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Containment of COVID, rivalry with West help fuel pride as China's Communist Party marks 100 years

The country is in a celebratory mood after battling the pandemic and maintaining its status as an economic powerhouse. But for all of its successes, the Chinese Communist Party is unapologetic about its faults — preferring to sweep the dark elements of its history under the carpet and keep them out of the consciousness of the people.

Commemorative events leave out some dark chapters of country's past, present

Paramilitary police and police officers keep watch as people gather to watch a light show celebrating the 100th founding anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, at The Bund in Shanghai on Wednesday. The main event is to take place on Thursday at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (Aly Song/Reuters)

It's impossible to ignore the euphoric mood sweeping across Beijing as the city gears up to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Over the past few months, visitors have been flocking to "red" tourism hot spots all over the country of more than 1.4 billion people, including historic attractions in the nation's capital.

Access to Tiananmen Square, where the main event on Thursday is set to take place, has been shut off in the week running up to celebrations to keep preparations under wraps. Before access was denied, tour groups had been arriving en masse to soak up the occasion and reflect on a critical milestone.

Like other major commemorative events in China, the centenary plays an important role in emphasizing the Communist Party's legitimacy, according to Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

It's a reminder, he said, that "people should be grateful that the party is continuing to work for them."

Spectators attend a performance commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, at the National Stadium in Beijing on Monday. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

There's an unwavering belief within the party and its leadership that the CCP has developed a superior system of governance that's improved people's lives, economic growth, stability, security and global status, said Sari Arho Havrén, a European-China policy fellow at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin.

But in reality, she said, "we cannot separate the Chinese Communist Party's obsession to control and its ruthlessness to go practically to any lengths to stay in power."

Recent examples, both of which have brought international condemnation, include accusations that the Chinese government has imprisoned more than a million Uyghurs in concentration and "deradicalization" camps in the country's northwest. Some human rights groups have said China has committed "an ongoing genocide" against the overwhelmingly Muslim minority group — allegations the government has denied.

And in Hong Kong, a new national security law was imposed by Beijing on June 30, 2020, following months of pro-democracy protests. The law has led to a crackdown and arrests in the former British colony of those voicing dissent against the government, including activists, politicians and journalists.

From agrarian society to economic powerhouse

Despite alleged human rights abuses, Chinese citizens, at least publicly, recognize that life is better than it once was and that the country's rapid rise from an impoverished agrarian society to an economic powerhouse in recent years is indeed reason for pride.

When the Communist Party was founded 100 years ago, China had just suffered a devastating famine and was confronting social and political turmoil.

An elderly Chinese man looks at a sculpture in Beijing depicting the famous 1949 announcement by Mao Zedong, centre, of the founding of the People's Republic of China. (Reuters)

Since toppling the former nationalist government and the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the CCP has gone from overseeing a state-managed, nationalized economy to one that embraces elements of capitalism. Despite opening up the economy, the party has continued to maintain absolute control over the country. Inevitably, patriotism and loyalty to the CCP are intertwined.

It's a concept that the government has sought to reinforce. Lan Youli, 30, a hotel manager from Guangxi Autonomous Region who grew up through the economic boom of the 1990s, says this was what he was brought up to believe from a young age and that people accepted it as something perfectly normal.

"It's only natural to think that way, given that China is under one-party rule…. What's more, party propaganda is everywhere. It's in film and music as well, so there's no way anyone in China wouldn't think that loving the country means loving the party."

Students at the Yuefei Martial Arts School in Tangyin County, in China's Henan province, start each day with a flag-raising ceremony and the singing of the national anthem. (Patrick Fok)

There's a seamlessness in the way the government has infused the notion of the party and the country with society. At the Yuefei Martial Arts School in Tangyin County, Henan province, the day starts with a flag-raising ceremony and the singing of the national anthem. The students, some as young as six, then switch into a routine of fierce drills.

Many of those who come here go on to a career in the military. The school's namesake, Yuefei, is regarded as a national hero who helped recapture territory lost to foreign invaders during the Song dynasty more than 1,000 years ago.

The school's principal, Wang Haiying, is unequivocal about why patriotism is the most important virtue.

"Of course it is important, everyone should love their own country. How could one not do so?"

New museum highlights victories, ignores faults

Gu Xiaoming, 52, who's originally from Nanjing in Jiangsu province, will be observing the centenary from Singapore, where he immigrated to in 1994 in search of work after losing his job in China. He now runs a business trading construction materials.

Despite the turbulent early days of the CCP under the leadership of Mao Zedong, he says the party has transformed the country for the better ever since Deng Xiaoping brought about economic reform in 1978 — paving the way for foreign investment.

China's flag is displayed outside businesses in Beijing's Gulou district, a neighbourhood with shops and restaurants. (Patrick Fok)

"No other party except for the CCP has the experience and the wherewithal to rule China effectively," he said. "The CCP's role in China is simply irreplaceable, and it is only natural that people think of the party and the state as the same entity."

A new museum in Beijing dedicated to party history is the centrepiece of an education campaign and part of a drive to capitalize on nationalistic pride surrounding the centenary. Foreign and Chinese journalists were given a preview of what will be a permanent exhibition at the Museum of the Communist Party of China, set to open after July 1.

The story found among the museum's more than 6,000 exhibits — including artifacts, paintings and rare, remastered video footage — is of an enduring struggle of the Chinese nation, but with few blemishes.

The Museum of the Communist Party of China, which is set to open after July 1, includes more than 6,000 exhibits — including artifacts, paintings and rare, remastered video footage — as part of a drive to capitalize on nationalistic pride surrounding the centenary. (Patrick Fok)

There's no mention, for example, of the failures of the Cultural Revolution under founding father Mao, aimed at purging capitalist and traditional elements of society and leaving millions of people dead, or of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 — one of the most tragic chapters of China's recent history.

For all of its successes, the Chinese Communist Party is unapologetic about its faults — preferring to sweep the dark elements of its history under the carpet and keep them out of the consciousness of the people.

A small group of Beijing residents walks past a huge poster of Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and a founder of the People's Republic of China, in Beijing in February 1967, during the Cultural Revolution. (Jean Vincent/AFP/Getty Images)

Lan Youli's birthday, as it happens, falls on June 4, but he says he was never taught about the events of that day in 1989, when the government unleashed a violent crackdown on what were mostly students demonstrating for greater individual rights and freedoms, resulting in the deaths of hundreds and possibly thousands of pro-democracy supporters.

"I had absolutely no idea of the Tiananmen incident until I was about to leave for overseas study. My dad told me about it and how he had friends who were arrested at the time," Youli said. "He warned me that there were going to be activists overseas who would tell me about it. He warned me not to join any political gatherings, as he and my mom were still living in China."

Perhaps as a mark of the party's ability to focus China's attention on where it's headed rather than on what it's left behind, Youli says it's not something he particularly dwells on.

"It doesn't really affect my personal life, and so it doesn't really bother me."

Handling of COVID-19 seen as victory

The new museum also includes an area dedicated to China's battle with COVID-19. Almost a year and a half ago, the death of Dr. Li Wenliang — who tried to warn the world about the coronavirus — sparked an outcry against the government for silencing him and over a perceived coverup of what was happening in Wuhan, where the first cases were detected in December 2019.

Today, China has turned its battle with the disease into a heroic achievement. Since the coronavirus first appeared, China has managed to limit the damage through swift and strict quarantine measures, and as a result it has suffered a comparatively lower case and death toll than many other countries. To date, just over 90,000 people have been infected and about 4,600 people have died, according to official figures, but medical experts believe the number of infections is much higher.

Motorcyclists ride along a street decked out in China's flag, in Tangyin County, Henan province. The country is in a celebratory mood as it marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. (Patrick Fok)

Victor Gao, a director of the China National Association of International Studies and a former translator for the late leader Deng Xiaoping, says people are grateful to the party for what it's done to contain COVID-19.

"The Chinese people have never been as united as they are today because they not only know the Communist Party of China for many, many years and decades already, they now can see China in sharp contrast with many other countries," he said.

Outside the country, however, there's been widespread criticism over what's seen as a lack of transparency in China's handling of the outbreak and in the sharing of crucial data. A failure to provide what many in the scientific community view as sufficient access to a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the disease has spurred accusations of secrecy and led to calls for a closer look into a theory that the virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan.

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by a World Health Organization team investigating the origins of COVID-19, in Wuhan, China, in February. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Nevertheless, China's handling of the outbreak has served to strengthen faith in the party — and nothing has underscored nationalistic sentiment more than the country's growing rivalry with the United States.

Gao suggests the government's pushback against Washington reflects the sentiments of the people.

"During the four years of [the] Trump administration, we saw a lot of China bashing, battering of the Chinese dignity, pushing around China to the wall or trying to hold China down onto the ground as if there would be no consequences," he said.

"I think everyone in China is fed up with this kind of China bashing. I think the Chinese government is voicing the indignation of the Chinese people. And we want to be treated as equals."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick Fok is director of APAC Strategy and Beijing correspondent for Feature Story News, a global broadcasting agency headquartered in Washington, D.C. A native of Hong Kong, he previously worked for Reuters and Channel NewsAsia in Singapore.

With files from Samuel Wong

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