By Rityusha Mani Tiwary
“All models are wrong, but some are useful” — this oft-quoted aphorism explains rather well the travails of the Communist Party of China (CPC). A 100 years old this year, the CPC is one of the few communist parties that have stayed on in power. Under President Xi Jinping — China’s most powerful leader since Mao — the party has found deeper roots across Chinese society. From a chaotic China in 1921 when the CPC was founded with just over 50 members to 2021 with 92 million-strong membership, which is about 6.6% of the Chinese population, the party has indeed come a long way. Sure, the years have seen many turbulent events, failed experiments and policies, yet the party persists.
Some of the developments in this journey proved to be historical landmarks and initiated debates globally. As the CPC celebrated its centenary on July 1 at Chang’an Avenue, Tiananmen Square, three questions of utmost significance arise: What sustains the CPC? What are its challenges and counter-strategies? Finally, what does it mean for the world? The answers to these questions can be in parts, reflected in its leadership and ideology changes, alongside its various triumphs and tribulations that define its challenges and strategies.
Ideology and Leadership
The CPC was founded by Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao in Shanghai, with the help from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Communist International. The Chinese civil war with Kuomintang — the dominant ruling party of China between 1928 and 1949 — and the second Sino-Japanese war (1927-1949) saw a victorious CPC, with Mao Zedong leading the formation of People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949.
In 1957, the CPC launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign against political dissent, resulting in mass political persecution. The campaign significantly damaged the limited pluralistic nature of the socialist republic. Further, the catastrophic results of the Second Five Year Plan from 1958 added to the woes of the CPC when it attempted to transform a predominantly agrarian China into an industrialised economy by the Great Leap Forward campaign, which resulted in millions of deaths due to famine.
During the 1960s and 1970s, the CPC experienced a significant ideological separation from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Mao’s emphasis on “continued revolution under the dictatorship of the proletariat” led to a mass purge of class enemies during the Cultural Revolution. Party leaders such as Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Peng Dehuai, and He Long were purged or exiled, and the Gang of Four came into power, led by Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife.
Following Mao’s death in 1976, a power struggle between CPC chairman Hua Guofeng and vice-chairman Deng Xiaoping erupted. Ultimately, Deng became the “paramount leader” in 1978, spearheading economic reforms while introducing the ideological concept of socialism with Chinese characteristics. While registering spectacular economic growth and retaining political power, the CPC’s new ideology saw contestations from both the Maoists and the liberals. Indeed, combined with social unrest due to corruption in CPC, unemployment, rising inflation and other social factors, the opposition to CPC culminated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The CPC leadership brutally crushed the demonstrations and resumed the economic opening up of China, introducing the concept of a socialist market economy. In 1997, ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ was embedded in the CPC constitution.
Under Jiang Zemin, the CPC’s leadership transformed from a veteran revolutionary leadership that was leading militarily and politically to a political elite increasingly nurtured and selected according to rules and norms of civil bureaucracy with particular emphasis on educational background, managerial and technical expertise. In addition, a separate group of professionalised military officers served under top CPC leadership through formal relationships.
In 2003, as Zemin’s legacy, the CPC revised its constitution, including “Three Represents” as the guiding ideology to represent “advanced productive forces, the progressive course of China’s culture, and the fundamental interests of the people.” However, this theory legitimised the entry of private business owners and bourgeois elements into the party.
The next successor, Hu Jintao, emphasised collective leadership and opposed one-person dominance of the political system, introducing the “Scientific Outlook on Development” and “Harmonious Socialist Society”.
Next in power, Xi Jinping, initiated a wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign while centralising forces in the office of CPC general secretary at the expense of the collective leadership of prior decades, consolidating his power quickly and effectively. The party added “Xi Jinping Thought” into its constitution in 2018 and removed the two-term limit for the President, due to which there are speculations that Xi may not retire in 2023. “Xi Jinping Thought” focuses on Marx and Mao, China’s place in history, strategic competition with capitalist nations, the goals of communism, and “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. It has been vigorously circulated in academic, cultural and public realms in China, making it all-pervasive. In addition, Xi has been championing a vision for China’s “rejuvenation” and pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, increasing tensions with the US.
An essential feature of CPC’s strategy has been to superimpose the party, the government and the nation in one mould. Indeed, the word “party” may be a misnomer for the CPC, as it bears no similarity to the types of political institutions in the West and is vastly different. Many Chinese scholars define it as a “state party.” It is organised on the principle of democratic centralism and captures power at all levels of government. China’s highest legislative body is the National People’s Congress which is convened in five years. Every five years, the CPC also convenes its National Party Congress to set key policies and select top leaders. During this time, members choose the Central Committee, which comprises around 370 members and alternates including ministers, senior regulatory officials, provincial leaders, and military officers. In addition, the Central Committee selects Politburo, which has 25 members. The Central Committee is in power when the National Congress is not in session, and the former meets once a year. Most of the duties and responsibilities of the government are vested in the Politburo of the CPC and its Standing Committee, whose members form the top leadership of the PRC. The Standing Committee currently has seven members, but membership has ranged from five to nine.
Holding the posts of general secretary (responsible for civilian party duties), Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) (responsible for military affairs), and State President (a largely ceremonial position), the party leader is the country’s supreme leader. As the chairman of CMC, President Xi oversees both the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the People’s Armed Police, focusing on internal security. Today, even though CPC has a United Front with eight minor parties, it controls the political power in its entirety. Political consultations, democratic supervision, organisation of member parties, representation from various ethnic groups and strata of society to discuss and manage state affairs are done by the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) under the CPC leadership.
Claiming it as a unique model of the party system, China officially calls it a “multi-party cooperation system” in a socialist democracy. Over 70% of the CCP’s nearly 92 million members are men. In 2019, over 42% of new members were women. Farmers and agricultural workers make up roughly 30% of its membership. Party leadership is decided through complex power alliances and negotiations among factions of retired leaders, incumbents, and the incoming elite class — the “princelings” and the “tuanpai” — those from humbler backgrounds.
Strategies and Challenges
Even though the party has managed to steer unprecedented economic success over the years, many challenges opened up. In the wake of the economic rise of China, the CPC has shown a commendable technocratic capacity to respond to developmental stresses. However, even though the party successfully lifted millions of people out of poverty, bringing social change and national pride, fears of social unrest are persistent.
Leaders share concerns of public outrage and activism over a host of issues such as income inequality, slowing economy, inadequate social security, environmental threats, land grabs, food safety and lack of consumer protection. These could threaten the party’s control and catalyse instability.
Moreover, despite being heavily censored in recent years, CPC’s control over political communication has been eroded by the internet and social media. To address these challenges and maintain stability and legitimacy, the party controls three strategic dimensions and therein lies its challenges too: governance performance, domestic political narrative, and an assertive foreign policy.
While corruption crackdowns are common following a transfer of power, Xi’s anti-corruption drive has targeted some two million officials, including high-level officials, or “tigers,” senior military figures, and lower-level party cadres, or “flies.” Though the anti-corruption campaigns have been popular among Chinese people, these present a governance hurdle due to a lack of cooperation by lower-level personnel who distrust and fear the party.
Moreover, public support is issue-based and not a blanket approval for all government’s policies. For instance, on environmental degradation and the country’s carbon footprint, the debates on social media show a considerable amount of public anger.
New Elites, Eroding Trust
Another fault-line is the emerging income inequality. The richest 10% own an increasing share of China’s total wealth, and the bottom 50% own less and less. Also, as middle-class and wealthy individuals and families grow in numbers, the CPC’s leadership faces a difficult choice as to how and whether to restrain the growing power of the new elite. China’s failure to accommodate the concerns of the minorities, especially the Uighurs, Tibetans, Mongols and Manchus, represents another challenge, and in this context, there are growing human rights concerns.
Trust issues against the CPC-led government have aggravated in the wake of the pandemic. First, public anger erupted over the government’s initial actions: ordinary citizens condemned the government’s slow response and its efforts to silence doctors who warned of the virus. Second, even though by mid-2020, China’s reported low case count and CPC gave a solid push to the narrative that its governing model is superior to democratic models, growing international calls for deeper investigation into the virus’ origin is taking the sheen off early victory over Covid.
In terms of setting and controlling the domestic political narrative, Xi’s latest speech on the occasion of the centenary celebrations of the CPC is as revealing as ever. Even as Xi declared earlier that China needs to improve its communication with the world, on July 1, he emphatically proclaimed that the socialist system with Chinese characteristics is in a new era under his leadership and only it can “save China”. While promising to grow the military to the best standards and safeguard China’s national interests at home and in the region (referring to stability in Hong Kong and assimilation of Taiwan); he further pledged that China would not accept preaching by others, and it would not be “bullied, oppressed, or subjugated”. Anyone who tries “will find them on a collision course with a steel wall forged by 1.4 billion people.”
Clearly, the animosity regarding the origin of the pandemic, the long-drawn tensions with the US and other developed nations over trade, fragile military balance in the East and South China Seas and Taiwan Strait and territorial disputes with neighbours determined the tone and tenor of this speech.
The cliché of China’s assertiveness is more than a decade old. Xi has given more explicit indications than his predecessors that China is seeking a central role on the global stage, commensurate with its economic and military power, and reshape, alter, and redefine the existing system to fit its interests better. Some key features of this desired new order are already visible in CPC’s current diplomatic practice: expanding alliances, finding new resources in the Belt and Road Initiative, maintaining power asymmetry with malleable bilateral and multilateral ties, strategic competition with the US and ambitious expansion of nation’s capabilities.
However, the domestic push for greater reform, development and stability, and the resolution of contradictions, risks, and challenges from a broader and longer-term perspective continue to occupy much of CPC’s efforts.
What these mean for the world
There will be not just traditional military rivalry with a risen China but an intense competition to ramp up and dominate the production of innovation infrastructure, which consists of the hard and soft assets to generate, disseminate and absorb new innovative knowledge. It is the next stage of competition and CPC’s push for massive investments in creating hard assets, like 5G connectivity or up-to-date airports, roads and train stations, as well as investments in soft assets, like training, skills, universities and other forms of human capital development, are already paying off in the pandemic, even as its demographic dividend has tapered off and economic slowdown has begun.
Another cause for concern is the exacerbation of security competition due to the increasing centralisation of power and opacity of decision-making and intention in China’s political structures. China is no longer an isolated and inward-looking country but a state whose decisions directly affect the rest of the world. While there had been hopes that China’s economic and social integration would be accompanied by decision-making transparency, the consolidation of power by Xi Jinping has diminished such expectations.
Today, even relatively minor actions by China are viewed with a great deal of scepticism. As a result, China and, by default, the CPC remains an “enigma” in strategic terms.
(The author teaches Political Science at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi, and is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi)
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