JINGGANGSHAN, China (Reuters) - Chinese university teacher Zhu Haibin wept softly as she and other Communist Party cadres stood in rows before a mass grave of Communist fighters in southern China.
Ignoring light drizzle, the group listened to a party instructor tell the story of Zhang Longxiu, a “hero mother” from the early days of China’s Communist revolution who was tortured to death by Nationalists while protecting her son.
Dressed in ‘Red Army’ garb, they looked like travellers on a history tour, except the scene was less about history than survival — the survival of a party that critics say has lost its ideological soul after more than three decades of free-market reforms and is striving to stay relevant.
Since 2005, some 40,000 cadres have attended an elite new communist academy in the bamboo-covered hills of Jinggangshan, where the party hopes to rekindle faith in its founding principles and remind them how it came to run the world’s number two economy, which long ago ditched Marx for markets.
It is the softer side of a campaign launched under President Hu Jintao to strengthen the party which, despite boasting roughly 80 million members, still quietly fears Soviet-style oblivion if China’s economic miracle comes to a halt.
“With 200,000 party members it captured state power,” said Zhou Jianping, a vice president at the Jinggangshan academy, referring to the initial membership of Russian communism when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917.
“With 2 million party members it won a war to protect the country. But with nearly 20 million party members the red flag came down, power changed hands and it became an opposition party,” he added.
“The most profound reason was that party spirit was not strong and its work style had become degraded and devalued.”
With China’s economy slowing and public scrutiny of officials on the rise via social media, the party is likely to endorse deepening its training push when Hu passes the baton to new leaders at the 18th Party Congress, which is expected to be held as early as next month.
China’s cadre training system is run out of academies across the country, some focusing on practical aspects of 21st century communism such as handling the media and management skills, including role-play scenarios on how to manage a variety of crises from mass protests to train crashes.
At Jinggangshan’s China Executive Leadership Academy, the job is to win hearts, not just minds.
Hand-picked teachers are coached to tug heartstrings and elicit maximum emotion and they hammer two messages into trainees: your revolutionary forebears made immense sacrifices in harsh conditions, and the party exists to serve the people.
It seemed to work, at least during a recent visit to the academy arranged for foreign and local journalists.
“The difficulties that I face are nothing,” said Zhu, the university teacher from Hainan province, sniffing back tears after hearing the story of Zhang, the “hero mother”.
China experts are sceptical the party can endure by tugging at heartstrings. They say it has drawn its modern legitimacy from a stunning economic rebirth, but that effect is fading as the economy matures and adjusts to slower rates of growth.
“You have to find other ways to bolster and sustain your legitimacy and I think that’s where they have a problem going forward,” said Damien Ma, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.
Two other Executive Leadership Academies opened in 2005 when the Jinggangshan school opened. They form the vanguard of the training push alongside Beijing’s Central Party School, which crowns a network of nearly 3,000 party schools nationwide.
In Jinggangshan, students dress in Red Army uniforms, sing revolutionary songs and haul baskets of rice along a path traversed by Mao Zedong, the late Communist leader, more than 80 years ago. Classroom time is spent on history lessons.
Even for cadres at Jinggangshan — known as the “cradle of the revolution” because the mountains around it were used by Mao’s red army at the beginning of the civil war — the problems of the present are not far from their minds.
Zhang Dechang, another Hainan cadre on a five-day course, said: “Cadres now are overly pragmatic in their thinking and perhaps think too much about their own benefit. We need to do more governing for the people.”
Yuan Meisheng, a Beijing official also on a week-long course, said the training had a valuable but limited impact.
“With this kind of education it isn’t like you go back and there’s a big change. It’s subtle.”
The town of Jinggangshan itself shows just how far the party has strayed from its Marxist roots.
It is a haven for tourist-based capitalism where dozens of shops sell revolutionary memorabilia, including bronze Mao statues, Red Army keychains and bottles of liquor shaped like hand grenades and bullets.
The small hill town where the leadership academy was established now has nearly 300 hotels and guest houses. Training is a cornerstone industry alongside “red” tourism, locals say.
In peak season last year, 100 classes were under way at once and more than 10,000 people were in training in Jinggangshan, according to a news website run by the local government.
Pu Xingzu, a Fudan University political scientist and adjunct professor at the cadre school, once asked school administrators if there was really a long-term effect.
“Their answer: After a few years they can always come back and do it all over again!” he said.
Editing by Mark Bendeich