The Chinese Communist Party at 100
Focus and flexibility helped the party survive a century, but will it survive its current crop of leaders?
This July 1 marks the centennial of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Most other communist parties have fallen from grace since the demise of the former Soviet Union, but the CCP has survived to become one of the most dominant political parties in the world, controlling the second-largest economy and the fates of 1.4 billion people. The party owes its longevity to two seemingly contradictory characteristics: laser-like focus, accompanied by tremendous flexibility.
The CCP was born in 1921 in Shanghai’s International Settlement Area (ISA)—an area managed by the British and a hotbed of various imported political ideas. It was in the ISA that Chinese intellectuals learned about Marxism. Inspired by the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and with funding and guidance from the nascent Communist Party of the Soviet Union, about 50 radicalized Chinese intellectuals founded the Chinese Communist Party, aiming to build a powerful new China through revolution. To reach this goal, the CCP’s founders understood that the party must obtain not just power, but a permanent monopoly on power.
Since its founding, the CCP has not hesitated to do whatever it deems necessary to obtain and stay in power, including using violence and terror to eliminate competitors, be they enemies, former allies, or fellow CCP members. The party’s wars, political purges, and economic policies are responsible for the deaths of an estimated 60 million to 80 million Chinese people and have inflicted enormous pain and suffering on millions more. Corpses paved the party’s road to power, and its history was written in the suffering of the Chinese people.
But it is an oversimplification only to emphasize the party’s violence. After all, other communist regimes were just as coldblooded as the CCP, if not more so. While violence and fear have helped the CCP acquire and maintain power, it’s the party’s flexibility that holds the key to its longevity.
According to Claremont McKenna’s Minxin Pei, the CCP’s flexibility works like this: when the balance of power begins to tip against it, the CCP has learned to rely on “cunning and caution” to survive, partnering up with anyone and everyone who might help it. When “the balance of power has shifted in its favor,” however, the CCP has consistently broken “earlier commitments when doing so serves its interests.” The party’s history is full of examples of how such flexibility helped it survive some of the most challenging circumstances.
In its infancy, the CCP attached itself to the Kuomintang (KMT)—the Nationalist Party, the ruling party of the Republic of China. Many CCP members even joined the KMT and served vital positions within the Republic of China’s government. The resources of both the KMT and the Republic of China helped the CCP to grow its membership rapidly. After Chiang Kai-shek became the head of KMT and president of the Republic of China, he quickly recognized the threat posed by the CCP. Chiang and his allies launched a nationwide purge of the CCP in 1927, killing more than 25,000 party members and supporters.
Initially, the CCP followed the Soviet model by organizing workers in several cities to launch armed uprisings against Chiang, but these uprisings failed. The CCP learned that, rather than relying on armed city workers, it needed a true army. As Mao Zedong, a rising star within the CCP leadership, famously said: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Mao also proposed abandoning the Soviet Union’s urban-centered model and retreating to the countryside. China was primarily an agricultural society, and most Chinese were farmers. The CCP could quickly swell the ranks of its army with impoverished farmers who had nothing to lose, and the vast countryside provided the CCP with resources to survive and places to hide from the KMT’s armies. The CCP adopted Mao’s suggestion, and the party survived.
During the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the CCP again demonstrated its flexibility by joining a KMT-led united front to fight the Japanese invaders. While the Nationalist Party’s troops bore the brunt of the casualties in direct combat against Japanese forces, the CCP was busy growing its territories and the size of its army. During Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s visit to Communist China in 1972, Mao Zedong told Tanaka that the CCP wouldn’t have come to power if the Japanese hadn’t invaded China and kept the KMT occupied.
After China won the war against Japan with the help of the United States, the CCP refused to return the territories it gained during the war, leading to the Civil War of 1945–1949 between the CCP and KMT. As their armies fought ruthlessly on the battlefields, Mao and other CCP leaders courted the support of China’s smaller political parties, Chinese intellectuals, business people, students, and workers, promising that the CCP would establish a multiparty democracy. Meantime, Chiang and his KMT were doing themselves no favors. There was widespread corruption within the military and the government, and the Chinese people endured great hardship from hyperinflation. Chiang suppressed protests by students and workers with brutal force. Eventually, the KMT lost the war and public support, and Chiang and his remaining force retreated to Taiwan. The CCP established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.
Once in power, the CCP showed its true colors. Instead of building a multiparty democracy, the CCP persecuted everyone and every organization that had helped it obtain power. As a result, the PRC remains a one-party authoritarian state to this day.
The CCP showed its flexibility again in the early 1970s. The relationship between China and the Soviet Union had quickly deteriorated after Stalin’s death in 1953. In 1969, the two former comrades engaged in a bloody armed confrontation over a border dispute. Mao understood the vital role that the United States might play in the next stage of the CCP’s survival, so he reestablished diplomatic relations with the United States, a country he had designated as China’s archenemy for decades, and began sharing intelligence on the Soviet Union, his former ally.
At the time of Mao’s death in 1976, China’s GDP per capita was only $165. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, reasoned that China was too weak to challenge Western democracies and their liberal rule-based world order. Thus, Deng turned to flexibility again. He launched economic reform in China and advised his comrades to focus on developing China’s economy and military by taking advantage of the West’s markets, technology, and investments, without drawing undue attention or antagonizing its adversaries abroad. He wanted the party to “hide its strength, bide its time” until the balance of power shifted in its favor once again. Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, followed his strategic guidance. Over the next three decades, the CCP became the world’s most powerful authoritarian state and significantly closed the economic gap with the West.
Deng demonstrated his flexibility in Hong Kong, too. He convinced the United Kingdom to return control of the territory to Beijing with a pledge to maintain its autonomy for 50 years under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. Minxin Pei has pointed out that Deng was “acting out of weakness rather than a belief in international law.”
While the CCP has shown flexibility on the economic front, it has never lost its focus on maintaining absolute political power in China. It remains deeply hostile to liberal democratic values, because it sees everything that democracy stands for, such as free and open elections, as threats to its monopoly on power. Under no circumstance will the party tolerate any real, or even imaginary, threat to its power. That’s why, in 1989, when protestors in Tiananmen Square demanded democratic reforms, the CCP’s response was to crack down on protestors with pitiless force. In 2020, the CCP imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, effectively ending the “one country, two systems” framework. Once again, the CCP had reneged on a promise when it judged that the balance of power had shifted in its favor.
No matter how many skyscrapers rise up in Chinese cities, no matter how much its economy depends on international trade and access to global markets, the nature of the Chinese Communist Party will not change. The failure to understand this has led to a series of political blunders in the West. After the CCP’s Tiananmen Square crackdown, policymakers and businesses in the West assumed that by averting their gaze and continuing engagement with the CCP, China would eventually change to become more like “one of us,” a democracy. After mountains of evidence of the CCP’s human rights abuses against Tibetans, Uyghur Muslims, and others; the crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement; and the cover-up and lies about the coronavirus pandemic, no illusions about the CCP’s goals and methods should remain.
The real question right now is whether the CCP will last another 100 years. Xi Jinping, the CCP’s current leader and de facto president for life, certainly acts as if his party will be around for a long time to come. He sees it as China’s destiny to replace the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power. But in contrast with many of his predecessors, he seems reluctant to admit that he and his party face international backlash and isolation over human rights abuses and their handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than being flexible and adjusting his tactics to this new reality, Xi is doubling down on suppression at home while imposing his will on other nations through economic coercion and military confrontation.
Jimmy Lai, a Hong Kong tycoon and pro-democracy activist currently in jail for his political activism, has warned that “the more Mr. Xi pursues his authoritarian agenda, the more distrust he will sow at home and abroad. Far from transforming Beijing into the world’s leading superpower, his policies will instead keep China from taking its rightful place of honor in a peaceful, modern, and integrated world.” If Lai is right, then the CCP’s leader and his policies may have finally undone the party’s formula for longevity.
Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
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