How the Chinese Communist Party endures

In large measure it is due to the party’s ability to sum up the lessons of history and change course quite drastically, if required

Updated - July 01, 2021 12:07 pm IST

Published - July 01, 2021 12:15 am IST

Paramilitary police and police officers keep watch as people gather to they watch a light show celebrating the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, at The Bund in Shanghai, China June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

Paramilitary police and police officers keep watch as people gather to they watch a light show celebrating the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, at The Bund in Shanghai, China June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

Citizens in China encapsulate the transformation of the country under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) thus: under Mao Zedong, China ‘ zhan qilai (stood up)’; under Deng Xiaoping, China ‘ fu qilai (became rich)’ and under Xi Jinping, China is well on course to ‘qiang qilai (becoming powerful)’. Inevitably, the organisation that has steered this ‘rise’ and its ability to ride out a succession of domestic and external crises and yet emerge stronger and more resilient has been the cynosure of intense debates.

The CPC’s longevity is due in large measure to its ability to sum up the lessons of history and change course quite drastically, if required. While the Mao, Deng and Xi periods are conventional markers to distinguish the shifts and departures over the past 70 years, it would be an error to assess China as if it was born in 1949. The longue duree is something the Chinese communists take very seriously. This analysis seeks to identify five major lessons that have guided the CPC over the course of the past century.


The birth of a new China

The first major lesson was drawn from the colonial era, when China was “carved up like a melon”, and the humiliation heaped by the western colonial powers. The collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911 brought about the desired political revolution and China entered the comity of nations. The location of the CPC in the sensibilities and imagination of the Chinese people today cannot be understood without reference to what was actually accomplished by the victory of the CPC first over the Japanese and then the Kuomintang in 1949. The Communist Party was on the right side of history. It fused the people with a collective purpose — the rejuvenation of China — and gave them a ‘national’ identity. With its ideology and superb organisational skills and the assistance of a lean but highly disciplined People’s Liberation Army to power its sinews, the CPC combined the thousands of sparks that were simmering throughout the country into one big explosive social revolution, demolishing an entire social class. This was ‘liberation’ — not mere independence — and the birth of a new China, encapsulated in the popular post-1949 slogan, “ mei you gongchangdang; mei you xin zhongguo (If there had been no Communist Party, there would not have been a new China)”. Such a comprehensive political, economic and social destruction, as it were, is unparalleled in the history of modern revolutions.

This historical experience underpinned Mao’s nationalist message on October 1, 1949: China had “stood up” and it would never let itself be humiliated again. It was not until well into the Deng period that the theme of humiliation was encountered less frequently, but the importance of standing up to external forces that seek to impose their ways has endured. Strong responses to any perceived attack on sovereignty (Tibet and Taiwan, for instance), the categorical rejection of anything that could be interpreted as a dilution of national interest or the determined pushback of attempts to impose or lecture about ‘western’ values are cases in point. The ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy in recent times can be seen against that backdrop — the authority and power of the ruling elite in China can under no circumstances be undermined in the eyes of its people.

The second signal lesson came out of the success of the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. But Marxism had to be ‘Sinicised’ before it could be applied to the Chinese conditions. Mao took the revolution from the cities to the countryside and in the process, imparted to the Chinese revolution a populist character that the Bolshevik revolution did not have. The concept of ‘Sinicisation’ is essentially a tool for grounding any ‘foreign’ concept or idea in the Chinese conditions. It was seen in the post-1949 strategies of economic development and industrialisation when China rejected both the Soviet and the capitalist model. Over the years, the process of ‘Sinicisation’ has morphed into “ socialism with Chinese characteristics ”. It is in this vein that Mr. Xi speaks about the need to adapt Marxism to China’s modern requirements.


Lessons from Tiananmen

Political centralisation had inevitably come on the heels of the revolution, though the CPC under both Mao and Deng attempted to balance it with decentralisation. And then came the third historical lesson — out of the Tiananmen crisis of 1989. The simmering dissatisfaction stemming from the uneven impact of Deng’s reforms and the problem of corruption in the CPC since the mid-1980s burst out in massive demonstrations and more critically, from the CPC’s point of view, fostered a sense of solidarity among the students and workers. The demonstrations were crushed by a massive use of force. For Deng the lesson was that if China was to achieve its economic objectives, it “could not afford chaos”. Stability was accorded top priority and the nation’s energies channelised into “getting rich”, which has continued to be the chief plank of the CPC’s governance after Deng down to Mr. Xi. Inevitably, that translated into clamping down on political freedoms, and centralising tendencies gained the upper hand. As ideology declines, the dependence on the organisation in holding the country together increases and makes imperative the need for a strong leader who can ensure that stability. This has reached unprecedented levels with Mr. Xi ensuring that every unit of political, economic, social and cultural organisation in China is not only juxtaposed with the CPC but also functions within the parameters set by the party.


The fourth lesson stemmed from the defining structural transformation of the post-World War II international order — the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Socialist bloc in 1991. The rejection of the Stalinist period by the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev was highly problematic; as Deng told his comrades, you cannot and must not deny your history. Recall the official assessment: “Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong”. But more importantly, it underscored the necessity of a strong party-state and its firm control over the market forces. Over the years, this has only been affirmed with greater conviction.

Finally, we have a slew of lessons spilling out since China decided to dispense with its ‘low profile’ in foreign affairs. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has donned the mantle of a great power with aplomb – it thinks like a great power and to that extent, it will follow the logic of power in its dealings with the world. The aftermath of the pandemic provided Mr. Xi with the opportunity to demonstrate that the PRC is a responsible major power. The world’s response and acceptance are mixed. The CPC would do well to reflect on the lessons that need to be drawn about the reactions to its assertiveness.


Costs of success

Bringing nearly 800 million people out of poverty is an amazing achievement, whichever way you see it, but it has come with huge domestic costs. China is one of the most unequal societies in the world today. Its unprecedented growth has created unparalleled environmental challenges spilling beyond its borders. Rapidly shrinking state welfare packages have made the increasing population of the elderly more vulnerable. And it is struggling with a disturbing gender imbalance. There are certainly many lessons here as Manoranjan Mohanty’s book, China’s Transformation: The Success Story and the Success Trap, points out, about how not to grow.

It is more important than ever to understand the nature and power of this organisation; its strengths and weaknesses; its ability to capture the imagination of the people — and interestingly, the youth. It has refuted prognostications of its demise with its capacity for reinventing, regenerating and renewing its compact with the people, strengthened, among other things, by its ability to continue learning from history. The world is dealing not merely with a nation state but with an authoritarian party-state that foregrounds its civilisational culture — and at its helm is an organisation that is steering the country towards its own tryst with destiny. It remains to be seen whether the CPC is still on the right side of history, but the party is by no means over.

Alka Acharya is Professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi. Views are personal

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