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THE CHINESE COMMUNIST PARTY AT 100

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By David Shambaugh

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The Montréal Review, July 2021

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On July 1 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated its centenary anniversary. Over the past several months the country has been inundated with a 24/7 tsunami of propaganda. Bookstores are filled with newly minted books with the ubiquitous hammer-and-sickle on their covers. China’s consumer goods industry is churning out a surfeit of communist kitsch—busts, buttons, statues, posters, plates, paintings, commemorative coins, and other memorabilia.  Commemorative films play on television and in movie theaters. Work units and school children are being organized to go on pilgrimages to revolutionary sites (so-called “red tourism”). All 94 million Party members are undergoing re-immersion in the communist classics dating back to Marx, while communist martyrs are again eulogized.

The multifaceted campaign is inescapable, blanketing the nation. The CCP’s vaunted propaganda system is in overdrive. While different periods and themes are emphasized, one is at the center: Xi Jinping. Beginning with his February 20 speech kicking-off the nationwide “education campaign” to study party history, Xi has been squarely in the public spotlight—in today’s China Xi and the Party are indistinguishable. While the past nine years of his rule have seen no small degree of Xi sycophancy, the Party centenary has offered an opportunity to further burnish his personality cult.

To be sure, the CCP has much to celebrate. Most Chinese credit it with having brought the country to its superpower status of today. The Party has achieved the four-part national mission sought by all Chinese regimes since the late-Qing dynasty: wealth, power, sovereignty, and respect. These elements have driven CCP policies since seizing power in 1949, but they harken back to the late-Qing dynasty. Foreigners should not underestimate the enormous sense of pride and nationalism engendered by these accomplishments. Overcoming what the CCP ritualistically refers to as China’s “century of shame and humiliation” (roughly 1840-1949) has been the single animating goal of the Party since its founding.

Gideon Rubin (26 x 19 cm Gouache on paper 2014)

Surviving is Not Easy

Like humans who reach 100 years of age, simply surviving that long is an accomplishment. But it has hardly been smooth sailing—as the CCP has endured a number of “near death” existential experiences.

Having established itself in secret in Shanghai on July 1, 1921, it operated primarily underground. Then, on April 12, 1927 the nascent Party was subjected to a lightning strike unleashed by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist security services—known as the Shanghai massacre—in which hundreds (if not thousands) of suspected communists were arrested and summarily executed in the streets. This event split the party into two rival factions, driving Mao’s clique to retreat to an isolated mountaintop stronghold in Jiangxi province.

In 1933 Chiang’s military forces zeroed in again on Mao’s sanctuary, launching a series of five “annihilation campaigns” surrounding and progressively tightening a blockade of the isolated communist forces. On the verge of capture or extermination, the CCP finally broke through the fifth siege and embarked on the Long March in October 1934. The march itself can be considered another “near death”  experience, as only 8,000 of the nearly 100,000 who departed Jiangxi on foot survived.

After coming to power in 1949, the CCP had a difficult decade during the 1950s—consolidating its rule domestically (which included brutal campaigns against various sectors of society), fighting a grueling and costly three-year war against U.S. and United Nations forces in Korea, while engaging in three tense crises in the Taiwan Strait.

The decade of the 1960s was one continuous series of struggles for the CCP. It began with the 1961-62 famine following the catastrophic 1958-60 Great Leap Forward, in which an estimated 40 million Chinese died of mass starvation (second only to the Ukraine famine of 1932-33). The largely Mao-made calamity badly tarnished the reputation of the regime and Mao’s personal power in particular. Mao withdrew from active leadership for three years, while Deng Xiaoping and other senior leaders briefly stabilized the economy and the country—before the next (self-inflicted) crisis erupted. It was also during this time that China’s alliance with the Soviet Union also ruptured, leaving China with few friends in the world.

From 1966-68 Mao personally unleashed the most serious assault ever on the Party: the so-called “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Specifically targeting the Party and government institutionally, Mao almost succeeded in destroying them, before pulling back from the brink. The entire senior leadership were purged and incarcerated in prisons or labor camps, hundreds of thousands were tortured and died, Red Guards roamed the country and seized provincial power, while the nation descended into anarchical civil war before the military restored order in the summer of 1968. Despite the end of the fighting among Red Guard factions and the imposition of martial law, the Party was decimated and paralyzed, and would remain so until the late-1970s.

In the midst of the Cultural Revolution China faced another existential threat, this time from abroad. In March 1969 Chinese and Soviet forces fought a brief border conflict, but we now know that Moscow came a hair’s breadth from launching nuclear attacks on several Chinese cities and military targets.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, and Deng Xiaoping’s gaining  power, things stabilized until unprecedented popular demonstrations erupted in Beijing and across China in the spring of 1989—which resulted in the “Tiananmen massacre” and the deaths of 1,500 to 2,000 citizens. Whether or not the demonstrators were in fact attempting to overthrow the Party and republic, Deng and his elder colleagues explicitly defined the challenge in such existential terms. To this day, and in newly released official histories, the CCP argues that such resolute action saved the Party from the popular uprisings (and overthrows) then occurring in Eastern Europe and subsequently the Soviet Union.

Since then, the CCP has not experienced another near-death experience—although it has wrestled with a variety of serious challenges, including systemic corruption, some high-level leadership purges, unrest in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, and rising tensions with its neighbors and the United States.

Thus, as the Chinese Communist Party reaches 100, it has certainly had its share of regime-threatening experiences. To have survived these, to have maintained itself in power, and to have developed the country into a superpower are no small achievements.

Gideon Rubin (26 x 19 cm Gouache on paper 2014)

Escaping the Past

In contrast to this tumultuous past, the CCP has spun a remarkably positive, heroic, and hagiographic narrative about its history. Yet this narrative is highly selective and distorted. Treating the Communist Party’s past has never been straightforward; it is, in fact, extremely sensitive and tricky. What to emphasize and what to deemphasize, what to ignore and what to highlight? As George Orwell poignantly observed in his dystopian novel 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.” The Soviets also used to joke that “the future is bright—it’s only the past that is uncertain.”

The whitewashing and distorting of uncomfortable truths and past events are not unique to authoritarian regimes, but the CCP has done more than its fair share.  In today’s China the Party has so selectively deleted and distorted its past that reality is unknowable to its citizens, who are force-fed only official rewritten histories. Each successive CCP leadership tends to further distort it and bury its dirty linen deeper. Only once, in the 1982 document On Certain Questions in Our Party’s History, has there been anything close to a real accounting and reckoning with the Party’s misdeeds.With each false narrative that is spun and perpetuated, with each staining event that is obliterated from the historical record, a society becomes further and further disconnected from reality. It is not a sound psychological basis for a national identity or political legitimacy.

Yet, today’s history books barely mention tragedies such as the Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution, the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and numerous other destructive political campaigns. In the definitive 538-page volume recently released by the Central Party History Research Office, the Great Leap and Cultural Revolution are briskly dealt with in a couple of pages and are brushed aside as “leftist errors,” while the events of June 4th  are brusquely dismissed in a single sentence as “suppressing the Beijing region counter revolutionary rebellion” (平息了北京地区的反革命暴乱).

To address historical issues that contradict the official narrative in a heterodox manner has been labeled by Xi Jinping as “historical nihilism” (历史虚无主义). To ensure that only “correct” party history is followed, a volume of Xi’s speeches on the subject has recently been published. In addition a national webpage and telephone hotline have even been established by the National Cyberspace Administration to report any heretical thinking.

Gideon Rubin (29.5 x 20.5 cm Gouache on paper 2019)

Facing the Future

With such a selective understanding of its past, the Xi-centric caricature of its present, what is the future of the CCP as it passes 100?

Considered broadly, what kind of institution has the CCP become under Xi, and is it appropriate to a globally involved superpower? What Xi has systematically done is to turn the Party into a robotic machine, almost like a military, with rigid top-down discipline and little bottom-up or horizontal participation or feedback from society or Party members. This is a fundamental undoing of the type of responsive consultative Party which all of Xi’s predecessors since Deng had sought to build.

Many Party members, as well as various elements in society, resent the type of dictatorial Party and personal power that Xi has constructed and accrued. China has not seen this degree of control since the Maoist era or the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. As a result of the severe repression Xi has unleashed, the Party at 100 appears in total control. Yet that masks the hidden discontent that we know does exist within the Party and several sectors of society.  The Chinese have a saying for this: 外硬内软 (hard on the outside, soft on the inside). That is not a recipe for indefinite longevity. 

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David Shambaugh is the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs and Director of the China Policy Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University.

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This article was originally published in The Wire China. The Wire is a digital news magazine dedicated to understanding and explaining one of the biggest stories of our time: China’s economic rise, and its influence on global business, finance, trade, labor and the environment.
The weekly publication — founded by David Barboza, who earned two Pulitzer Prizes while serving as the Shanghai correspondent for The New York Times — relies on a diverse, independent group of journalists and columnists stationed around the globe. Many of them have years of experience covering China and its evolving relationship with the rest of the world.

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