BEIJING — Fresh off a successful charm offensive in the United States, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping will likely be working feverishly -- and clandestinely -- to secure his political future among the various factions and political rivals strolling the halls of power in Beijing. But Xi boasts one credential no other Chinese official has on his resume.
Last autumn, Xi presided over a graduation ceremony at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, the supreme ideological training ground for party cadres and a prerequisite for any official interested in joining the elite political ranks of China's ruling class. Indeed, in a country where party loyalty trumps even patriotism -- the embalmed corpse of Chairman Mao Zedong is wrapped in a Communist Party flag, not that of the People's Republic of China -- Xi could not hope to attain China's top post without having first proved his political purity, exemplified by his selection as president of the Central Party School in 2007. Xi followed in the footsteps of Hu Jintao, the man he will presumably succeed come October, who held the same position at the school before he became president of China a decade ago.
Housed in a heavily guarded, unmarked compound far from Tiananmen Square and most of Beijing's government buildings, the Central Party School is both think tank and indoctrination center, "a furnace to foster the spirit of party members," according to a state media report. It is a place where Chinese officials debate and form policies that address China's most pressing and sensitive issues while remaining safely within the confines of politically correct thought. "The ultimate work the Central Party School does is create a fit-for-purpose overarching value system and a body of ideas which serve to justify the Communist Party's monopoly on power," says Kerry Brown, head of the Asia Program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank that has hosted members of the Central Party School.
What happens within its walls has a direct impact on political decision-making and thus the daily lives of 1.3 billion Chinese, not to mention the world. Often, top leaders choose the school as a forum for introducing new policy concepts, which then trickle down through the state bureaucracy and media as part of the government's "opinion guidance" mechanism. The Central Party School sits at the top of a vast network of party schools around the country, which train lower-level officials. Although the school devotes considerable energy to manufacturing palatable concepts, it's not just a propaganda factory.
As China has moved away from traditional communist dogma toward a state-managed capitalist economy and its ensuing social complexities, the school has become a laboratory for testing new methods and foreign strategies and deciphering how they can be incorporated into official policy and instructed to the rising stars of the Communist Party. "The goal is to suck up an idea, defang it, and legitimize it for Chinese circumstances in a way that's not threatening to the party," says Brown. Within the party's internal discourse on political reform, topics like rule of law, religious tolerance, and civil society, particularly the role of nongovernmental organizations, are discussed at length at the school, which has published texts in support of these concepts, though strictly in accordance with Chinese characteristics.