A hundred years ago this month, a group of young men gathered in Shanghai and founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This ragged dozen had no idea that the body they were founding would turn into a machine that would rule over a quarter of humanity. Today, the CCP governs a country of 1.3 billion people with cities studded with skyscrapers. It maintains some of the most entrepreneurial cultures of technological and economic innovation on earth, while also ruthlessly repressing political dissent. Mao Zedong, one of those founders, was fond of discussing the Marxist concept of “contradictions”. There are contradictions aplenty in today’s CCP.
First of all, the Chinese Communist Party governs one of the most capitalist countries on earth. The days of the Soviet-style command economy are long gone, abolished by the moves of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and his protégé, party secretary Zhao Ziyang, to create “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — in other words, a market-driven economy in which the state would still play a major role, but as an enabler of capitalism rather than a destroyer of it. In the 2000s, a later leader, Jiang Zemin, would officially welcome business leaders to the party. Today it is a party that wears business suits, not boiler suits. But it is still a very male party; while there are growing numbers of women leaders at lower levels, the closer one gets to the Politburo, the fewer there are. China’s business elite has significant numbers of women; its political elite, far fewer.
One characteristic that has not changed since the 1920s is the party’s obsession with control and power. It spent much of its first few decades on the run from its enemies, notably the Nationalist (Kuomintang) party of Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese during World War II. The Long March of 1934-5 has become a legendary tale of heroism in the party’s eyes, but at the time it was a forced retreat in the face of near-certain defeat. The zero-sum nature of the party continued after 1949, when Mao brought the party to power, and there has never been any real prospect of a pluralist democracy under what is still a Leninist party. There have been times of relative openness, such as the 1980s and early 2000s, but the desire of the party to stay in command has always been its driving characteristic. The killing of hundreds of civilians in the centre of Beijing in June 1989 was an indication that the CCP will never give up its use of force to protect its interests.
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The party has a fascinating history but you will read little about much of it in China itself, where the past hundred years have become a hagiography of the historical inevitability of the CCP’s rise to power. In fact, the real achievement of the party was to go so far when it was so much under threat. Repeated infighting, in which cadres murdered each other, has been a feature of much of the party’s history. The violence associated with intra-party purges such as the Rectification Movement of the 1940s has been sanitised, but they remain key moments in understanding why violence and obedience remain so central to the party. There is much discussion in today’s China of the rise to power of the party and its political and economic astuteness. But it is much harder to discuss the terrible Great Leap Forward famine of 1958-62, the product of a failed economic experiment that killed 20 million or more people through starvation.
The CCP also thinks long and hard about its relationship with the wider world. The relationship with the US is, bar none, its most important and most fractious. The US is regarded not just as an economic and strategic competitor, but also an ideological challenge: The CCP is always keen to portray itself as a peaceful advocate of non-interference, as opposed to a wild-eyed America which Beijing portrays largely in terms of the Iraq War and the excesses of the Trump years. Other countries are assessed in terms of the closeness or distance of their relationships with America. India’s recent moves toward the Quad, where it would work more with the US, Japan and Australia on defence issues, has raised hackles in Beijing, which had become used to thinking of New Delhi as a rather passive player. Expect to see plenty of lively language around India’s new desire to play a regional role in Asia.
Leadership matters for the party as well. The turn toward a much more authoritarian CCP did not start with Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012; things had turned much colder even a few years previously. But there is no doubt that Xi is a master of narrative, with himself at the centre. Xi sees himself as a figure destined to bring China back to the global role that it last had under the Qing emperors of the 18th century, and perhaps briefly under Mao in the mid-20th. His instrument for doing that is the party, which he argues should be in control of everything in China: In his words, “east, west, south, north, and centre, the Party leads everything.” Yet, although Xi’s style and promotion of his own personality remind many of Mao, in one important area, the two are very different. Mao’s ultimate goal was the mobilisation of his own people, an idea which led ultimately to the disaster of the anarchic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Xi’s party does not share that desire. It wants China to rise, but its people are supposed to have a Confucian relationship with their leaders, not a Maoist one. They should know their place, and be pleased to receive the benevolence assigned to them by the power of consumerism: New flats, mobile phones, vacations, good education. Xi’s party makes bargains, but they are technocratic and consumerist ones, not dreams of revolution.
Firmly authoritarian, global in scope, consumerist in aspiration, and innovative in technology. The party’s founders could scarcely have imagined what they had set in motion a hundred years ago.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 21, 2021 under the title ‘Making of a party state’. The writer is the author of China’s Good War: How World War II is Shaping a New Nationalism (HarperCollinsIndia). He teaches at Oxford University
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