90 Years of Communism

Law and Order

TACOMA - Friday July 1 I logged into QQ, the largest social network in China with over 400 million users to be greeted by a banner celebrating 90 years of the Chinese Communist Party. I hadn’t been paying too close attention, and thought the anniversary had already passed. I was wrong.



The Communist Party started in Shanghai, when about a dozen individuals got together in 1921. The meeting place today is surrounded by French colonial buildings and shopping malls. Those gathered actually had to flee that meeting, and finished their first meeting on a boat in Hangzhou, today a half-hour high speed train ride away.

Waiting for the subway one day, I noticed that the The National Art Museum of China planned to have an art exhibit around the 90th anniversary for about two weeks. I was struck by how short the exhibit was going to be. I decided to go take a look. In countries where I struggle with the local language, art museums are an additional way to understand the local culture and practices.



A few years ago, the Asia Society in New York had an exhibit of Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) pieces, in full propaganda force. Coming to the exhibit in Beijing, I was curious to see how many pieces from this time period I would see. The short answer, is almost none if any. Walking in to the period dedicated to the first thirty years or so, I was shocked by the contemporary nature of the paintings. Although the events depicted happened decades ago, the paintings were only a few years old. Perhaps, this reflects one of the characteristics of the party today, a knack for ushering in new and young talent. China will have a new president next year in part because of age limits.

A second thing that struck me was that some of the paintings depicted a certain sense of grief and struggle, without any clear Party members in the picture. This to me, seemed a departure from some of the Cultural Revolution pieces I’ve seen or similar North Korean Communist Party works that all seem to show the people smiling all the way as the country moved forward.

The third observation, and the one that did not really surprise me too much, having spent hours around Tiananmen Square watching Chinese tourists, was museum guests having their pictures taken in front of different paintings. I was slightly surprised to see two girls, maybe in their 20’s taking pictures with a painting of Deng Xiaoping riding a train in southern China. Deng, who ushered in the economic reforms of the past thirty years is more tangible for many younger generations than Mao Zedong. One trivial question was answered for me, whether or not the painting of Mao at Tiananmen Square had aged at all over time, it has. One painting painted about 12 years before Mao’s death, shows a small group gathered in front of a Mao painting that had more hair than today.

Stepping out of the museum, throughout Beijing, the normal red propaganda banners had been replaced with specific banners using a 90 years logo. These banners highlighted the need to stay with the party, to keep moving forward with China’s scientific development, and other efforts that largely tie back to Deng Xiaoping. One poster associated the making of Beijing as a world city with the Communist Party. In the subways simple advertisements congratulated the party on its 90th anniversary.

For an outsider like me, it was a little bit odd to see so many references to the party, and I was starting to get sick of the banners as they became increasingly numerous near the airport. Unless I read work by The Guardian’s Jon Watts, I often forget that China is Communist. Most often when I speak with people, the distinction is that of China being a socialist country (社会主义国家) and the United States being a capitalist country (资本主义国家). In reality China might be more capitalist than the United States.

The party, of roughly 80 million people is a route to secure employment in a time of uncertainty brought on by the reforms of Deng. A co-worker of mine joined the party specifically to gain employment opportunities. Interestingly, most of the graduate students I have interviewed for my research are also party members. More than once I have suggested to friends of mine that they might have an easier time finding a job if they joined the party.

A Chinese friend of mine joked that I was red for going to see the art exhibit, yet I know I would not be rushing to join the Communist Party even if I could, just as I have no plans to join the Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Reform or Green parties in the US. I’m not interested in platforms, but trying to thoughtfully address issues one by one; something that can be quite tiring at times. Today, quite often according to various accounts it seems that the platform of the Communist Party, is to stay in power, and to do what is necessary to accomplish that. For many, the party has brought thirty years of economic growth, and still has a role to play in Chinese society. For others, both inside and outside of China, it is not possible to realize their vision of China with the Communist Party holding all power.  

The two week art exhibit is perhaps reflective of the current party’s mood. Remind everyone that the party is needed and that China is back on its feet because of the party, but get back to work because both supporters and dissenters alike judge the party every day, not just once every two or four years.

China, Communism