A state with no intention of withering away

China's Communist Party is determined to remain in power

This coming week, we will be subjected to familiar images of old-style Communist China - 3,000 men in suits, plus the odd woman and ethnic-minority representative in a funny hat, at the annual session of the National People's Congress in Beijing. The arguments having already taken place behind the closed doors of Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound in the Forbidden City, the congress will be characterised by outward shows of loyalty and accord. If I could persuade someone to give me ten yuan every time a delegate congratulates President Hu Jintao or Premier Wen Jiabao on their efforts to create a "harmonious society", I'd be a better capitalist than they are.

Premier Wen will kick off with his yearly round-up of China's progress and prospects. He has already given us a hint: in an article last week he said, "China is and will remain in the primary stage of socialism for a long time."

Oh, really? I thought Marx said that socialism was a stage on the road from capitalism to communism, after private property is abolished but before the state withers away and utopia is achieved. Yet one of the main issues to be "debated" at the NPC is a new law to protect private property, as well as a statute designed to please multinationals by unifying corporate tax for foreign and domestic companies.

The demise of the Soviet Union, and with it the cold war, inspired Francis Fukuyama's concept of "the end of history". In China, Marxist history has gone into reverse - from communism to capitalism, inexorably. The Communist Party of China struggles to find the words to explain its policies without telling the truth - that it has abandoned ideology, replacing it with a mixture of nationalism, expediency and the determination to remain in power.

In 1997, Bill Clinton told the Chinese president Jiang Zemin, "You're on the wrong side of history." He believed that continued liberalisation of China's economy would "increase the spirit of liberty over time . . . I just think it's inevitable, just as inevitably the Berlin Wall fell." Wen Jia bao disagrees. "China will develop demo cracy in its own way," he wrote last week. "The country has the full capacity to establish a democratic nation governed by laws within the framework of the socialist system."

Roughly translated, that means we're doing it our way, and you lily-livered western liberals who think that now we've adopted your economic system we're going to buy your political prescriptions can think again.

China nods towards democracy with local elections and a few sham "non-communist" parties, but the Party controls everything, including the judiciary.

Many western thinkers, most recently Will Hutton in his book The Writing on the Wall, believe that China must adopt "Enlightenment values" to survive and prosper. They cite corruption, lack of accountability and a rise in rural protests about land expropriation as fundamentally destabilising factors. In the end, they say, the Communist Party cannot lead capitalist China. But, uncomfortable as it may be, authoritarianism has enabled the country's leadership to push through capitalist policies that have led to spectacular growth.

I do not agree with forcing peasants off their land to build factories, but I have to accept that those factories - developed by a corrupt elite of local officials and get-rich-quick business people - have been essential in lifting 400 million Chinese out of poverty in the past 25 years.

James Mann, who has covered China for 23 years, outlines three scenarios in his new book, The China Fantasy. "The Soothing Scenario" has China gradually opening up politically, the "Upheaval Scenario" has change provoked by popular unrest and the "Third Scenario", which he appears to think most likely, has the current leadership retaining control, managing domestic expectations and finessing international relations. Perhaps all three are wrong. At the coming congress, China's leaders will discuss the environment but it may be too late to stop the damage already caused by unfettered development.

According to the World Economic Forum, China uses three times as much energy as the global average to generate US$1 of GDP growth. The effect on the people in China and beyond is only now beginning to be understood.

That is maybe the lesson of history that we all have yet to learn.

Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for "Channel 4 News"

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery