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Happy birthday China

China's Communist Party turns 90, and is showing its age, but faces some formidable challenges.

Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" has been shelved, and songs of revolutionary fervour - "The East is Red"anyone? - seldom blare from comrades' radios or TVs. But as China's Communist Party turns 90 today, the world's largest political party is showing its age.

Success in modern China is dominated by party affiliation; many aspects of business and politics are connected to the Politburo elite. And while once highly hierarchical, political power is now so diffuse and competitive that getting anything done is a chore.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has sounded keen to change this. As he said in London this week, China must embrace reforms - or suffer the people's wrath. "Without democracy, there is no socialism," Mr Wen said. "Without freedom, there is no real democracy."

Making good on these views has proven a challenge in the past (he said about the same thing last year). Human rights violations continue, minorities are sidelined and China's vision of economic equality has long been left in the dustbin of history. And while Mr Wen's desire to usher in change may be genuine, his ability to do so is limited by the size and sclerotic nature of the party, not to mention his impending retirement.

For a political engine that built itself on the back of peasant labourers, today may indeed be a day worthy of celebration. But like any party, not everyone will want to be invited.

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