YANAN, China -- In the Chinese Communist Partys mix of history and mythology, the cave homes dug in the soft, loess hills of Yanan hold a defining moment. It was here after the Long March, the epic cross-country retreat by Mao Zedongs Red Army fleeing Nationalist soldiers, that Mao and his comrades found a base from which to launch victory.
Tourists and officials alike make the journey to pay homage to the partys propagandized narrative of its beginnings. The simple wood shelves, humble writing desks and small rooms of the shallow caves are meant to remind the faithful of a Communist Party that stands with the people.
That assertion has come under strain of late. Amid public rancor about official corruption, Beijing is now embroiled in intrigue before a once-in-a-decade transition of power.
Analysts have sought to decode the machinations a Chinese political star plummeted to disgrace, a disappearing mandarin, a fiery Ferrari crash and offered varying speculation about what it all might mean for the planets second-largest economy.
As those issues are worked out, this nook of the party heartland in central China might be expected to offer a comforting sense of legacy. One contender for the Politburo Standing Committee, the center of power in China, visited Yanan earlier this month. Wang Yang was paraphrased by a city government newspaper as saying the communist revolution took root because in those years our partys cadres had ideals . . . (and) didnt seek personal interests, thus winning peoples hearts.
Less than 100 steps from a spartan space where Mao once lived, however, a man named Wang Wu said that politics in todays China are easy enough to understand.
In my county, there are many people who drive nice cars, said Wang, a 44-year-old who was selling both nature-themed and Mao-emblazoned red paper cuttings. Of course those people have connections with officials. Thats the way society is these days, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Up until about 10 years ago, Wang said, his family farmed land to the north of Yanan. When the government introduced a reforestation program, it came with promises of a fair annual rent and, later, large loans to help start new businesses for farmers who turned over their property, he said.
Instead, Wang said, officials of his village and their cohorts got payments that were 25 times higher than those of regular farmers and grabbed all of the loan money.
If you have relatives who are officials then you can get a loan, Wang said, wearing a cheap green jacket. If not, then you cannot get one cent.
It is a common sentiment: Communist Party officials have become more self-serving than their predecessors. Such complaints tend to overlook the horrors of Maos reign, including tens of millions of Chinese people killed by starvation, execution of varying means, and Maos penchant for purges from the very beginning.
Those details are left unexamined at the series of caves that, from the inside, resemble white adobe structures with curved ceilings. At the home where Mao lived from November 1938 to October 1943, where admission is free and busloads of people recently trudged through the rain to gaze and ponder, prior pilgrims have flicked cigarettes on the bed as a gesture of respect. A sign advises that Mao advocated the spirit of self-reliance and arduous work.