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‘From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party’ review: A chequered century

On July 1, China’s ruling Communist Party marked its centenary with a grand event at Tiananmen Square. Standing on the Tiananmen gate from where Mao Zedong used to address mass rallies, the party’s leader and General Secretary, Xi Jinping, in an hour-long speech gave the Party version of its 100 year-history. Xi told a story of a rejuvenation and revival, with no bumps on the way.

Xi’s speech underlined how important the question of history is for the Party and its legitimacy. This is why, since Xi came to power in 2012, the Party has increasingly made clear that only its version of history may be taught in schools and colleges. Those that question it, in Xi’s words, are guilty of “historical nihilism”.

This is, needless to say, an airbrushed history, drawing a straight line from the Party’s founding to the grand event on July 1 — a history that is linear and inevitable. The history of the CPC was anything but, as this new book by Tony Saich reminds us. In From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party, Saich, a historian at Harvard, who has been studying and visiting China since 1976, has provided the definitive account of the rise, fall, and rise again of the Communist Party of China.

Continuity and change

For the centrality of the CPC in modern China’s history, there are curiously not as many books as one might imagine that have delved deep into the Party’s workings, organisation, culture, and history. If Richard McGregor’s brilliant 2010 book The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, provided a racy and insightful look that is perhaps the definitive reporter’s account of the CPC, Saich has written the definitive scholarly account of the Party’s origins and the twists-and-turns in its history over 100 years.

The book, the author says, “seeks to outline how a group of young men and a few women, who came together in the tumultuous years following the collapse of the empire and World War I, set in motion a movement that would create the most powerful political organisation in the world, overseeing an economy that would come to rival that of the United States.” He describes it as “an extraordinary story of survival, disaster, and resurrection.”

The strength of the book lies in its detail, telling the story in 560 pages, and in its even-handedness, viewing the Party’s successes and mistakes — especially the monumental disasters of the Mao era — with the disinterested eyes of a scholar. Three broad themes emerge from the book, each highlighting key tensions that have defined the Party’s existence and explained its survival — tensions that each generation of rulers has grappled with and struggled to resolve.

The first is about continuity and change. The CPC, as Saich writes, came to power “claiming that it represented a radical break with the past and a new tradition of proletarian internationalism.” Yet as the “strength of revolutionary legitimacy declined”, the Party has “begun to promote itself as the successor to and inheritor of Chinese tradition”. Not just that, as the only legitimate inheritor of Chinese tradition.This is used to both justify autocracy and conflate any critics of the Party as being not anti-party but anti-national.

The notions of democracy and federalism that marked its early years and brought it public support were quickly jettisoned as it turns from rebel to ruler. This also meant an end to the spirit of independent intellectual inquiry that drove its original founders. Mao, in 1942, outlined the correct role for intellectuals, writers and artists — which was to serve the Party — another constant that hasn’t changed. For many, the revolution ended up as the replacement of “one form of domination with another”.

Factional struggles

The second tension is in its organisation. What the Party calls “democratic centralism” has been the one continuing ideology from Mao to Deng and Xi, yet every generation has seen a changing dynamic between a “core” and the collective.

Saich argues that there is currently no great “pressure from below” to push the Party to reform — it has a powerful hold on the grassroots, has decimated civil society, absorbed all possible sites of opposition including the private sector, and broadly retains public support thanks to decades of growth. Yet it is elite unity that is the big unanswered question, even in the Xi era where Party loyalty is the watchword, given the persistence of the factional structures. For all the talk of Party unity, the reality, even in the Xi era, is that the Party runs on factions and personal networks. Saich shows how the factional structure has existed right from the beginnings, and this dynamic causes repeated political struggles. There is no certainty that even Xi’s accumulation of power has ended that dynamic.

Adapting to survive

The third is the dynamic between adaptability or pragmatism, and ideology. What does the CPC actually stand for? Many of its more than 90 million members today would be hard pressed to offer a coherent reply. As Saich writes, many join the Party today to advance their careers and not for any sense of mission. The Party still avows by Marxism-Leninism, but has recognised that ideology is no longer a sufficient tether for its legitimacy. It has thus “resorted to nationalism and claims that it is the rightful inheritor of Chinese tradition”. Saich also views how the Party manages the economy and environment as two key areas in determining its future legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Indeed, pragmatism, not ideology, helped the CPC survive. The fact that it indigenised its Communist revolution, he argues, allowed for a degree of pragmatism and helped it avoid the fate of the Soviet Union. The indigenous nature of the revolution “permitted the CCP greater flexibility with domestic policy but also has informed its global stance.” If there is one quibble with the book, it is in its somewhat fleeting treatment of foreign affairs and the Party’s view of its place in the world (the description of India as a U.S. “ally” will appear jarring to Indian readers). That is, however, a minor quibble as the focus is plainly on matters domestic, and there Saich undoubtedly succeeds in providing a rich and detailed account that may well end up as the definitive guide in explaining how China’s ruling party got to where it is today.

From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party; Tony Saich, Harvard University Press/ Harper, ₹3,050.

ananth.krishnan@thehindu.co.in


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