How I changed my mind about the Chinese Communist Party
As the CCP celebrates its 100th anniversary, a US-based journalist who was born and raised in China recounts how she went from patriot to skeptic.
If I say this, you might not believe it — every Monday morning at 10 o'clock, most Chinese high schools have a flag-raising ceremony. Mine was one of them. All the students would gather in the playground to sing the national anthem while the five-starred red flag was raised aloft. Then we'd listen to a speech given by a student representative in a red scarf. A passionate statement about "how to be a good student in great times," or "why respecting teachers is important for young students."
Although the ceremony sounds solemn and rigid, in reality most students didn't take this tedious event seriously. I remember how some of the boys would chat, mess around with each other, and make constant noise. They never really sang the national anthem, as you can imagine.
But not me. I'm still astonished, even 10 years later, to remember the way I would sing so loudly, and with such devotion. The way I would stare at that rising flag every Monday morning with "burning blood," as the Chinese saying goes. Especially during the words "When the nation is on the line, facing the greatest peril, every Chinese is on call to stand up and come forth." I even wanted to cry sometimes.
That's how I grew up. When I was in primary school, every "good student" wanted to join the Young Pioneers of China, a youth group sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party for children aged six to fourteen. In high school, you would be expected to become a member of the party's Communist Youth League. The whole journey is so selective. To be accepted to these groups you had to be the top student in terms of academic and ethical performance. All the young children who made it were proud to be members of this elite, pre-CCP youth league.
I am of course one of them. Growing up in a small city in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, as a Mongolian minority, I always wanted to jump out of the environment I lived in and to see the wider world. I studied hard and passed a highly selective test, and was admitted to a special high school in Beijing for non-Han minority students who came from different parts of China, like Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, or Yunnan.
I did well. I learned to recite perfectly the basic ideas of Marxism, something that you need for China's College Entrance Exams if you are a liberal arts major. I could tell you things like "surplus value is equal to the new value created by workers in excess of their own labor cost, which is appropriated by the capitalist as profit when products are sold." Don't worry about understanding what this complicated jargon means, we have a fixed, correct answer. I did not doubt what I was told at that time, and I felt blessed to have this opportunity, as a non-Han Chinese minority student, to study in the mighty capital city of China.
The turning point in my devotion to the party and its ideology came in a Journalism and Communication Theory class that I took at Shanghai International Studies University. I had an unusually outspoken, liberal professor. One day, we had a heated argument about those rules and beliefs I had about society and the party.
"Why must China follow collective ownership?" he asked me.
"Because China is a country ruled by the people's democratic dictatorship," I answered quickly.
"And what is people's democratic dictatorship?" he challenged.
"Democracy over the people and dictatorship over the enemy," I said.
"What is democracy and what is a dictatorship?"
He asked a follow-up question to every one of my answers. I shot back with what I had learned in those high-school textbooks. But the arguments ultimately took me in a different direction.
Aiming to find the holes in his theory and argue back, that semester I read carefully all the books he recommended to us — texts like On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, Four Theories of the Press by Wilbur Schramm, 1984 by George Orwell, and so on. Each week he would assign several chapters of a book for us to read, and ask us to hand in a report on what we agreed and disagreed with.
He was also the supervisor of our campus newspaper. That's how I got to really know him.
One time, we did an investigative piece about our dining hall overcharging for low quality food. This annoyed the school officials, who of course "invited" him for a talk after that. I think he must have argued so hard, just the way he challenged my questions in class. Eventually he saved our story from being killed, and that was probably the moment I started to understand this rebel figure and why he was always so indignant.
In China's higher education system we do, luckily, have a lot of professors who have views like his. But few of them express their views as openly as he did. I also heard he had been reported by one of his former students to the school officials about his "anti-party tendency." He once made a joke about that in class.
My feelings towards the party did become more complicated, although as a "model student," in order to maintain a high GPA I still studied hard to get top marks in my mandatory Marxism theory class.
But I started to notice how the world Karl Marx had been portraying was different from what we Chinese were actually living in. Why, for example, does Marx say that workers can win moral and political victories through strikes and protests, but in China strikes and independent labor unions are illegal?
Why does Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution say that citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, but we are questioned or arrested if we protest in the street?
I became more and more confused by the contradictions between what the CCP said, what was written, and what they did.
For me the issue wasn't about whether communism is a good or evil ideology, as this is still a hanging question for me today, based on how many years I have been trained to believe it.
My biggest disappointment about the party and the government that I had once trusted so much was: Is China, led by the current CCP, still true to its own stated ideals? Has it come to a point where a party founded nearly a century ago by young people full of ambition to make progress, became a place breeding hypocrisy, authoritarianism, inconsistency, exploitation and lies?
Today the CCP is celebrating its 100th anniversary. There are speeches, parades and all kinds of propaganda in China, so that people memorize a certain story of how this party was born, and the efforts of those early pioneers.
But this feels almost sarcastic to me. I watched one of the propaganda TV shows produced by China's Central Television Network this year. It tells the story of Duxiu Chen, who founded the CCP 100 years ago. He was the first person who brought the idea of "democracy" to China, he supported individualism and a Western moral system valuing human rights, and science. He served as the first General Secretary of the Communist Party, but was later expelled when he became a dissident himself.
When I watch that TV show, I still feel touched when I see how Chen fought so hard to promote those ideas to Chinese people. I think some part of me still hasn't changed, I still care about China and its lovely people so much.
And so I suddenly started to understand why, ten years ago, that girl wanted to cry when she listened to the national anthem. It's because she loved her country, and loved the people around her. The lyrics that said if your homeland and people are in danger, you should come forth to protect them — those words resonated with her. That young girl was swept up by the CCP's biggest logical trick, which has played well in China: if you love your country and love the people around you, you should love the CCP.
One of my old friends actively shared some opinions yesterday with me when he knew I was writing a piece about my relationship to the CCP. He was a classmate of mine in that minority high school, who went on to graduate from Fudan University in Shanghai, one of China's best schools. He said he had negative opinions of the party when he was young but totally changed his mind after he majored in political science.
"I think the CCP represents most people's interests, unlike the bipartisan system," he wrote. "You see how China is doing well in economic development. China's minority policy is unique and great, and you and I both benefited from it."
I don't know how we ended up so differently even with similar educational backgrounds and life paths. But who knows?
Maybe he is right, since I am the one who is far away from China.