YAN'AN, China — Participants leave glowing with newfound optimism. They rave about their two-week stay in ways that may sound like describing a yoga retreat or a mental wellness session.
The participants are Chinese Communist Party cadres, however, and they are talking about the China Executive Leadership Academy in Yan'an, in the Shaanxi province, one of the country's leading party schools teaching Communist history and socialism-inspired management theory.
Part MBA, part bible study in tone, the schools are an important component in a vast, ongoing political experiment: how to keep the ideological flame burning bright 100 years after the party's founding.
"Going to party school was a sort of building of the esprit de corps -- forming your personal identification with the collective of the party and also your fellow party members," says Frank Pieke, a professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has studied the schools extensively.
As it marks its centennial this month, the Communist Party is keenly aware that it must stay relevant among a generation of cadres too young to have direct experience with the party's headier, more hardscrabble revolutionary days.
Party schools — a Leninist institution the Chinese revolutionaries directly borrowed from their Soviet mentors — have long been a mainstay for party leaders intent on indoctrinating members of a sprawling Communist bureaucracy. The first school was started in 1933 — today there are about 3,000 across the country.
Each month, hundreds of midlevel party officials and state business executives cycle through the campus of the Yan'an Executive Leadership Academy. The architecture's sandy arches are designed to mimic the caves carved straight into the cliffs that Communist soldiers lived in for 13 years while headquartered in Yan'an city.
For many far-flung cadres, the academy's most important function is to get a sense of what top leaders in Beijing want from them. It is an honor to be plucked out of the Chinese Communist Party's 90 million members and invited to the leadership academy. Periodic booster courses at party schools also serve to replenish the fervor that inevitably diminishes with time.
"I came here to charge my batteries," says Song Jiazhong — meaning, to invigorate his belief in the party. Song normally writes policy as a mid level cadre for the Heilongjiang provincial government, but he took time off for a two-week refresher course on what the party calls the "Spirit of Yan'an" — a catchphrase for frugality and dedication to the common people.
"Studying our revolutionary ancestors stimulates our motivation for work, and strengthens our sense of responsibility and our sense of meaning," says Song.
Yan'an was chosen as the site for one of the country's three executive leadership academies because it was the Communist wartime capital and where Chairman Mao Zedong solidified control over the party through sometimes violent purges.
Each academy specializes in using the region's history to create crash courses in Communist management theory — teaching a curriculum akin to the seven habits of successful cadres, if you will.
One of these habits? Work harder.
"The Communist Party grew strong while headquartered in Yan'an, despite the horrible and arduous living conditions here," says Zhou Shanshan, a cadre who has done two stints at the academy. "We need to recapture that original spirit of wholehearted service."
Another good habit: The people's interests come first. Academy instructor Wang Zhongcang offers this example of Mao's soldiers who, in the 1930s, heard one particular Yan'an village was chronically ill from dirty water.
"The Communist cadres immediately put down their guns and walked dozens of kilometers to find a clean water source and channel it to the village. The villagers were so happy Chairman Mao had not forgotten the poor," Wang lectures.
And the most important habit of all? Never doubt the Communist Party.
"The party was founded during one of the most difficult times in history, and over the last century it has led the people on the party's own path that it carved out through struggle," says academy instructor Fang Jianmei.
The Yan'an academy focuses on teaching actionable lessons in Marxist law and economics, but their relevance to modern-day governance can sometimes feel distant. Far more important than teaching skills, however, is the academy's emphasis on imparting the "spirit" of various Communist doctrines.
Professor Wang has dedicated his entire life to parsing party history and for him, it has become a guiding light on how to live his life.
"Your body can join the party. But it is your soul that also should join the party. The latter requires you to embody the party's mission and character," he explains. "This requires a lifetime of self-cultivation to reach the ultimate requirement: sacrificing everything at a moment's notice for the party and for the people."
Debate used to be encouraged
Over the last seven decades of its rule, the Chinese Communist Party transitioned from fomenting revolution to training bureaucrats capable of day-to-day governance.
Party schools became important sites where classmates could debate new political ideas and be retrained as China's economy became less centrally planned and more capitalist.
"In after-class discussions, people could raise detailed questions about the class content ... that might touch upon how the party governs and its party politics," says Cai Xia, a former professor who taught at Beijing's Central Party School. "Teachers liberated in thought could create liberated students."
That air of open discussion diminished somewhat when Xi Jinping became the school's director. After six years, he stepped down from the position in 2013 to become the current chairman of the Communist Party.
Cai retired in 2012 after teaching for 15 years. Today, she says party schools have become tightly controlled institutions meant more to propagate the official line of thinking. Teachers are now rated by their students more on the basis of their political stance than they are on the quality of their instruction.
"No one dared challenge the central line," says Cai. "If you leaned towards independent thought, then you might be accused of 'liberal thinking.' But if you focused on teaching class struggle, revolution, protecting the party's leadership, all these politically correct ideas, then you had no problems. Doing so was like an insurance policy for teachers."
When asked about Cai, teachers at the Yan'an academy say they have never heard of her and assure NPR that everyone is encouraged to air their opinions openly and without fear of reprisal at party schools.
Yet after speeches and essays of hers began circulating online, Cai felt threatened enough to leave China for the U.S. and was officially expelled from the Communist Party soon after for "making remarks that have serious political problems."
As primary training grounds, party schools have now become bulwarks against challenging the official historical narrative. "Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and convictions wavered," Xi said in an internal December 2012 speech, warning against straying from the central line.
"For this reason, Xi is now driving everything in precisely the opposite direction — eliminating what limited space had existed on the margins of academia and media for meaningful discussion and ramping up campaigns to force cadres to study officially approved versions of party history, versions which increasingly assign a larger role to Xi himself," says Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese politics at Fordham University in New York.
The Yan'an academy pedagogy surrounding the 1942 Yan'an rectification movement is telling. The movement was a three-year political purge of thousands of Communist cadres, many of them falsely accused of spying or ideological complacency. Some victims were hounded so viciously by their colleagues, they later took their own lives.
A few of those persecuted have since been rehabilitated, but the Yan'an academy teaches the rectification movement as a necessary evil — perhaps too wide in scope, but ultimately needed for strengthening the party.
"If we did not unify political thought and action beforehand, we would not have the mature understanding of land reform we had, or defeated the Japanese," says He Hailun, a Yan'an history professor. "The more we are challenged, the better."
John Ruwitch contributed to this story from California and Amy Cheng contributed from Beijing.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
To China now, where the ruling Communist Party mounted a revolution, then won a civil war more than 70 years ago. These days, on the eve of its 100th birthday, the Communist Party is trying to keep its revolutionary spirit alive by sending its cadres or members to party history bootcamp. NPR's Emily Feng visited one of these elite party academies and brings us this story.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The director of the Yan'an Executive Leadership Academy strolls through its sandy-colored campus. Its arches are designed to mimic the caves carved straight into the cliffs that communist soldiers lived in for 13 years here while headquartered in Yan'an city. The party fled here in the 1930s after a grueling journey on foot. It used the remoteness of Yan'an for protection against the Japanese and to regroup so they could best a rival political party later on.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: Nearby, about 40 cadres unfold little plastic stools outside a cave Chairman Mao Zedong once lived in. They're getting a lecture today on how the chairman won support from the people of Yan'an in the 1930s.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: The pedagogical style is somewhere in between that of a Bible study and that of a business school. It's an honor to be plucked out of the Chinese Communist Party's roughly 90 million members and invited to the Leadership Academy. The idea is to use case studies drawn from party mythology to inspire present-day members.
SONG JIAZHONG: (Non-English language spoken).
FENG: "I came here to charge my batteries," says Song Jiazhong, meaning to invigorate his belief in the party. Song normally writes policy as a mid-level party official with the Heilongjiang provincial government. But he's taken time off for a two-week refresher course on what the party calls the spirit of Yan'an, shorthand for frugality and dedication to the common people.
SONG: (Through interpreter) Studying our revolutionary ancestors stimulates our motivation for work and strengthens our sense of responsibility and our sense of meaning.
FENG: There are three such executive leadership academies across China. Yan'an was chosen as one because it was the Communist Party's wartime capital. Each of these three academies specializes in using the surrounding region's history to create crash courses in communist management theory, teaching a curriculum akin to the seven habits of successful cadres, if you will. One of these habits - work harder. Here's Zhou Shanshan, a cadre who's done two stints at the academy.
ZHOU SHANSHAN: (Through interpreter) The Communist Party grew strong while headquartered in Yan'an, despite the horrible and arduous living conditions here. We need to recapture that original spirit of wholehearted service.
FENG: Another good habit - the people's interests come first. Instructor Wang Jhongcang offers this example of Mao's cadres, who, in the 1930s, heard that one particular Yan'an village was chronically ill from dirty water.
WANG JHONGCANG: (Through interpreter) The communist cadres immediately put down their guns and walked dozens of miles to find a clean water source and channel it to the village. The villagers were so happy Chairman Mao had not forgotten the poor.
FENG: And the most important habit of all - never doubt the Communist Party. Here's instructor Fang Jianmei.
FANG JIANMEI: (Through interpreter) The party was founded during one of China's most difficult times and led its people on a unique path that it carved out for itself through a century of struggle.
FENG: Admittedly, the party's history may not be incredibly useful for modern-day governing. But for many far-flung cadres, the academy's most important function is actually to get a sense of what top leaders in Beijing want from them and to rekindle the spiritual fire that inevitably diminishes with time. Professor Wang Jhongcang has dedicated his entire life to parsing party history. And for him, it's become a guiding light on how to live his life.
WANG: (Through interpreter) Your body can join the party, but it's your soul that also should join the party. The latter requires you to embody the party's mission and character. This requires a lifetime of self-cultivation to reach the ultimate requirement - sacrificing everything at a moment's notice for the party and for the people.
FENG: All of this sounds great on paper, of course. And the communists did win a civil war, then maintained their control over a one-party state. But the task of running that state and managing 1.4 billion people - that remains their biggest challenge.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Yan'an, China. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.