Thousands of Chinese tourists are walking through the grounds of Prince Gong Mansion, an elegant palace in downtown Beijing, some of them youngsters dressed in expensive designer brands and peering at smartphones, others older visitors speaking in Hebei accents and wearing old-fashioned padded clothing.
When President Michael D Higgins visits China next week – details of his visit are expected to be announced today – he will find a country replete with familiar superlatives and statistics: the world's biggest population, at more than 1.3 billion people; a still simmering economy, despite a slowdown; the world's most successful communist state; and the world's biggest polluter.
China is a country where change has been wrought at an incredible pace, and this has led to unprecedented challenges, such as the yawning divide between rich and poor. This is a land where a sense of history runs deep but where the past is now making way for the relentless advance of progress at all costs.
The tourist-filled collection of palaces and gardens was named after Yixin, Prince Gong, who was the brother of the Xianfeng emperor; but, more notoriously, the mansion originally belonged to the fabulously corrupt He Shen. He was ousted after 24 years as a court favourite of the 18th-century Qianlong emperor, and investigators then discovered a treasure trove that exceeded even the wild extravagances of the imperial Forbidden City.
They found tens of thousands of gold and silver ingots, hundreds of European clocks, bolts of silk, even 24 solid gold beds, inlaid with jewels, on which to entertain his harem of 600 women.
The building’s history reflects China’s turbulent past, and at a time when the current president, Xi Jinping, is cracking down on corruption – this time among Communist Party, rather than Qing dynasty (1644-1911) officials – what happened in the Prince Gong palace resonates with visitors from all over China.
In 1921, a decade after the Qing dynasty collapsed and the imperial era ended, Prince Gong's grandson gave the property to the Benedictine Order, who restored it as Furen Catholic University. They were kicked out two years after the communist revolution, in 1951, and the property morphed into Beijing Normal University and then the Chinese Music Academy. During the Cultural Revolution, when academia was trashed by the Red Guards, the building was a factory. Since 1996, it's been a tourist attraction.
It is two years since Xi Jinping took over as president, Communist Party secretary general and head of the People’s Liberation Army, and a priority during those years has been to ensure that the excesses of the Qing dynasty should not find a contemporary equivalent at any level of the Communist Party. Anti-corruption efforts have targeted both low-ranking “flies” and powerful “tigers”.
Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political commentator, believes the crackdown has a basis in realpolitik.
“Xi’s crackdown on corruption has made him popular among the people and the officials. But the real purpose of the crackdown on pollution is to stabilise his position and the government’s ruling power,” says Zhang, who formerly worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and whose father was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution.
During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), 150,000 officials were executed for corruption, many having layers of skin sliced off as a warning to those who would choose the route of graft.
Bo Xilai trial
When former party rising star Bo Xilai went on trial, it was a highly public affair, and while his skin remained intact, he paid a heavy political price for his corruption and abuse of power. The former party boss of Dalian looked destined for the very top until a scandal set off by the poisoning of a British businessman,
, by Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai.
Now the focus has shifted to the corruption investigation into the former security tsar, Zhou Yongkang, who has his power base in the oil industry.
More than 65 years after it came to power, and with 80 million members, the Communist Party has probably never been so popular, although the organisation’s tight grip on all media, both the traditional forms and the hugely popular social networks, plus the absence of voting systems in China, means it’s impossible to tell just how popular that is.
The corruption campaign is popular among the people. “He [Xi Jinping] has arrested a lot of corrupt officials, even big tigers. It is good for the people. It builds up people’s confidence in the party and allows them to feel that they can still have hope in the Communist Party,” says Yong Feng (32), who works for a foreign pharmaceutical company. “When our son started at Chinese school in 2008, we had to pay a 20,000 yuan (€2,614) ‘donation’, which was not actually voluntary. When our daughter went there this year, there was no such fee.”
Contemporary and ancient
On show in the Prince Gong palace is an exhibition by the Chinese artist Luo Ying, who combines traditional ink and brush paintings of bamboo, birds and grass with thick lines that are juxtaposed on the image, a jarring but beautiful depiction of contemporary and ancient that says much about contemporary China.
“These are hard lines, like in a computer, as in technology,” she says. Her work is aimed at taking traditional ideas forward in contemporary China, where leaders consistently bemoan a lack of values, a missing moral compass.
Luo’s art chimes with these questions about where China is headed. The Communist Party, as a Marxist-Leninist organisation, is well aware of the importance of understanding history, and recent months have also seen a campaign against immoral behaviour, and promotion of China’s cultural strengths.
The fascination with the corruption of He Shen shows how important the issue is in China. For Xi, it’s a survival issue: “Facts tells us that the more severe the corruption problem becomes, it will ultimately lead the party and the nation to perish. We must be vigilant.”
Tomorrow: International relations: Clifford Coonan reports from Nanjing on how China is dealing with its growing regional political and diplomatic importance