Dispatch

China's Top Party School

At Beijing's Central Party School, it's a lot more Communist platforms than keg stands.

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.

Each year, around 1,500 midlevel and top-ranking officials come from throughout China to spend several months living on the leafy grounds, where they study the theories of Marxist-Leninism, Mao, and former leader Deng Xiaoping. Other subjects include "scientific socialism," party history, diplomatic etiquette, ethnic and religious minorities, and the increasingly relevant "public health and social crisis," topic of a course first offered after the 2003 SARS outbreak. Over 61,000 officials have gone through the school's training program over the past 30 years. According to a report in Chinese media, students must also watch documentaries decrying the evils of corruption and sing revolutionary songs. Think Boy Scout camp for cadres, with party dogma replacing archery.

Students range in age from 20-somethings obtaining postgraduate degrees to middle-aged cadres and party officials, who sleep and learn separately according to their prefectural or provincial rank. Each year, new students take placement exams to determine their level of party knowledge, though professors say lessons have become much more advanced because many older students now come laden with graduate degrees compared with the middle-school education most common 30 years ago.

Students also get to rate their professors, who can be demoted or suspended if their scores are too low. But power remains firmly in the hands of school officials, who ensure that students follow the rules. Provincial governors, ministry bureaucrats, and county-level party bosses may mingle in cafeterias and play tennis after class, but they all have to wake up promptly at 7:30 a.m., when orderlies arrive to clean the rooms -- and ensure no one has overslept. Nobody wants too many tardies because how students perform in class can dramatically advance -- or doom -- their careers. Staff members from the party's Organization Department regularly sit in on political lectures to scout for the best students, who they can recommend for promotions. Likewise, big egos and troublemakers are swiftly punished. According to one article in the Chinese media, one student was banned from lectures after misbehaving. "His political future virtually came to an end after the event," reported a professor.

Xi's political future is tied to his role as the school's president, and it appears he has avoided making any mistakes either within or beyond its high walls. Whether he has altered the curriculum is yet to be seen, but if his predecessor indeed set a precedent, the school will continue to evolve with the times. The school emerged as a center of relatively liberal ideas on political reform and other controversial areas in the final years of Hu's leadership of the school in the early 2000s, according to Alice Lyman Miller, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. Those who study the school and its place in China's political ecosystem say the school provides a relatively free atmosphere to debate the issues of the day -- at least compared with the heavily censored marketplace of ideas offered up by the state media. Professors, students, and outside scholars with knowledge of the school say this tolerance is vital to allowing the party to grapple with sensitive issues like HIV/AIDS and public fury over corruption that can lead to unrest.

According to a report published last year in China Daily, participants are encouraged to cast off a lifetime of hidebound, self-censoring habits. "Teachers told us there were no taboos in their teaching, and officials can debate on almost any sensitive issues," one student said.

"Officials might be discreet in talking to strangers or in public," Wu Zhongmin, a social justice professor, told the paper, "but their internal discussion in class is unbounded."

So does that mean professors can teach the benefits of true democracy and students can advocate for authentic autonomy for Tibet? Not quite. An article about the school on an official Chinese government web portal reveals that party orthodoxy is still an essential element of school lessons. "All lectures should be given in the framework of the rules and policies of the Party," it states, and professors must "have a sense of propriety" in how they teach. That self-censorship goes for their charges as well. "Some students still fear expressing their thoughts in class," the article reported, referencing one former student who acknowledged the presence of party officials watching and listening.

Just how far faculty and students can go is an open question because, like so much of the Chinese Communist Party's inner workings, the details of the school are cloaked in secrecy. Even when outsiders are permitted inside, they are monitored closely. In 2010, the school offered foreign reporters a heavily staged tour, complete with a peek into a lecture on innovation, a gym packed with officials playing ping-pong, and a dorm where CNN was accessible in the rooms. The journalists were showed a bookstore stocked with leadership textbooks, including the lessons of Bruce Lee and U.S. President Barack Obama. The tour was meant to show that the Communist Party and its internal organs were zealously embracing transparency as if it were a recently discovered lost chapter from Karl Marx's Das Kapital. "Our party has nothing to hide," the school's vice president, Chen Baosheng, told the visiting reporters.

Such transparency has its limits. Minders closely accompanied the foreign journalists. Unscripted meetings with faculty members, as with most government officials, are notoriously difficult to arrange. Repeated requests to interview the school's professors and students in recent weeks were declined as being "not convenient" because of Xi's U.S. visit. Professors who appear on television do so under pseudonyms and not under the auspices of the school, one scholar with personal knowledge of those instructions told me. Few Chinese -- and even fewer foreigners -- have a clue what occurs behind its walls, which is just how the party likes it: debating itself, in secret.

That aura of mystery is reinforced by heavily armed members of the People's Armed Police, who prowl the grounds, guarding the numerous checkpoints and preventing outsiders from entering not just the campus but individual buildings. Even the drivers and secretaries of officials are prohibited from entering. While a few select foreign dignitaries, like former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, have given speeches there, the school bars most foreigners -- save for a select coterie of top international scholars seen as sympathetic to the party.

Even those invited to the school can find the welcome mat suddenly yanked away. When Tony Brooks, a Cambridge University doctoral student, arrived for a prearranged meeting, the professor who had invited him appeared stunned by the sight of his face when they met outside the campus. The man, it turns out, had assumed Brooks was Chinese. "If I had written my email in English I never would have gotten a response," he said. Once inside, Brooks saw armed guards standing sentry outside every office door. "I got the impression this was definitely a place outsiders were not encouraged to visit," he says. After arriving at the professor's office, Brooks was told to wait while his contact asked permission from a supervisor to go ahead with the meeting. It was not to be. "Suddenly, he ran back into the office and said we were leaving immediately."

The veil that cloaks the Central Party School and its nationwide political training institutions exists not just to prevent foreign voyeurs from discovering how the party thinks and operates but also to stop those within the system from straying off script. The pressure to hide in the shadows of party unity is growing as the Chinese government prepares to shuffle power later this year. Yet those in the party school system who want to see greater reforms and authentic efforts to cleanse the political ranks of corruption and greed are not all staying silent. Although the signs of succession at the very top clearly point to Xi, some school officials are voicing their misgivings over his expected selection, portraying him as a corrupt princeling content to abet China's current political-economic complex. "This generation of leaders has been tepid and a disappointment," said one party school insider. "They have not been able to solve the country's problems, and I have even less hope about Xi Jinping and his posse."

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Is Iran's New Spanish Channel a Threat?

Not if its inauspicious debut is any guide.

CARACAS — A travel documentary shows off Bulgaria's tolerance of Islam with images of towering minarets, glowing mosques, and crowds of men bowing on prayer mats. A moderator chats with Latin American youth about Islamic educational methods. A program on Irán Hoy (Iran Today) flashes footage of the country's "defensive" missile tests and "peaceful" nuclear program. It's all aimed at a continent known for its raunchy, melodramatic programming and blasé coverage of current affairs.

Welcome to HispanTV. Officially unveiled on Jan. 31, the Tehran-based channel is the third to be launched by Iran's state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting wing, after the Arabic-language al-Alam and English-language Press TV. It is yet another example of Iran's cultural and economic outreach to Latin America and particularly to opponents of the United States in the region such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Castro brothers.

"A selfish and bullying minority has attempted to impose its will on the entire world," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared from Tehran during HispanTV's inaugural ceremony, and the new channel would "be a means for better ties between people and governments of Iran and Spanish-speaking nations." The Iranian president, who recently toured Latin America, ended his remarks on the launch with a resounding "Viva la paz!… Viva el pueblo! Viva América Latina!" ("Long live peace! Long live the people! Long live Latin America!") -- phrases that would not sound out of place punctuating one of Chávez's marathon speeches.

One wonders, however, whether el pueblo is watching. While HispanTV is streamed live on its website, those keen on watching the channel on a television set will be flummoxed by the need for a satellite dish and modulator costing thousands of dollars. This, coupled with patchy Internet connectivity in Venezuela, makes HispanTV out of reach for most Venezuelans.

Even in Persepolis, an Iranian restaurant frequented by diplomats and Iranians in the high-end Caracas district of Las Mercedes, the huge television in the corner was turned to more popular Iranian programming on a busy Wednesday during lunchtime. There was little interest in this small oasis of Iranian culture for a homegrown channel aimed at Latin America, especially given the difficulty in accessing it. Few of the diners were familiar with HispanTV, let alone keen on watching it. At a mosque in the center of Caracas, worshippers were similarly uninterested. Perhaps in a nod to tensions between Iran and the West, neither diners nor worshippers were willing to be quoted.

What about Venezuelans themselves? Not one person was familiar with HispanTV's existence at one bustling cafe in Caracas. News of the channel's launch appeared in some Venezuelan newspapers, but there's been little follow-up since.

Beyond the logistical challenges in watching the channel and a lackluster program schedule (available for download as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet), there's another reason people may not be overly thrilled about HispanTV. The programming falls short not just of Western norms -- something that's unlikely to bother Ahmadinejad -- but also of more universal standards of fair reporting and quality.

News of Iran's recent advances in nuclear technology was delivered without any discussion of Washington's concerns about the weaponization of such technology or the sanctions on Tehran. As in Venezuela, where Chávez appears on state television for long periods, news segments aired Ahmadinejad's extended explanation of his decision to personally lower fuel rods into a nuclear reactor, with no criticism.

This uncritical approach applies to Tehran's allies as well. A report two weeks ago on Chávez's new round of cancer treatment failed to mention the chaos that could result from the Venezuelan leader's deteriorating health, just as the opposition has chosen a candidate to challenge Chávez in October.

News presenters, meanwhile, doled out criticism of Washington and Wall Street by Occupy Wall Street protesters even as the movement recedes from U.S. headlines, and they gave airtime to anti-capitalist demonstrations in places such as Athens and London.

All this isn't to say that HispanTV is entirely lacking in depth. The channel's 35 correspondents appear to be experienced journalists, not Iranians who have simply been thrown a Spanish-language textbook. Recently, HispanTV aired reports on the Greek debt crisis from Athens, a Middle East conference from Moscow, a deadly train crash from Buenos Aires, and efforts to reconstruct buildings destroyed by the Israeli military from Gaza. "What other Spanish-language channel has correspondents in Afghanistan, in Syria?" Mahmud Alizadeh, who heads up HispanTV's Spain operations, recently asked El País.

HispanTV also features films, documentaries, and various "series." During the day these are generally of poor quality. An old historical drama, Joseph, the Prophet, dubbed into Spanish resembles biblical epics such as In the Beginning.

In the evening, however, the channel comes into its own, ramping up quality just as Western channels do. One program follows a young Iranian man to England, where he is studying at London's Islamic School and searching for the "obvious" Muslim woman to marry. Another documentary describes Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic Revolution -- a history program resembling Joseph the Prophet but with less subtle political overtones. Cinema Against the Current, an offbeat movie review program, discusses films such as Reel Bad Arabs (a look at how Hollywood vilifies Arabs) and resembles any late-night British or U.S. equivalent, with trendy panelists backed by a stylish studio and graphics.

The leitmotif running throughout HispanTV's programming is one that highlights the threatening hegemony of the United States and Israel coupled with the suffering of the Arab world at their hands. Here are images of Palestinian women wailing over a copy of the Quran. There is George W. Bush, spewing swaggering, warmongering rhetoric.

Although the channel has been described as an effort to bridge cultural gaps between Iran and the Americas and complement Ahmadinejad's work in building ties with the region, the programming seems to preach to the converted: Iranians who have immigrated to the Spanish-speaking world. And, as the diners at Persepolis were all too aware, there is a wealth of better Iranian content for them to enjoy. "These channels are generally not successful because people are not stupid and they know perfectly well who is behind the channels," explains journalist Hugh Miles, who authored a book about Al Jazeera in 2005. "Everyone is wise to their reputation."

So what, then, is the real purpose of HispanTV? The channel, of course, is still maturing and could, for all we know, one day blossom into an Al Jazeera of sorts. But a more critical eye wonders whether HispanTV is nothing but a Washington-facing facade, covering up the fact that, in reality, the links between Iran and Latin America are not as strong as Tehran -- and perhaps Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Cuba -- would like.

Tehran's links with Latin America are lubricated by oil, and the countries that Ahmadinejad visited during his trip to the region in January -- oil exporters Ecuador and Venezuela and oil importers Cuba and Nicaragua -- reflected that reality. These governments have something else in common: a vitriolic hatred of the United States and the injustice they believe it espouses, spurred on by their left-wing, revolutionary fervor.

Brazil -- once seen as rather friendly toward Tehran -- was notably absent from Ahmadinejad's itinerary, as were Argentina and Mexico. Any Iranian links to the region are weak without the friendship of Latin America's three economic and political powerhouses, as is an Iranian television channel that doesn't do much to bridge this gap except broadcast in the correct language (except, of course, in Portuguese-speaking Brazil). HispanTV has much work to do in building relations with the region and making Washington fret about creeping Iranian influence in the Americas. For now, HispanTV appears to be little more than a scarcely watched, awkwardly dubbed vessel for Iranian propaganda.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images