With the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party looming in July, it’s timely to look at the nature of a political party that has managed to survive 10 decades of internal strife, self-inflicted wounds, and a recurring loss of confidence among the people it purports to lead.
In this, part 1 of a series of essays on the CCP in the run-up to its centennial, we look at the perseverance with which the Party has maintained its relevance, its power, and its grip on the future of the most populous country on Earth. The Chinese Communist Party’s insistence on its right to lead the country, along with its often-blind adherence to its own sense of superiority, underpins the longevity of the CCP, and explains the astonishing resilience of the world’s longest-surviving Leninist relic.
As such, countries and companies that engage with PRC entities today would be wise to be mindful that the CCP side in any negotiation or relationship will persevere to ensure that the outcome enhances the continued health, welfare, and existence of the Chinese Communist Party. This fundamental goal has been a hallmark of the CCP since its birth and is central to all areas related to the CCP’s long-term interests. A foreign country’s goal may be a trade agreement to advance the interests of its companies at home. On the surface, the CCP side may seem to negotiate for the same goal for its own companies, but the mission will always be larger than just that one contract.
To protect the party, even companies and their successful CEOs will be sacrificed if those interests in any way conflict with or threaten the supremacy and policies of the CCP. The three-month disappearance from the public eye of billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma from October 2020 to January 2021 is a recent example.
Over the last 30 years in particular, through trade, investment, diplomacy, sanctions, international treaties, inclusion in international organizations, and educational opportunities, nations and corporations around the world have tried to temper and tame – China would say contain – the excesses of authoritarian control in which the Chinese Communist Party regularly engages as it perpetuates its mission to build and maintain its power.
As we see today, however, the carrots and sticks used by the international community have not worked well. Despite its gains in material development, the Chinese Communist Party cannot take the plunge into true political reform and development. And from its perspective, it has little need to. It has persevered and grown stronger than its greatest expectations. Many CCP members today view the party’s continued leadership as proof that its methods have been correct. The end has fully justified the means. Why change when steadfast attention to the health of the CCP has kept it alive and thriving for a hundred years, even when it has not only stumbled, but at times fallen over a cliff? The party, say many, is only fulfilling its manifest destiny, with a fervor that was born out of its earliest struggles.
The First 40 Years: A Litany of Challenges
In its journey from unassuming beginnings in Shanghai to a behemoth of political and economic wherewithal that has just landed a rover on Mars, the CCP has faced hurdles throughout its history that have challenged it to its core.
But it’s useful to remember that in the first 28 years of its existence, the CCP did not gain national political dominance. Those first nearly three decades saw the party struggle to achieve the goals with which the Soviet Bolsheviks had inspired them. The CCP twice joined forces with the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek, before ultimately and improbably clawing out a brutally-won military and political victory over the entire mainland.
For 18 years, the armies of the Communist Party were constantly at war. The Red Army lost millions not only in the civil wars which they waged against the Nationalists, but also in their collaborative efforts with the Nationalists to rout the Japanese out of China.
Once the Chinese Communist Party won the day and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with most of the Nationalists setting up camp on Taiwan, the CCP was faced with a monumental challenge: what to do with what they had won. The political support they had garnered among tens of millions of Chinese in the countryside now had to be built out across the entire nation.
The CCP was not without resources, however, and took cues, training, and technology from their political mentors, the Soviets. Predictably, the honeymoon was soon over, and Soviet advisors began leaving China just as Mao Zedong initiated the Great Leap Forward. The goal was to communize the countryside. The famine that ensued cost the country anywhere between 15 and 55 million lives, and yet the CCP survived.
How does a political party recover from implementing policies that directly cause the death of anywhere between 15 and 55 million of its citizens? How does that party remain in power when even the official tally of the dead cannot be more accurately quoted than within a range of 40 million souls who may, or may not, have died from starvation?
What possible steps could such a political party take to effectively overcome the damage to its legitimacy that such a disaster made?
The answer, as always, was a dedicated perseverance, imbued by its early years into the culture of the party, to control the narrative, and to switch the blame from the CCP to the incompetence of individual persons, all while adding in the malign role that nature played in creating a perfect storm of a humanitarian crisis of truly immeasurable proportions.
Perpetuating Its Own Truths
When tested through the prism of the CCP’s unwavering defense of its legitimacy, many of China’s seemingly inexplicable, self-destructive, reputation-destroying policies, practices, and pronouncements make sense.
A key example is the CCP’s reaction when in July 2016 an international tribunal ruled overwhelmingly in the Philippines’ favor in a case Manila brought against China’s South China Sea claims. The tribunal dismissed China’s nine-dash line claim, and its more nebulous claim to “historic rights” in the South China Sea, and accused Beijing of causing monumental environmental damage on its occupied reefs, to boot.
Every arm of the CCP came to its own defense, calling the ruling “a farce.” According to The Guardian, China’s People’s Daily, the official voice of the CCP, said that “The Chinese government and the Chinese people firmly oppose [the ruling] and will neither acknowledge it nor accept it.” The Guardian also quoted China’s Global Times as saying the ruling had “brazenly violated China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights.”
Does this hurt China’s reputation around the world? Of course. Does that damage matter to the Chinese Communist Party? Not that much, and it’s certainly outweighed by the benefit of those reefs, which give a direct advantage to the party in its goal of controlling commercial and military operations in the South China Sea, which in turn supports the goal of strengthening the CCP and extending its longevity. Judging China’s behavior in terms of any other value system is not only pointless, but will always come up with wrong answer.
Thus, the Chinese Communist Party perseveres by perpetuating its own truths, maintaining a laser focus on strengthening and lengthening its life and influence, while judging its results by its own terms only.
In the next article, we’ll focus on a specific example of that perseverance: the survival of the Chinese Communist Party during and after the June 4, 1989 massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.