Although the Communist Party of China holds the levers of state power, it is conscious of the reality that a party of 80 million members could not rule indefinitely against the will of more than 900 million adult citizens.

Lessons have not only been learned from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, which divided the CPC leadership and shook a generation’s faith in the party, but from the collapse and counter-revolution in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. At every level, internally and publicly, Chinese communists declare their mission to serve the people.

Criticism and self-criticism feature quite widely in the media – applicants for party membership are placed before their neighbours and workmates for scrutiny and criticism. One leading official in the CPC international department told us it had taken him eight years of discussions, candidacy, probation and review before he became a full member.

Punishment for corrupt party and state officials can be severe, although executions are no longer routine.
Central to serving the people is the all-round development of a modern society with high living standards, economic and social security and large-scale participation in a political system which exercises real control in the interests of the people.

As Long Xinmin of the CPC central party history research office put it to western European communists, “We cannot have a situation in China where the people think that socialism equals poverty.”

Much has been achieved on this front, but plenty more remains to be done.

Party leaders at national, provincial and local levels emphasised that major problems of insecure or seasonal work, rural poverty and a shortage of suitable housing have yet to be overcome.

Recent measures to curb multiple home ownership and rocketing house prices have not eliminated profiteering, especially in smaller cities.

More positively, free schooling has been hugely extended across the countryside and all senior citizens will receive a state pension by 2015.

Rapid development has brought with it problems of social upheaval, pollution, cronyism and heavy-handed planning.
On August 14 thousands of residents in the coastal city of Dalian took to the streets protesting against toxic leaks from the Fujia chemical plant, a public-private enterprise.

Local municipal and party leaders eventually gave in to demands that it be closed and relocated. Since then, similar protests have broken out in Nanling, eastern China.

Poverty, underdevelopment and discrimination – real and perceived – can also inflame national and ethnic feelings.
The concept of Chinese nationality is an inclusive, multi-ethnic and multicultural one in which different languages and cultures are valued rather than seen as a threat by the majority Han people.

But rapid development, immigration and official insensitivity can provide fertile ground for local backward and reactionary elements.

Supported by emigre organisations in the US and Germany, for example, the self-styled East Turkestan Liberation Organisation calls for independence for the mainly Muslim, Uygur people of Xinjiang province between Tibet and Mongolia in north-west China.

In July terrorists carried out three attacks on police and Han and ethnic minority settlers, killing 18.

The CPC has embarked on a gradual strategy of political reform, embracing the devolution of more power to provinces and municipalities, contested local elections, wider public criticism and debate and extensive freedom to travel.

One and a half centuries of Western invasion, occupation and partition of China have made the country’s communists impervious to Western lectures about democratic, national or human rights.

One case of blogging censorship, publicised extensively by the Guardian and Index On Censorship (IoE) in June, turned out to be a minor bureaucratic question of registration.

Chen Hong’s website exposing bribery was restored one month later, although the news does not appear to have yet reached IoE or the Guardian.

The main ideological danger arising from rapid market-oriented development is the growth of consumerism and capitalist values.

It ill behoves a relatively comfortable citizen in the West to warn people emerging from centuries of rural poverty against the perils of aspiring to a washing machine, a fridge, a car and new clothes.

Yet the wasteful, corrupting influences of advertising, fashion, cosmetics and other accoutrements of commodity fetishism have been unleashed in urban China – unreality television and trashy game and dating shows have arrived.

But perhaps the biggest challenge arising for Chinese communists and the construction of a prosperous socialist society with “Chinese characteristics” lies in the development of a massive industrial working class.

Most factory and office workers are young men and women only one generation removed from village society.

At the moment they are mostly thankful to have far better jobs, incomes, living standards and prospects than their parents and grandparents could have envisaged.

But their economic class consciousness will inevitably grow, including as employees who work for an employer.

While the trade unions and the Communist Party emphasise harmonious workplace relations in the national interest – which incorporates the interests of the working class – more and more workers may come to see themselves as a subordinate section of society whose economic and political interests are not adequately represented.

How the CPC draws these workers into the trade union movement and the party as active participants, who see themselves as – and are – the masters of society’s economic and political system and not its victims, will determine China’s line of march.

Forward to developed socialism, or into the ditch of monopoly capitalism?

Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain

Morning Star, September 21, 2011