One hundred years ago this month, a group of young men gathered in Shanghai and founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). That tattered dozen had no idea that the body they were melting would turn into a machine that would rule over a quarter of humanity. Today, the CCP rules a country of 1.3 billion people with cities dotted with skyscrapers. It maintains some of the most entrepreneurial cultures of technological and economic innovation in the world, while ruthlessly suppressing political dissent. Mao Zedong, one of these founders, liked to discuss the Marxist concept of “contradictions”. There are many contradictions in the CCP today.
First of all, the Chinese Communist Party rules one of the most capitalist countries on the planet. The days of the Soviet-style managed economy are long gone, abolished by the initiatives of Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping and his protégé, Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, to create “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – in fact. in other words, a market economy in which the state would always play a major role, but as a facilitator of capitalism rather than as its destroyer. In the 2000s, a later leader, Jiang Zemin, officially welcomed business leaders into the party. Today is a party that wears business suits, not jumpsuits. But it’s still a very masculine party; while there are more and more women leaders at lower levels, the closer you get to the Politburo, the less there is. China’s business elite has a significant number of women; its political elite, much less.
One characteristic that has not changed since the 1920s is the party’s obsession with control and power. He spent much of his early decades fleeing his enemies, most notably the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) of Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese during World War II. The Long March of 1934-1935 became a legendary tale of heroism in the eyes of the party, but at the time it was a forced retreat in the face of almost certain defeat. The zero-sum nature of the party continued after 1949, when Mao brought the party to power, and there was never a real prospect of pluralist democracy under what is still a Leninist party. There have been periods of relative openness, such as the 1980s and early 2000s, but the party’s desire to remain in charge has always been its hallmark. The murder of hundreds of civilians in central Beijing in June 1989 was an indication that the CCP will never give up its use of force to protect its interests.
The party has a fascinating history, but you will read little 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 success of the party was to go so far when it was so threatened. Repeated infighting, in which cadres kill each other, has been a feature of much of the history of the party. The violence associated with intra-party purges such as the 1940s Rectification Movement has been healed, but they remain key moments in understanding why violence and obedience remain so central to the party. There is a lot of talk in today’s China about the party’s rise to power and its political and economic trickery. But it is much more difficult to discuss the terrible famine of the Great Leap Forward 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 world at large. The relationship with the United States is undoubtedly the most important and the most conflicting. The United States is seen not only as an economic and strategic competitor, but also as an ideological challenge: the CCP is still keen to present itself as a peaceful defender of non-interference, as opposed to the crazy-eyed America that Beijing portrays. largely in terms of the Iraq war and the excesses of the Trump years. Other countries are rated on the proximity or distance of their relationship to America. India’s recent moves to the Quad, where it would work more with the United States, Japan and Australia on defense issues, raised concerns in Beijing, which had become accustomed to seeing New Delhi as a rather passive actor. Expect to see a lot of language living around India’s new desire to play a regional role in Asia.
Leadership is also important to the party. The shift towards a much more authoritarian CCP did not start with Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012; things had gotten much colder even a few years ago. But there’s no doubt that Xi is a master of storytelling, with himself at the center. Xi sees himself as a figure destined to return China to the global role it last had under the Qing Emperors of the 18th century, and perhaps briefly under Mao in the mid-20th century. His instrument to achieve this is the Party, which he believes should control everything in China: in his words, “in the east, west, south, north and center, the Party rules everything.” Yet although Xi’s style and the promotion of his own personality remind many of Mao, in one important area the two are very different. Mao’s ultimate goal was the mobilization of his own people, an idea that ultimately led to the disaster of the Anarchic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Xi’s party does not share this desire. He wants China to rise up, but its people are supposed to have a Confucian relationship with its rulers, not a Maoist relationship. They must know their place, and be delighted to receive the benevolence attributed to them by the power of consumerism: new apartments, cell phones, vacations, good education. Xi’s party is doing business, but it’s technocratic and consumerist business, not dreams of revolution.
Firmly authoritarian, global in scope, consumerist aspiration and innovative in technology. The founders of the party could hardly imagine 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 the University of Oxford