The handful of young intellectuals who met in a modest French concession building in Shanghai in July 1921 had no idea that the group they were establishing would end up being one of the most powerful in history. In its early days, the Communist Party of China had barely fifty members. The founding congress was held in hiding, and its participants had to conclude it aboard a boat in a tourist lake for fear of being discovered. Now, when the country celebrates the centenary of that foundation, the CCP has 91 million members and has ruled over a quarter of the world’s population since 1949. Under his leadership, China has grown from a poor and divided nation to a proud economic power that is claiming more and more prominence on the world board. And the old revolutionary movement that emerged victorious from a decade of civil war has been transformed into a political regime that dominates almost every aspect of the country.
Those young founders would be “delighted with the way things are going today. [China es] the second economy in the world, with a strong feeling of which is its territory, jealously protected. Wherever China goes in the world, it is part of a global conversation in which it is a very dominant protagonist, ”says historian Rana Mitter, from the University of Oxford, in a recent video conference organized by the CSIS think tank.
China is going to throw the house out the window to celebrate the centenary. The red and yellow anniversary logo is on shop windows, state publications, and taxis. There are museums and celebratory parks. Tourism to historical places of the formation has been promoted for months. Television series, films and exhibitions lend the heroism of those early days, and groups of militants publicly renew their oath of allegiance. The atmosphere is triumphant. After a year in which China has only registered a handful of covid cases while the rest of the world battled against the pandemic, and with four decades of accelerated economic growth, the leaders in Beijing are convinced that their model of government, of party-state, it is superior to that of the western democracies. The embarrassment of the assault on the Capitol in January by supporters of Donald Trump reinforced their conviction that Asia (China) is on the rise, and Europe and America, in decline. The pomp around the anniversary is going to highlight, in part, that success. That China is about to regain the position of world leadership that was wrested from it during the “century of humiliation” at the hands of Western powers. That, according to official accounts, this year has completely eliminated rural poverty, its great scourge for millennia. That rubs shoulders and rivals the United States on equal terms, that by 2035 aspires to be a middle-income economy per capita (Today its GDP per head is around 10,000 dollars a year, compared to almost 30,000 in Spain). That by 2049 it plans to be an economic and political superpower, a world leader in innovation and with its own supply chains, woven around its New Silk Roads initiative.
The celebrations will also represent an affirmation, in the eyes of the citizens, of the party’s legitimacy. A message conveyed with all pomp and circumstance that, without him, these achievements would have been impossible. That the CCP is the State, or more important than the State, omnipresent through an important security apparatus, rules that oblige the creation of a cell in each company where at least three employees are militants, laws that subordinate the rest of the institutions under his power. “The party, the Government, the Army, society and the University. East, West, South, North and Center: the party rules everything ”, as Xi Jinping likes to repeat, recovering a saying from his predecessor and founder of the party and the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong.
But above all, the celebrations will reaffirm the firm hold of Xi, China’s most powerful leader since the Mao era, as the CCP’s and country’s guide. The “core” of the party – one of its informal titles -, which came to power in 2012, has removed the limits that would have forced it to leave office as of next year. Everything indicates that it will continue at least another five, with no successor in sight. Xi, writes analyst Nis Grünberg in the report The next century of the CCP, from the Merics laboratory of ideas, “wants to be the figure that marks the change from reform and opening to a properly Chinese modernity. With the limits on his mandate abolished, and ten years of preparing and directing the party apparatus around him, Xi is preparing to be the banner of a China with a global status of wealth and power.
His mandate has been characterized by an increase in control and a centralization of power in his person. Under the argument of national security, applied in a very broad sense, the emphasis on ideology, discipline on the party has been reinforced under the umbrella of a campaign against corruption and social control. The latter trend is especially pronounced in Xinjiang, the province home to the Uighur Muslim minority, and Hong Kong, where the 2019 protests were put down with the heavy hand of the national security law in force for a year.
Abroad, China is developing an increasingly uncomplexed assertiveness. Last year, a clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers on the border left five dead in the Chinese countryside and about twenty in the rival. Since September, planes from the People’s Republic have made incursions into Taiwan’s airspace. Despite the misgivings it arouses in other countries, this new assertiveness will continue until the CCP feels safe in the international arena and ceases to perceive external events as threats to national security, says Helena Lagarda, of Merics, in a recent video conference.
Behind the successes are important problems: deep social inequalities, an environment badly damaged by decades of uncontrolled development, a galloping aging of the population and the need to maintain levels of economic growth that allow the incorporation of new graduates to the world of work. Outside, the increasingly tense rivalry with the US may spark regional clashes, especially in Pacific waters and the South China Sea. The vehement defense of interests at the hands of diplomatic “warrior wolves” has tarnished its image in the West; his treatment of minorities in Xinjiang has brought him the first EU sanctions in decades.
As sinologist Tony Saich, director of the Ash Center at Harvard University and author of the book recalls From Rebel to Ruler: 100 Years of the Chinese Communist Party (From rebel to leader: 100 years of the CCP), one of the keys to the CCP’s longevity in the face of other communist formations has been its ability to adapt. This is what happened in the nineties, when it was opened to private entrepreneurs, who decades ago had been persecuted. It is about giving a little free rein to society to experiment and be a little more free, says the expert. But Xi, he clarifies, has realized the negative aspects. “Corruption, local governments that seek their interest rather than the interest of the State, ideas that collide with the narrative that comes from the center. And, as we all know, he has centralized control. The question is: is it going to stifle the dynamism and innovation that has kept the system and the party going?