- The Washington Times - Friday, November 29, 2002

BEIJING Last summer, along a neon-soaked tavern row near Beijing's embassy district, some proprietors decided pouring pricey drinks for foreigners just wasn't enough. One put it this way to China's official news agency: "I was busy earning money. Now I find that one must have a belief."
With that, the Sanlitun Bar Street chapter of the Chinese Communist Party was born.
Such is the curious cocktail that is China in the 21st century: Equal parts communism and socialism, mixed with a liberal dash of capitalism, shaken vigorously into something that bemuses even those familiar with the world's most populous nation.
Following the National Party Congress early this month to select a new generation of leaders, the Communist Party is undergoing what proponents call a unique evolution and some critics consider the beginning of the end. The talk is still doctrine, but the walk is all about money.
Less than a generation ago, China was as drab and unadorned as a Mao suit, carried along by a planned economy that told the populace where to live, where to work, what to produce and how much. Now its cities crackle with capitalism's energy: KFC off Tiananmen Square, Wal-Mart in heartland towns, a vast Ikea store jammed with young Chinese couples buying build-it-yourself housewares named Onkle and Gnubbe.
Foreign investment is etched upon the landscape. Development is the priority, and buildings are rising before the dust of demolished hovels has cleared. Former Communist Party Secretary and President Jiang Zemin has said that entrepreneurs must shepherd China toward a richer, savvier future.
Mr. Jiang's doctrine for the party congress was the "Three Represents," which may sound impenetrable. But that's not necessarily a drawback in Chinese politics, where muddiness gives leaders wider latitude. It means that to build what is known here as "socialism with Chinese characteristics" in a globalizing world, the party must move with the times and be open to fresh ideas.
"Our party has entered a new development stage of building a society in an all-round way in which people can lead a fairly comfortable life," Wen Jiabao, China's new vice prime minister, said recently. "We must unite with all forces that can be united with."
"People are more interested in making money than making revolutions," says Wang Xi, a Chinese citizen and historian at Indiana University in Pennsylvania.
Government institutions have been strengthened, and China is more tolerant of individual ambition than a generation ago. But the reforms threaten the livelihoods of thousands of workers as state-owned industries that offered jobs for life are pared down, restructured or closed.
Migrant populations are swelling, and scattered labor protests, while not necessarily connected, have drawn in thousands of laid-off workers who say mostly the same thing: Give us back our benefits and our jobs.
At the same time, many of China's young are richer than ever.
Annual growth has consistently topped 7 percent. Factories and workshops across the country are cranking out brand-name products by the millions for Western companies, making China the world's new manufacturing powerhouse.
Narrow streets once swarming with bicycles are now choked with cars bought by an emerging middle class.
Once the average Chinese monthly salary was $40. Now it hovers around $400. The most successful businessmen in the country's tiny elite are making millions, and urban Chinese are moving into sleek apartments and suburban developments.
"When I was growing up, we ate meat once a week. Now I eat it every day. No one misses the old China," a 29-year-old bartender in Beijing's embassy district says as she serves a $5 pint of Boddington's bitter to a foreigner.
The evolution of the revolutionary party was not beyond the vision of Mao, who never meant for his communism to emulate the Soviet model completely only until he could fashion a Chinese version and stamp it upon a vast and fractious land.
But Mao also loathed the bourgeoisie. And though he certainly laid the groundwork for today's China, which has kept his portrait gazing down from Tiananmen gate, the idea of six dozen Golden Arches in Beijing might well have given the Great Helmsman an aneurysm.
The party apparatus, while touting innovation at every turn, still uses the language of old an amalgam of nationalism, ideology and pep-rally sloganeering that feels oddly out of time in an era where China's women can paint on L'Oreal eyeliner and men can wear Playboy boxer shorts, both fake and real.
Some fear the convulsive societal change that has taken so many Chinese from baggy suits and tea to Calvin Klein and latte.
Fundamental dilemmas hover: Can the Communist Party remain relevant in a world governed by markets? How much can it change color before the East is no longer red?
"There are some big symbolic decisions," said Orville Schell, a China scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. "When do you take down Chairman Mao from Tiananmen? When do you remove his body from the mausoleum on the square? When do you re-evaluate 1989? These are issues they'll have to confront."
For Chinese people, the dilemma is which Communist Party to heed.
Is it the party of stout revolutionary tradition, the party of the People's Daily, which couches talk of 21st-century reforms in a soporific voice straight from the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s?
"As long as our party always represents the development requirements of China's advanced social productive forces, the progressive course of China's advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the broadest masses of people," it drones, "our party will remain impregnable forever."
Or is it the party of the "socialist market economy," embodied in the pithy sign painted onto a roadside building in the southern town of Ningtian?
"Make party members into talented rich people," it says, "and make talented rich people into party members."


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