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How China's Communist Party Schools Are Keeping Its Revolutionary Spirit Alive

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To China now, where the ruling Communist Party mounted a revolution, then won a civil war more than 70 years ago. These days, on the eve of its 100th birthday, the Communist Party is trying to keep its revolutionary spirit alive by sending its cadres or members to party history bootcamp. NPR's Emily Feng visited one of these elite party academies and brings us this story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The director of the Yan'an Executive Leadership Academy strolls through its sandy-colored campus. Its arches are designed to mimic the caves carved straight into the cliffs that communist soldiers lived in for 13 years here while headquartered in Yan'an city. The party fled here in the 1930s after a grueling journey on foot. It used the remoteness of Yan'an for protection against the Japanese and to regroup so they could best a rival political party later on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Nearby, about 40 cadres unfold little plastic stools outside a cave Chairman Mao Zedong once lived in. They're getting a lecture today on how the chairman won support from the people of Yan'an in the 1930s.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The pedagogical style is somewhere in between that of a Bible study and that of a business school. It's an honor to be plucked out of the Chinese Communist Party's roughly 90 million members and invited to the Leadership Academy. The idea is to use case studies drawn from party mythology to inspire present-day members.

SONG JIAZHONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: "I came here to charge my batteries," says Song Jiazhong, meaning to invigorate his belief in the party. Song normally writes policy as a mid-level party official with the Heilongjiang provincial government. But he's taken time off for a two-week refresher course on what the party calls the spirit of Yan'an, shorthand for frugality and dedication to the common people.

SONG: (Through interpreter) Studying our revolutionary ancestors stimulates our motivation for work and strengthens our sense of responsibility and our sense of meaning.

FENG: There are three such executive leadership academies across China. Yan'an was chosen as one because it was the Communist Party's wartime capital. Each of these three academies specializes in using the surrounding region's history to create crash courses in communist management theory, teaching a curriculum akin to the seven habits of successful cadres, if you will. One of these habits - work harder. Here's Zhou Shanshan, a cadre who's done two stints at the academy.

ZHOU SHANSHAN: (Through interpreter) The Communist Party grew strong while headquartered in Yan'an, despite the horrible and arduous living conditions here. We need to recapture that original spirit of wholehearted service.

FENG: Another good habit - the people's interests come first. Instructor Wang Jhongcang offers this example of Mao's cadres, who, in the 1930s, heard that one particular Yan'an village was chronically ill from dirty water.

WANG JHONGCANG: (Through interpreter) The communist cadres immediately put down their guns and walked dozens of miles to find a clean water source and channel it to the village. The villagers were so happy Chairman Mao had not forgotten the poor.

FENG: And the most important habit of all - never doubt the Communist Party. Here's instructor Fang Jianmei.

FANG JIANMEI: (Through interpreter) The party was founded during one of China's most difficult times and led its people on a unique path that it carved out for itself through a century of struggle.

FENG: Admittedly, the party's history may not be incredibly useful for modern-day governing. But for many far-flung cadres, the academy's most important function is actually to get a sense of what top leaders in Beijing want from them and to rekindle the spiritual fire that inevitably diminishes with time. Professor Wang Jhongcang has dedicated his entire life to parsing party history. And for him, it's become a guiding light on how to live his life.

WANG: (Through interpreter) Your body can join the party, but it's your soul that also should join the party. The latter requires you to embody the party's mission and character. This requires a lifetime of self-cultivation to reach the ultimate requirement - sacrificing everything at a moment's notice for the party and for the people.

FENG: All of this sounds great on paper, of course. And the communists did win a civil war, then maintained their control over a one-party state. But the task of running that state and managing 1.4 billion people - that remains their biggest challenge.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Yan'an, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.