Seventy-five years ago, China’s Communist Party began its revolution in the Shaanxi town of Yan’an. As the party prepares for a once-in-a-generation change, on November 8, its roots in the provincial city cast a shadow over its transition.

Yan’an is a dusty city in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi, which sits amid sandstone-coloured mountains and valleys of cornfields. Every year, a few million Chinese descend on a northern suburb, Yangjialing, which has become an unlikely tourist destination.

The main avenue to Yangjialing is lined with construction sites. Workers squat by the side of the road, taking deep puffs on their cigarettes as they loudly spit into the crumbling pavement. The only restaurant in sight is a run-down, untidy noodle café that offers just one dish on its menu (beef noodles).

Yan’an’s deficiencies as a holiday destination — there are many — did not deter the Zhang family, who travelled 700 km (10 hours on a cramped, sleeper bus) just to take in Yangjialing’s sights. For the oldest member of the Zhang tribe, an 82-year-old whom I’ll call Liwu, the journey was of particular significance. It was in Yangjialing where, 75 years ago, China’s Communist Party launched the revolution that brought it to power.

For 12 years, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and other leaders lived here, carving out homes in the caves of Yangjialing’s dusty Loess mountains, which provided them protection from Japanese air raids. Thousands of Chinese travel to Yan’an every day to pay tribute to Mao and other leaders; to acknowledge, as one signboard describes, “the bitter hardships suffered” by the revolutionaries and “the Yan’an spirit”. For Zhang Liwu, however, the journey was far more personal.

I sat with Liwu on a park bench, a stone’s throw away from the cave homes once inhabited by Mao and Zhou Enlai, the former Premier. Liwu was amused by the chaos and commotion, expecting a far more sober scene for a site of such historical significance. A young Chinese couple posed, with wide grins, sitting on the foot of a bed where Zhou Enlai once slept, holding up ‘V signs’ for a camera. They wore matching bright, yellow shirts, and the girl carried a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Outside the cave, the leader of a tour group bellowed instructions into a megaphone. “Travellers from Hunan! Red caps! Stand on the left! Shaanxi! Yellow caps! Stand on the right!” A group of tourists posed in front of a photograph of a young Mao taken by the journalist Edgar Snow. A sign above the photograph read “tong xin, tong de” (of one heart and one mind), a call to unify the party. Nearby, half a dozen hawkers had set up shop, selling everything from Mao Zedong cigarettes — “only 30 Yuan for a taste of the Yan’an spirit!” — to posters of Mao, Zhou Enlai and the former President Liu Shaoqi, who was later purged by Mao — “Mao Zedong, only 50 Yuan! Zhou Enlai, 40 Yuan! Liu Shaoqi, 35 Yuan!”

As bemused as he was by the scene, Liwu was still moved by his experience of walking through the caves where his country’s founding fathers once lived. “It was nice to see the houses they lived in, their simplicity, the hard condition of their lives,” he said. “They lived in such a difficult situation then. It reminded me of what we have gone through. Our lives are better today, in terms of what we eat, where we live. But I wanted to come here to understand how we arrived at where we are today.”

Zhang Liwu joined the 91-year-old Communist Party of China (CPC) when he was only in his twenties; he has been a party member for more than half a century. He lived through the famine triggered by Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and survived the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Working as a provincial government official in the province of Shanxi, Liwu witnessed first-hand the turnaround in the country’s fortunes three decades ago, when China, under Deng Xiaoping, embraced its “reform and opening up” and turned its back on Maoism.

When Liwu grew up, his family didn’t have enough to eat. He had relatives who lost their lives in the 1958 famine inflicted on the country by Mao. His son isn’t extraordinarily wealthy but is comfortably well-off; he works at a bank in Taiyuan and sends his son to a private school. The Zhang family goes on two holidays every year.

Better lives?

The Zhang family’s story is far from unusual in China, reflecting the remarkable rise in prosperity in just one generation. Yet, today, Liwu, and many others in his generation, look back with only fondness — and a surprising sense of longing — to the troubled decades that marked the founding of their country.

“Are our lives better now?” Liwu repeated the question I posed to him. “Those days were hard, no doubt. Today we do not lack anything. I can eat meat every day.” He paused and reflected. “But if I had to answer your question, I would say those days were better. We had less, but we felt more satisfied. Everyone was poor, not like today where there is so much inequality. People have more, but they are also less satisfied.”

Liwu reflected on his last days working for the provincial government. “You wouldn’t believe the corruption!” he said. “Look at how the leaders lived in Yan’an. But today’s officials are out of touch with reality; they live luxurious lives, they have fancy cars, they live in beautiful houses. Look at what happened to Bo Xilai!” Liwu was just getting warmed up, but his son cut in. He told his father off for giving a foreigner “a bad impression of China”. Liwu apologised with a smile and walked away with his son.

On November 8, the CPC will embark on a transition that will usher in the fifth generation of its leadership. The party has come a long way from the days of Yan’an. Today, with a membership of 81 million, it is the world’s largest political organisation. In six decades as China’s ruling party, the CPC has presided over bloody wars, a four-year-long famine that claimed 30 million lives, a decade of turmoil unleashed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution, and 30 years of unprecedented economic growth, where it sought to right its wrongs and lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The CPC, today, faces no serious threat to its rule and enjoys legitimacy derived from the country’s rapid economic development and three decades of stability.

But the party’s leadership transition, this year, has been far from smooth. In recent months, the CPC has been grappling with the biggest political scandal it has been faced with in decades, which embarrassed the party ahead of its transition.

Bo Xilai, a powerful politician and member of the 25-member Politburo, was expelled from the party in September over corruption charges, and also accused of covering up the murder of a British business associate of the Bo family by Gu Kailai, Bo’s wife. The CPC is also facing growing calls to push forward economic and political reforms with party leaders, including outgoing President Hu Jintao, warning of rampant corruption and widening inequality as pressing challenges to its rule.

“The Chinese people have a bigger expectation than ever before for meaningful reforms,” Qiao Mu, an outspoken professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told me. “The Bo Xilai case has shown the need for transparency; it has shown us that a leader could rise to the very top despite many corruption problems.”

Last year, Qiao Mu took his calls for reforms outside his classroom by putting himself forward as an independent candidate to contest local-level elections. In China’s one-party system, elections are allowed only at the lowest level of government, in villages and in local communities where, according to the law, any citizen can run for office. Qiao stood against his boss — the university’s Vice President and the party-backed candidate — and ran the first ever full-fledged election campaign in the university’s history.

Qiao said his aim was to sensitise his students about their political rights ahead of the leadership transition. Qiao does not see himself as a dissident; he believes China needs gradual reforms, which the CPC should itself bring forward. Qiao was heartened by the response to his campaign; dozens of students volunteered to help. He shocked the university by visiting every dormitory, knocking on every door along with his wife and asking students about their problems. Unnerved, the local Public Security Bureau, or police authority, put a stop to his campaign. All their banners were taken down and students were told to stop volunteering.

The resourceful professor, undeterred, took his campaign to the Internet, and soon amassed tens of thousands of followers on a popular Chinese Twitter equivalent, Sina Weibo, which has some 300 million users. Qiao said his campaign reflected both the appetite for change in today’s China and the system’s resistance to it.

“The dilemma for the party is that if it does not carry out political reforms, it knows it will be awaiting death. And if it does bring about political reforms, it will probably be seeking its own death.”

The princeling

When China’s President and the General Secretary of the CPC, Hu Jintao, steps down on November 8 at the party’s 18th Congress, he is expected to be succeeded by Xi Jinping, a politician with deep roots to Yan’an. Xi, like the disgraced politician Bo Xilai, is a member of the party’s aristocracy — a “princeling”, as he is known in China.

The fathers of Xi and Bo were part of a group of leaders known as the “eight immortals”, revolutionaries who emerged later as influential leaders. Xi Zhongxun, a liberal leader, was purged during the Cultural Revolution, when the younger Xi spent seven years in Liangjiahe, a small village that is a few hours’ drive from Yan’an He was one of the millions of youth sent down to work in the countryside.

I followed the road from Yan’an that young Xi would have taken when he set out in search of Liangjiahe. The road — which, like most roads in rural China, is paved immaculately — takes you through corn fields, winding through red Loess mountains and past small villages. Liangjiahe lies at the end of a narrow, sandy path that runs from the expressway. It is a small village of only a few dozen households. Old women and men work in the corn fields; every young hand had left the village to find work in the bustling provincial capital of Xian or in Beijing.

Xi's challenge

The few villagers I spoke to recalled fondly Xi’s time in Liangjiahe and Yan’an. “He was like any one of us,” said one lady in her eighties. “He could eat bitterness,” she said, using a popular Chinese phrase — “che ku” meaning “eating the bitter” — that describes the tolerance Chinese people have for hardship.

Xi’s biggest challenge — according to Zhang Chunhou, a professor at Yan’an University — will be tackling the corruption problem, rising inequalities and growing unrest at the grassroots. “His years in Liangjiahe will have given him a clear idea about the big gap between urban and rural areas,” Zhang said.

But little is known about Xi the individual; some liberal scholars have predicted, more out of hope than based on any evidence, that he will be a reformer like his father. Zhang said he will likely be a “moderate” leader who would carry forward the line adopted by the previous administration. “Any leader is trained by the party for a long time,” he said. “Whoever they are, they become part of the system”.

Qiao Mu studied with Xi in Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University, where they were both in the political science department. Qiao recalled he was a friendly and open student. As a leader climbing through the ranks, Xi gained a reputation as a balancer; someone who got along with all of the party’s competing factions.

Zhang told me that he hoped Xi would remember the party’s roots in Yan’an. “I hope Xi Jinping will learn from his time here,” he said. “In the 1930s, during its time in Yan’an, the party was disciplined and friendly to the people because it was competing with the Kuomintang. The CPC was careful about its behaviour. Today, it may be the ruling party,” he added, “but that is a lesson it cannot afford to forget”.