[Viewpoint] The future of China’s communism

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[Viewpoint] The future of China’s communism

The fourth of June is always an edgy day in China as it commemorates the crackdown on the 1989 prodemocracy protests in Tiananmen Square. But this year, the day was spent in excitement and ended in euphoric celebration. Chinese citzens were glued to the TV to watch and hail their national tennis player Li Na win the French Open women’s singles match to become the first Grand Slam champion from Asia.

The Chinese national anthem was played at the Court Philippe Chatrier to honor China’s win even though she didn’t compete in the tournament as a national player. When the new French Open winner stepped up to the podium and took the microphone to speak as the first Asian Grand Slam champion, she did something very out of the ordinary for a Chinese sports player.

She delivered thanks to her sponsors, team and family, but not to the Chinese government and people - the usual spiel for the Chinese sports player trained under a strictly controlled state program. Speed skater Zhou Yang stirred controversy after she failed to thank the government and people following her win in the short track at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

But the home crowd was less harsh on Li, who years ago left the national team and pursued a successful individual career. The incident instead triggered a heated debate among traditionalists and liberals in a society where free expression and will is still heavily censored and contained.

Traditionalists claim Li’s triumph should be credited to the elite state-led athletic system, where talents are discovered at a young age and groomed under supervision and sponsorship of local and central governments. Liberals argue that Li’s tennis career only took off after she gained freedom from tennis authorities.

After she got control of her financing and the scheduling of her training, her confidence and competence improved, leading to her stunning performance at the Australian Open and landmark win at the French Open. Li has also been outspoken about the strain of government heavy-handedness on individuality.

The younger generation’s new liberal stance poses a threat to the Communist Party. They have grown with a voice dismissing the need for strong centralized authority. The Chinese populace had dutifully lived under the no-party, no-future banner.

They agreed in gratitude that their country has ascended to the world’s second largest economy under the leadership of the Communist Party. But Li’s triumph is now being cited by liberals as proof that the Chinese individual can not only do well without government and party care, but can in fact do better.

History has witnessed that a small ripple can make an enormous wave. The Communist Party, busy preparing for a grandiose celebration to commemorate its 90th birthday today, has received a blow from the unexpected corner of a tennis court.

There always have been underlying challenges to China’s socialist system. But this time, once Pandora’s box is let open, there may be no return. Even under state censorship, an army of Chinese microbloggers is in full force all across China. President Hu Jintao and other leaders are searching tirelessly for a solution, but to no avail.

It is hard to imagine how the Communist Party will address its centennial birthday 10 years from now. But one thing is certain. It inevitably will have become more public-oriented and friendly.

The Communist Party has transformed over the years, adapting to changes in the domestic and external environment.

It was born in the Marxist-Leninist socialist system, but it turned itself into a new breed by adopting an open and reform policy in 1978. Asked whether it is a socialist or capitalist system, China bluntly retorts that it is the Chinese system.

The Chinese Communist Party, which compares its relations with the public to fish and the water, will likely answer to public demand and desires for viability. It will likely adapt itself according to the flow of populace energy.

It may be an inevitable choice to keep the party identity alive in a world where communism is turning extinct. It knows better to ride the wind than to go against it.

*The writer is the director of the China Institute at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By You Sang-chul
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