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Friday, 8 November, 2002, 12:32 GMT
Communists on parade
China's Communist Party Congress
The Congress is being carefully staged

In a world filled with sound bites and spin doctors, a full-blown Chinese Communist Party Congress is a rare moment of old-time Marxist political theatre.

Two thousand communist party delegates, some in the elaborate costumes of China's many ethnic minorities, pack the cavernous Great Hall of the People.

A huge gold hammer and sickle hangs over the stage.

The opening session of the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress 8 Nov 2002 at the Great Hall of the People (AP photo)
The opening was a spectacle of power
Then the band strikes up the national anthem and onto the stage strut the old men of the Politburo.

Out in front is the portly figure of the party chief Jiang Zemin. At 76, Mr Jiang is starting to show his age. This Congress is in many ways an ovation to the man who has led China for 13 years.

By the end of next week, China will have a new leader. Mr Jiang, and virtually the whole of the current top leadership, will be gone.

But as the Congress opened on Friday he made it very clear he intends his influence over China to continue.

In a rambling, 90-minute speech, the party chief and state president outlined his vision of the country's future - at its heart a thriving market based economy.

"We must make sure market forces play an essential role in the allocation of resources," he said. "We must free our minds from a dogmatic interpretation of Marxism."

Reality check

Most significantly of all, Mr Jiang said the Communist Party itself must adapt and allow capitalists to join its ranks.

Mr Jiang has pushed long and hard for the Party to change its attitude to the once reviled exploiters of the workers and peasants. He has developed a theory on the matter, the awkwardly named "three represents".

Tibetan delegate (right) arrives at the Great Hall of the People
Many delegates wear elaborate regional dress
It claims the Communist Party should represent all the "advanced" forces of society, and that clearly includes capitalists.

It is, in many ways, an acknowledgement of reality. Next year private enterprise is expected to overtake the moribund state run sector to control more than half of China's economy.

Private enterprise is the motor that is driving China's rapid economic growth, and rapid economic growth is the sole guarantor of the communist party's survival.

But if the Communist Party is abandoning Marx in favour of Adam Smith it is most definitely not abandoning Lenin in favour of liberal democracy.

No room for dissent

Mr Jiang's speech gave no indication at all that the Communist Party is considering loosening its monopoly on political power. In fact he did quite the opposite.

"We should never copy any models of political systems of the West," he said.

"We must uphold leadership by the party and the people's democratic dictatorship".

Just how little room there still is for political dissent in China was underlined again by the reaction to a minor protest outside the Great Hall.

As Mr Jiang spoke, two middle-aged women tried to distribute protest leaflets on Tiananmen Square. Who they were and what they wanted to say no one knows. Seconds after they began their protest police pounced on them and dragged them away to a waiting van.

Security around the congress has been extremely tight, even by Chinese standards.

On Friday, major roads around the great hall were closed off and sniffer dogs patrolled Tiananmen Square. Squads of police patrolled railway and bus stations.

There are plenty of groups who might want to disrupt the smooth running of the congress. They include members of the outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong, angry unemployed labourers from north-east China's industrial rustbelt, and separatists from China's Muslim west.

The Communist Party is taking no chances.


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