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).
KING: NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Hi, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: Just - even that little bit of sound is extraordinary. What did you see today in Beijing?
FENG: China kicked off a big performance in Tiananmen Square, in the center of the city. There were hundreds of singing children, some of whom you heard in the midst of those baritones. They had artillery fire. They had flying pigeons. But the real centerpiece was Chinese leader Xi Jinping's speech. He delivered it in front of the Imperial Forbidden City, flanked by other leaders wearing Western suits. But Xi was the only one wearing a gray Mao suit. And he made an hour-long speech about why this 100-year-old party is still needed today in China.
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XI JINPING: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: He said, "The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Anyone who dares will have their heads cracked, and their blood will flow before the steel Great Wall built with the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people."
These are really strong words.
FENG: And that's because the party's central animus over the last century has always been what it calls the great rejuvenation, making China strong again so it cannot be controlled by foreign powers.
KING: Now, Emily, this is not the same Communist Party that China had in 1921 for so very many reasons. What are the big changes over the last hundred years?
FENG: Well, when you think about it, the party is a very anachronistic thing. It began as a revolutionary party. And it was founded at a time when China was clawing its way out of an imperial dynastic system, and it was overwhelmingly rural farmers. But since then, the party has had to transform itself into a governing force. It's built its own schools to train members. It's put party cells in businesses and organizations abroad to extend its influence. So it's not just a political party, it's the actual fabric through which all political power's threaded in China.
KING: And then how does that work? - because China has a president and a premier who run the country. China also has a party chairman and millions of party cadres. How do they interact?
FENG: Right. You have the party, and then you have the government. In some ways, they're parallel. But in most ways, the party is above the actual government.
FENG: So Xi Jinping is president, but his far more important title is party chairman. And under him, we've seen this incredible resurgence of the Communist Party in all facets of life. It is the guiding force that is behind and in many ways above the government that channels resources towards ends it decides on that are supposed to help most citizens, for example, like containing a coronavirus pandemic. But because it sits behind everything, that's also created this ongoing tension between wanting absolute control and being pressured to liberalize. Here's Deng Yuwen, who was once a senior editor at a big party-run paper.
DENG YUWEN: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: He describes the party like the patriarch of a traditional Chinese family. Everything this man says goes. If you respect him, he gives you some favors. But if you cross him, he banishes you from the party. And today, one of the biggest challenges that remains is making sure this party-run autocracy is efficient and responsive because modern China has always had this problem where local and top-level officials cover up their mistakes. And today, as Xi Jinping consolidates power, that risk is bigger than ever.
KING: Emily, thanks for your reporting.
FENG: Thanks, Noel.
KING: NPR's Emily Feng there. And we'll be hearing more about the evolution of China's Communist Party over the next month from our China correspondents.
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