Today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates its official centenary. Official because there is some evidence to indicate that July 1 was “picked” as the date of the Party’s founding in 1941, 20 years after the fact.
Internal party documents indicate that the handful of men who gathered in Shanghai in 1921 to establish the CCP met instead from July 23 to 31. We also know that other gatherings had taken place in several cities during the second half of 1920.
From such muddled beginnings, the CCP has grown to become the second largest party in the world. Its nearly 92 million members are only dwarfed by the BJP’s claimed figure of 180 million. But unlike in the case of the BJP, recruitment into the CCP is an extremely competitive process. In 2014, only 2 million out of 22 million hopefuls were accepted (by contrast, the BJP’s massive recruitment drive in 2019 netted 70 million new members – so we are told).
And since 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was founded, the CCP and the Chinese state have become increasingly intertwined. As my colleague Daniel Koss has shown, the result is a massive party with a committed membership that has deep roots in the society it governs. It would not be a stretch to say that it is today the most socially entrenched party in the world.
As centenaries go, there is much the CCP can celebrate. Two types of success are especially incontrovertible. The first is economic. Since the late 1970s, the CCP has overseen the most remarkable period of economic growth in history. According to IMF data, China’s GDP measured in PPP terms has increased a mind-boggling 80 times from 1980 to 2020 (the corresponding numbers for India and the United States are 24 and 7).
Put differently, during this time, 800 million people have been lifted out of poverty – the most dramatic generational change in people’s livelihood in history. The economic historian Angus Maddison estimated that China’s share of the world economy peaked at 30% in about 1800. It then entered a long period of decline, reaching its nadir around 1950. Since then it has climbed steadily and is at approximately 20% today.
The second type of success is that of resilience. In its 100-year history, the CCP has faced and overcome a host of existential challenges. In 1927, its rank and file were decimated by Chiang Kai-shek.
Three decades later it engineered the worst famine the world has seen. During the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s designated successor Lin Biao died mysteriously in a plane crash, having failed to carry out a coup against the Chairman.
In 1989, the People’s Liberation Army attacked and reportedly killed several hundred peaceful protesters in Beijing. And most recently, many predicted that Covid-19 would be the CCP’s Chernobyl moment.
Survival through such crises has been secured thanks to the party’s chameleon-like adaptability, its control over historical narratives, and through its selective repurposing of aspects of China’s ancient traditions. It continues to proscribe and reshape people’s memories and, in certain specific cases, completely elides any discussion of embarrassing missteps.
This survival puts the CCP in a rarified zone among single party authoritarian states. Among large parties, its durability is exceptional and has now far outstripped its one-time role model, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
As a result, today, a sense of celebration, confidence, and even destiny pervades the party and, by extension, the Chinese people. Articulated in phrases such as the China Dream, there is a sense that the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” will see China regain its historically dominant position in the world.
Successes and dreams notwithstanding, the CCP is also confronted by a host of new challenges. Common sense and historical experience suggest that the frenetic pace of economic growth is unsustainable. Already the strategies that generated that growth – most notably a reliance on manufacturing and exports – are no longer tenable.
As the CCP attempts a transition to greater domestic consumption and a larger role for the tertiary sector, it must deal with other sources of instability. These include a rapidly ageing population, ever-increasing inequality, criminal strategies of ethnic homogenisation – most notably in Xinjiang – and an increasingly belligerent foreign policy.
Looming over them all is the spectre of an environmental crisis. As the world’s largest polluter and the world’s largest investor in green technologies, China is at once antagonist and protagonist.
The prognosis of these widely recognised challenges will depend on two factors. The first is the dominance of an overwhelmingly technocratic mindset within the party that is rooted in its STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fundamentalism. Technocracy’s well-known advantages are accompanied by glaring weakness, none more pertinent than the disdain for a more humanistic understanding of society and its messiness.
The second factor, of more recent vintage, is an almost complete centralisation of pomp and power in the person of Xi Jinping. Many recent excesses, such as the policies in Xinjiang or the massive crackdown on civil society, are attributable to a combination of these two factors.
In a 2012 speech, Xi had spoken of not one but two portentous centenaries. The first is already upon us. The second will arrive in 2049, when the People’s Republic of China turns 100. How the CCP negotiates its way to that centenary will significantly shape the world we inhabit.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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