By-the-Book Celebration For China's Communists On Party's 90th Birthday

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BEIJING -- The party for the Party turned out to be a doctrinaire affair, as President Hu Jintao expounded Friday on the benefits of 90 years of communism with Chinese characteristics while workplaces around the country held red-song singalongs.

The 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party's founding -- done in secret in the leafy French Concession of Shanghai in 1921 -- unfolded Friday with more propaganda hype surrounding it than any party birthday in recent memory. The previous weeks were packed with spectacles reminding Chinese of the party's revolutionary roots. Officials seemed especially eager to emphasize the party's history as a populist movement at a time when mass protests have swept authoritarian leaders from power in the Middle East.

There was a star-studded movie, "Beginning of the Great Revival," that showed Mao and his comrades plotting a political coup, and a mass choir performance in the western city of Chongqing, where 100,000 people in a stadium sang Mao-era classics and waved red flags in unison. But when Mr. Hu took the stage here in the Great Hall of the People on Friday morning, the message at the heart of his one-and-a-half-hour speech was all about social stability.

"The key is adhering to the organic unity of the party leadership, people as masters and ruling the country by law," Mr. Hu said, signaling that the party, which has 80 million members, about 6 percent of China's population, would brook no rivals.

Mr. Hu emphasized that for the party to maintain control, it had to stay disciplined, and that meant rooting out the corruption that erodes the trust of ordinary Chinese.

"The danger of letting down one's psychological guard, the danger of not being sufficiently capable, the danger of distancing one's self from the people and the danger of pessimism and corruption are right in front of us more than before," he said.

He returned to the theme later, saying, "The course of 90 years of development of the party tells us that resolute punishment and effective prevention of corruption will decide where people place their faith and is a matter of life and death for the party."

The event was stiff and scripted. Mr. Hu wore a dark suit customary of Chinese leaders, and the audience clapped dutifully at the important inflections in his speech. Before Mr. Hu took the stage, his presumed successor, Xi Jinping, the vice president, spoke a few words, and a short ceremony unfolded in which scores of "model" party members were handed certificates. The celebration was broadcast on television, radio and even in the subway.

Mr. Hu's speech highlighted the early days of the party, when it sided with the ruling Kuomintang party to fight against the invading Japanese, then turned against the Kuomintang in a civil war to establish a socialist China. And it underscored the economic successes of recent decades, when China achieved average annual growth rates of 10 percent and lifted 400 million people out of poverty.

What was missing, as expected, was an honest assessment of Mao's nearly three-decade rule, when tens of millions died from famine and state-directed violence. There was a fleeting mention of past pitfalls, but no detail: "In some historical periods, we once made mistakes and even suffered severe setbacks, the root cause of which was that our guiding thought then was divorced from China's reality," Mr. Hu said. But the party, he added, "rose up amid the setbacks and continued to go forward victoriously" because it "resolutely adhered to the principle of seeking truth from facts."

Mainland China today may have some echoes of the one ruled by the Kuomintang -- a stark wealth gap, wide distrust of officials, ideological and spiritual vacuity. But Mr. Hu did not dwell on that. Nor did he mention the harsh measures that the party, betraying its insecurity, employs to quash dissent. Since February, hundreds of intellectuals and artists have been detained and interrogated in the harshest crackdown on liberal thought in years.

There was one notable absence among the party elders in the Great Hall: Jiang Zemin, Mr. Hu's predecessor, who at 84 is rumored to have severe health problems. The ceremony ended with a dirgelike rendition of "The Internationale," which the party generally does not encourage to be sung among the masses, perhaps because of its message of rebellion and class struggle.

There were much livelier celebrations elsewhere involving red songs, which central leaders have been promoting for months.

At a nightclub in Changsha, near Mao's hometown in Hunan Province, D.J.'s stopped the dance music at midnight on Friday as M.C.'s announced it was time to salute the party and celebrate 90 years of prosperity. The entire room began singing and swaying to "Love My China," a red classic. Then a half-dozen young women, all dressed in tight red skirts and white blouses adorned with red ribbons, jumped on stage and began gyrating around three poles. Slowly they peeled off their clothes, until they were left dancing in red panties and bras.

An American visitor asked a waiter about the festivities. "Everyone needs to commemorate the party," the waiter said.

Around Tiananmen Square on Friday afternoon, security officers stood at posts on every block and operated checkpoints where they carefully searched people's bags. But the square was still densely packed with tourists and celebrants. In the middle was a large red sculpture of the party emblem, with a yellow hammer and sickle in the middle and the dates "1921-2011."

North of the square, near the familiar portrait of Mao hanging on the vermilion wall of Tiananmen, seven villagers from Shandong Province huddled on a sidewalk curb. They were three generations from one family. The father, who gave his name as Mr. Feng, 33, said they had made the journey to Beijing to revel in the big bash. "We just arrived this morning," he said. "The whole country celebrating the party's birthday shows the unity of our people and our strong cohesion."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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