In the Chinese Communist Party’s mix of history and mythology, the cave homes dug in the soft, loess hills of Yan’an hold a defining moment. It was here after the Long March, the epic cross-country retreat by Mao Zedong’s Red Army fleeing Nationalist soldiers, that Mao and his comrades found a base from which to launch victory.
Tourists and officials alike make the journey to pay homage to the party’s propagandized narrative of its beginnings. The simple wood shelves, humble writing desks and small rooms of the shallow caves are meant to remind the faithful of a Communist Party that stands with the people.
That assertion has come under strain of late. Amid public rancor about official corruption, Beijing is now embroiled in intrigue before a once-in-a-decade transition of power.
Analysts have sought to decode the machinations – a Chinese political star plummeted to disgrace, a disappearing mandarin, a fiery Ferrari crash – and offered varying speculation about what it all might mean for the planet’s second-largest economy.
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As those issues are worked out, this nook of the party heartland in central China might be expected to offer a comforting sense of legacy. One contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, the center of power in China, visited Yan’an earlier this month. Wang Yang was paraphrased by a city government newspaper as saying the communist revolution took root because “in those years our party’s cadres had ideals . . . (and) didn’t seek personal interests, thus winning people’s hearts.”
Less than 100 steps from a spartan space where Mao once lived, however, a man named Wang Wu said that politics in today’s China are easy enough to understand.
“In my county, there are many people who drive nice cars,” said Wang, a 44-year-old who was selling both nature-themed and Mao-emblazoned red paper cuttings. “Of course those people have connections with officials. That’s the way society is these days, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
Up until about 10 years ago, Wang said, his family farmed land to the north of Yan’an. When the government introduced a reforestation program, it came with promises of a fair annual rent and, later, large loans to help start new businesses for farmers who turned over their property, he said.
Instead, Wang said, officials of his village and their cohorts got payments that were 25 times higher than those of regular farmers and grabbed all of the loan money.
“If you have relatives who are officials then you can get a loan,” Wang said, wearing a cheap green jacket. “If not, then you cannot get one cent.”
It is a common sentiment: Communist Party officials have become more self-serving than their predecessors. Such complaints tend to overlook the horrors of Mao’s reign, including tens of millions of Chinese people killed by starvation, execution of varying means, and Mao’s penchant for purges from the very beginning.
Those details are left unexamined at the series of caves that, from the inside, resemble white adobe structures with curved ceilings. At the home where Mao lived from November 1938 to October 1943, where admission is free and busloads of people recently trudged through the rain to gaze and ponder, prior pilgrims have flicked cigarettes on the bed as a gesture of respect. A sign advises that Mao “advocated the spirit of self-reliance and arduous work.”
There are lingering reminders, though, of a turbulent past not yet reconciled.
On a trip last week to a complex housing another of Mao’s Yan’an residences, a visitor noticed a jumble of old statuary in a courtyard, apparently assembled for a future exhibit. There was a robed man with his head missing. Asked what happened to the head, a staff member at the front office said in a disinterested voice that she thought it had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution – Mao’s brutal campaign launched in the 1960s to stamp out counterrevolutionary culture and persons, which left millions dead, injured or otherwise traumatized.
With the fervor of Maoism now mostly gone and traditional Chinese culture revived only in part, against a backdrop of a ruling party seen as wildly corrupt, it seemed a fitting metaphor.
In the run-up to this year’s party congress, when a new national leadership will be announced, there have been signs of disagreement about whether or to what extent political and social change should be pursued. An essay written by a senior editor of a newspaper at the Central Party School, which trains rising officials, recently listed 10 problems facing the country, using an adjective that can mean “big” or “great.”
“The ideology established during the revolutionary era has already become bankrupt,” wrote Deng Yuwen, whose treatise was posted to a business magazine’s website before being deleted.
Using language that was surprisingly blunt at turns, Deng described shortcomings with China’s economic model, the lack of a robust middle class, a steep rural-urban divide and the lack of political reform. Although much has been accomplished in the past decade, Deng said, “there are even more problems than achievements.”
That critique comes as China deals with political events not seen in decades. The career of an official long thought to enjoy a solid chance at a seat on the Standing Committee, Bo Xilai, imploded after his former police chief ran off to a U.S. consulate in February and reportedly said that Bo’s wife had murdered a British businessman. Bo’s wife last month was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve and Bo, while not yet formally charged, hasn’t been seen since March.
Then a lengthy article in a Hong Kong newspaper earlier this month asserted that Ling Jihua, a close ally of President Hu Jintao, was demoted because of efforts to cover up his son’s death in a March car accident. At the time of his passing, Ling’s son was said to be driving a black Ferrari and in the company of two women – one of whom was allegedly naked and the other in a state of semi-undress.
And making things cloudier still, the man widely presumed to be China’s next leader just went missing from public view for two weeks. There were rampant rumors of health problems, from a strained back to a heart attack, and factional infighting. After canceling several meetings with foreign delegations, Vice President Xi Jinping resurfaced on Saturday at an agricultural university event in Beijing with no explanation for his absence.
From downtown Yan’an, as elsewhere, the details of the inner workings of Beijing are not clear. But at his family’s grocery one recent evening, a man surnamed Liu sat behind the counter and described a local ruling culture greased by vice.
“The heads of construction teams have to give money to officials, no one can change this,” said Liu, whose full name is being withheld because he still works in those officials’ jurisdiction. “There’s corruption from the high levels to low levels.”
Gesturing toward the hotels down the street, Liu said they were built on what used to be his village. He, his relatives and others got “almost no compensation” when their property was torn down, but “the officials have millions of yuan,” said Liu, a man in his late 40s with a closely-cropped mustache who was wearing black jeans and a dark windbreaker.
Expensive cars regularly park between the Liu family shop and places like the Roma Holiday. That building houses a karaoke club, spa and hotel, a combination that often hints at paid female companionship.
In addition to Range Rovers and Mercedes-Benzes, a stroll in the area passed two black Audi A8s, a favorite of Chinese officials that cost more than $100,000, with no license plates and a third with a plate belonging to the People’s Liberation Army.
Although one of his children recently graduated from university, and his second is a year away from finishing, making him both proud and hopeful about the future, Liu said the overall unfairness of the system is grating.
“If old Mao were alive,” he said, “then these corrupt officials would be hanged to death.”