Is China a Communist nation? This is what the Beijing government would have its people and the world believe by celebrating the centennial of the formation of the Communist Party in Shanghai this July 23. Originally, the Party was nothing but a group of 13 intellectuals informed by a quick reading of the gospels of Marx, Engels, and Lenin and fascinated by what seemed promising in the new Soviet Union. Though official accounts now deny it, we should not underestimate the importance of Russian assistance in the creation of the Chinese Communist Party, up to the time of its military victory against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in 1949. After military assistance came help with industrialization, until the expulsion of Soviet advisors by Mao Zedong, who was determined to impose his personal conception of Communism on China and on the rest of the world—Maoism rather than Leninism. This Sino-Russian alliance was bound to end in disagreement: for the Chinese Communists, the essential purposes of the ideology were to restore unity to China, which had been ravaged by colonialism and civil wars; to impose on the Chinese nation a new collective ideology, Marxism, in the place of Confucianism; and to make China the center of the world once again. The Chinese Communist Party had accepted Russian aid for tactical reasons, without for a moment considering becoming Moscow’s satellite.
Besides this mistrust, there was a conflict of civilizations. The Russians relied on the working class or proletariat, with industrialization as their goal. China was rural, and Mao Zedong, a son of peasants, wanted it to stay that way. The initial popularity of the Chinese Communist Party arose from its promise to confiscate the property of rich landowners in order to distribute it to poor peasants. The supposed virtue of agrarian labor explains why, after each period of domestic instability, the Maoist solution was to send bureaucrats and intellectuals to the countryside so that they could rediscover the revolutionary spirit by listening to peasants.
Mao’s Communist Party succeeded in its primary objective of destroying every vestige of the past: no more landowners, intellectuals, or artists (except those devoted to the kitsch style favored by Mao), and no more urban civilization, traditional religion, or respect for elders and ancestors. When I visited Chinese villages in the 1970s, I heard every peasant recite the words, “Thanks to President Mao, I have a bicycle and a watch, and this is sufficient to my happiness.” Who were the party members at that time? There were no women and few workers, a few slavish intellectuals, and, for the most part, apparatchiks and military officers. The recruiting criterion was not competence but adherence to the ideology—the ideology of the moment, that is, which Mao defined according to his fantasies.
Speaking of these early days, Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao, would say that “Mao was right 70 percent of the time, and wrong 30 percent.” The 70 percent consisted completely in the restoration of China’s unity, excepting Taiwan and Hong Kong. And the 30 percent error? That would be the absence of economic development, the mass famines and some 80 million deaths, resulting from the Party’s conquests—and these followed by purges, known under the names of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In order to preserve unity—that is, the Party’s monopoly—Deng would add a few thousand victims at Tiananmen Square in June 1989, among students favorable to democracy.
It was left to Deng to create a second Communist Party, beginning in 1979; it had nothing in common with Mao’s party but the name. Deng, who governed for 20 years and founded the Chinese system as we know it today, inherited from Mao only the passion for national unity and the hatred of democracy (democracy being just the thing, he thought, for decadent Westerners). His absolute priorities were industrialization, education, economic development, a rising standard of living, and national power. He went about it by restoring private property, large-scale capitalism, universities, and trade with the rest of the world. The Communist Party would therefore have to transform itself from a party of militants to a party of technicians and entrepreneurs. Party members’ living standards rose alongside China’s economy, since the party controlled everything and took its share of all profits. The corruption of officials is an essential part of the system; it is encouraged when it increases the country’s wealth, and it is condemned when leaders wish to get rid of an entrepreneur or a bureaucrat who has become a burden.
In what sense is this “pragmatic” party—a term that Deng was fond of—still Communist? The Marxist litanies and the Maoist liturgy stay the same: a Latin Mass that everyone recites and in which no one believes. As an obligatory national ideology, it justifies the government’s elimination of heretics, intellectuals, democrats, Tibetan Buddhists who follow the Dalai Lama, Catholics loyal to the Pope, and adepts of religious “sects.”
Leaders endlessly repeat, to the Chinese as well as to foreigners, that China is the Communist Party, and vice versa. What do we know of party membership in China? Very little, given the absence of elections and of credible polls. The standard line in the West is that the party’s popularity depends on the economic progress for which it is responsible. That is true enough. But my own hypothesis, based on my research, is that the Chinese are just as grateful to the party for bringing civil peace; they appreciate this new tranquility.
What might replace the Communist Party? Almost all Chinese remain speechless before this question, since no political alternative is available, apart from a few intellectual and religious circles, often in exile. But most Chinese—and this again is a personal hypothesis—dislike the Party, ridicule its leaders, and grumble against the corruption that rules the nomenklatura from top to bottom.
Can Communism in Chinese colors endure? Of all possible futures, the status quo strikes me as the most probable. The main factor of instability is the current president: Xi has broken the rule, imposed by Deng, of stepping down after ruling ten years. Xi is not leaving but organizing a personality cult and inventing from scratch a bellicose nationalism foreign to Chinese civilization. This kind of talk could lead to factional struggles inside the party, or even to international conflicts. In this case Xi, instead of fulfilling his ambition of creating a third Communist Party, could be sounding the death knell of Chinese Communism. As we have seen in the USSR and in Cuba, Communism always dies from the inside.
Photo by Liu Weibing/Xinhua via Getty Images