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Staying in power

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James Reynolds | 10:10 UK time, Monday, 18 August 2008

I'm off to watch China sweep up a few more golds, but before I go...

Olympics opening ceremonySomewhere in the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion, the newly inaugurated president Fernando Lugo is getting into his new job (probably learning how the phones work, trying to avoid getting lost in the corridors, wondering where the bathrooms are, etc.)

The fact that there's a new president in a small, land-locked, country in South America is of great - and almost entirely unnoticed - symbolic importance to the Communist Party in China.

Mr Lugo's inauguration ends 61 years of continuous rule by the Colorado Party of Paraguay. If I've got this straight, this means that the Chinese Communist Party has now become the world's longest serving government - right in the middle of the most important event the Party has ever staged.

The Communists declared the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949. Every other political party in power at that time has either fallen, been kicked out, or overthrown. Some parties have since come back into power. But only the Communist Party of China has stayed exactly where it is.

The Party (as it's always known in China) spends huge amounts of time trying to figure out how to keep going. Here are a few of its political survival rules...

1) Be flexible
Communist systems which tried to stick to unbending rules have died away. China's Communist Party has survived partly because it's been willing to adapt and change its ideology. In its first few decades the Party preached against money and private property. But since Deng Xiaoping allowed economic reforms to begin in 1978, the Party has encouraged everyone to get as rich as they can.

2) Get an orderly leadership
In many Communist systems, power gets hogged by one man, who tends to hang on till he dies - creating political paralysis as he gets older and sicker, and then political chaos after he dies. So, the Party has learned lessons from this: avoid elderly leaders, personality cults, and damaging leadership battles. Pick a strong leader and make sure that he gives way at a fixed time to a clearly chosen successor from the next generation. This first happened successfully in 2002 when Jiang Zemin gave way to Hu Jintao. It's expected to happen again in 2012 when Hu Jintao gives way to the current vice president Xi Jinping. And so on.

3) Fracture the opposition
Can you name a Chinese opposition leader? There is no single, unifying opposition leader in China - that is one of the Communist Party's most notable achievements. There is no Chinese Aung San Suu Kyi, Sakharov, or Havel. Potential opposition leaders from traditional areas - dynastic families, insurgents, intellectuals, students, workers, farmers, religious leaders, disaffected regime members - have either been co-opted into the system or taken down before they've had the chance to get organised.

4) Get everyone in on it
Co-opt as many people into the system as possible. Allow the super-rich to keep their money. Make the middle class rich. Persuade the working class that they can move up and become middle class. Give as many people as possible a stake in keeping the Party in power.

5) Connect with the world
Don't cut yourself off behind an Iron Curtain like the Soviet Union - you'll survive if you do business with the rest of the world not if you cut yourself off from it.

Hosting the Olympic Games fits into all of this. It's the Communist Party's equivalent of a re-election campaign. It's a way to show its people that it can make their lives better - that their government can make them feel proud and confident about what their country can do. The better the Games, the better the Party's chances of staying in power.

Here's the Party's hope: why would anyone want to bring down a government that invites the entire world to gasp at what China can do?


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