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In China, Change Could Be Coming

This column was written by CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen.

Is the Party over?

In China, the Communist Party was once everything. Today, it is still the main and only political apparatus, and it punishes, jails, beats and kills those who oppose it.

But the reality is that many Chinese are losing interest in it.

First, let's be clear: China is a lot like America. No one region represents it all, just as people in Kansas might argue that their vision of America has little relation to that of La-La Land California. And vice-versa.

So let's break China in two.

COASTAL: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong -- rich places, getting richer faster, where the construction cranes labor seven days a week.

Here, the young generation has wants: better housing, a new car, a good and interesting job, freedom to be an entrepreneur, freedom to travel in and out of China and -- what the hell? -- a country club membership and a low golf handicap.

If you think this is a joke, come to China and hit the country clubs on the weekends. The new rich are there. And they're hard at work on the lower handicap.

There was a theory that a richer China would create a generation more liberal and more demanding of democracy. But this post-Tiananmen Square 1989-protest generation grew up with no great interest in politics.
Politics, many feel, is a bunch of old guys on TV -- the past. This generation seems far more focused on making money and yearns not for more democracy but a bigger apartment and a wider-screen TV.

It's as if they made a deal with the devil: The Party and politicians can do as they please as long as I'm richer today than I was yesterday and will be richer tomorrow that today.

THE INTERIOR: Inside China, there are, among others, 900 million peasants. There are tiny villages where a farm family earning $1,000 a year is doing very well. And it is here, oddly enough, that the Communist Party may be in real trouble. Here, indifference has given way to outright antagonism.

We recently visited with activist Yang Maodong. He is involved in a peasant protest at a small village where farmers gave up their land, but allegedly corrupt local officials kept the compensation that farmers were promised for the land. It's a battle -- riots, hunger strikes and all -- against what farmers see as official corruption.

"The Party," Yang told me, "has lost the ability to mobilize people in the basic legal system of society." The farmers and peasants revolted AGAINST the local leaders (who are the local face of the Party) for being corrupt.

A few years ago a peasant protest would be put down, no questions asked, no information available. But through the Internet, Mr. Yang has spread the word. And there are other protests out there daily. How ironic -- the Party that came to power as a peasant revolt could end up losing power because the peasants are turning against its corruption and distance from ordinary people.

We asked Dr. Kenneth Lieberthal, former advisor to Pres. Bill Clinton on Asian issues, and a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, if the Party is over. He is one of America's foremost experts on China and its inner workings.

Lieberthal points out that the Party still controls the bureaucracy, which means jobs, right down to who will run the local village library. "That still gives the party enormous clout." But he adds:

"The issue is whether the Party will develop ways to reduce the alienation that so many feel -- over corruption, illegal land takings, environmental insults, social and economic inequality -- or whether social unrest will grow to the point that the Party can no longer monopolize power."

Can such a change happen in so vast a country as China? For this, we remember the former Soviet Union, once dominated by the Communist Party. When change came, it happened quickly and decisively. The Communist Party vanished so completely it was actually outlawed.

The Party in China is a creaking structure, pockmarked with corruption, increasingly irrelevant, and, in some cases, actually counter-productive to most daily lives. It is dogged by a loss of faith and growing lack of faithful.

Is the Party over? The proper answer may well be, not if –- but when.