Scandal Crashes Chinese Communist Party's 90th Birthday: World View

This Friday, the Chinese Communist Party will celebrate its 90th anniversary. But, so far, it doesn’t seem to be enjoying itself.

Sure, the party has organized giant “red song” sing-a-longs and a feature-length, star-packed biopic about itself. However, anxiety and paranoia -- the hallmarks of the party's most recent anniversaries and meetings -- are threatening to smother the celebration.

This is obvious to those who follow the enduringly hot, 24-hour-a-day “democracy wars” on the country’s Twitter-like microblogs. It is also obvious to those who routinely read the highly consequential battle of editorialists (many of whom are proxies for national leaders) in party mouthpieces like People’s Daily.

Outsiders shouldn’t expect to see American-style television debate clashes in China. Like Chinese society itself, Chinese political culture approaches subjects indirectly, and often metaphorically. This is by necessity: Although China’s news media environment is becoming, bit by bit, more open, direct criticism of the party is still off limits. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't indirectly critique the powers that be; you just need a metaphor, a symbol, to help you do it.

Enter "Guo Meimei Baby," a 20-year-old blogger, talent show champion and aspiring actress with an account on the Sina Weibo microblog. On June 21, the young provocateur (and plastic surgery recipient, according to Chinese netizens who looked into the matter) posted images of herself posing with her Maserati, her Lamborghini, her expensive handbags, and her sprawling villa.

The images alone wouldn't have been terribly noteworthy by the standards of China’s internet discourse, but Guo Meimei Baby, for reasons known only to her and her gods, identified herself as a business manager at the "Red Cross Business Association." While there is an active Red Cross Society of China, the Red Cross Business Association doesn't exist. Yet that detail was lost on the outraged netizens who flocked to Guo MeiMei’s Weibo account to get a look at the miscreant who dared to convert charitable contributions into personal luxuries.

Just as the Guo Meimei controversy began, China’s National Audit Office announced that the Red Cross Society of China had engaged in financial improprieties including the misappropriation of funds. (Disclosure: in October 2010, I was paid by the Red Cross Society of China to write an article that appeared in their internal publications). Chinese citizens are already skeptical of philanthropies; the Red Cross, which is officially overseen by the government, has publicly denied the allegation, attributing any irregularities to an accounting mistake, and has vowed to become more transparent with its financial data.

Nonetheless, the audit and Guo Meimei Baby's microblog provided Chinese netizens with the perfect platform to express their growing frustration over general income inequality, official corruption and social divisions within China -- without having to attack the party directly. These are themes that already dominate China’s microblogs, when they’re not focused on soap operas and sports.

Take, for example, this protest from Li Huisheng, a user of the Sina Weibo microblog: “My salary is low for I am not competent, I know it! Banquets at public expense, I am not qualified to attend, I also know it! But you are using the charitable money I pinched and scraped to buy cars, houses and play with women! I will not agree!!!”

Li’s protest could just as easily apply to multiple party scandals that appear regularly in official and independent Chinese media. This was not lost on the officials who supervise and censor China’s internet. While Li's comment did not disappear (or become “harmonized,” in the local parlance) from Weibo's site, many like it did.

Party censors also didn't quell the voice of Li Chengpeng -- a commentator, writer, and daring independent candidate for a local assembly in Sichuan Province -- who blogged on Sina Weibo about the social conditions that might have caused the scandal. He wrote: “The story told by Guo Meimei isn’t about a silly showy girl, but is rather about the bankruptcy of a country's credibility...I know that the Red Cross Society enjoys minister-level treatment on the level of some state-owned companies. It is possible for those state-owned enterprises to go bankrupt, but never the credibility of a country.”

The Communist Party, ever jealous in its role of benevolent provider, only reluctantly allows foreign charities to operate in China. The act of giving to charities, too, is still relatively new for common Chinese citizens, who have concerns that donations ultimately end up in the wrong pockets. In recent years, some of those concerns have faded, especially after the catastrophic 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, for which the Red Cross organized recovery operations. But fears that corruption has tainted Chinese philanthropy, just as it has tainted Chinese politics and government, are ubiquitous.

Two days before the party's 90th anniversary celebrations, Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily came as close as any major Chinese news outlet to pointing out that the Red Cross scandal has legs only because it mirrors corruption at other levels of Chinese society:

...Nearly all charitable organizations keep relations too close to government departments. Sometimes they even become a subsidiary body of administrative department ... they might hand over funds donated by people to the control of local government, leaving people no way to know the exact direction their contribution takes.

On the other hand, the relationship between charitable organizations and commercial organizations and for-profit activities is generally too intimate ... For example, many senior executives who are working in enterprises have deeply gotten involved in the management activities of charitable organizations and the nature of their activities is quite suspicious.

During the run-up to the anniversary, China’s newspapers have been painted red, literally, with triumphalist editorials that could have run during the Cultural Revolution. This includes one in the People's Daily by Li Jingtian, executive vice president of the Central Committee’s Party School, who reminded interested readers that “The Party is a mature Marxist ruling party that is good at mobilizing the enthusiasm, initiative and creativity of the public.”

But Li’s editorial, like similar pieces running in Chinese newspapers, conveyed traces of anxiety and insecurity, suggesting that some reassurance from history was necessary. Li continued:

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a Russian newspaper had launched a survey "Who the Communist Party of the Soviet Union represents?" The results showed that 85 percent of respondents believed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union represented the interests of party bureaucrats and cadres and only 7 percent of respondents believed that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union represented the interests of the working people. A political party will inevitably lose its power if it does not represent the interests of the masses. This is a thought-provoking lesson.

Li, unsurprisingly, concluded that the Chinese Communist Party represents, and has always represented, the interests of the people.

China’s netizens, however, are not always so sure. The Red Cross scandal has provided an ideal opportunity for them to wonder aloud if some oversight is in order, if not from the media, or the democratic masses, then from foreigners.

On Weibo, writer Xia Shang, puts the issue succinctly: “The Red Cross Society of China and every kind of foundation set up by the government must invite international independent auditing organizations to examine them, and their accounts must be shown to all the people. If we cannot achieve this goal, all the other things are useless.”

It’s a jarring opinion, especially for leaders on the verge of celebrating the 90th anniversary of their party -- one that that gained legitimacy, to some degree, by vanquishing foreigners and their meddling ways from China. When it comes to the Red Cross, at least, the implication is clear: The Communist Party can’t always be trusted, anymore. This, too, is a thought-provoking lesson.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.