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The powerful centenarian: China's Communist Party turns 100

5 min read

Nearing its 100th anniversary, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) appears stronger than ever. On the one hand, the party state lead by Xi Jinping has fared comparatively well in containing the coronavirus pandemic, increasing Chinese citizen’s trust in their government. From another perspective, what helped the leadership overcome challenges in recent decades was an unusual combination of political control and planning with economic flexibility and experimentation.   

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was established in Shanghai on July 23, 1921. But it has little in common with the present-day CCP. Mao Zedong was very present at the first Party Congress, which announced the fight against class distinctions, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie through a proletarian revolution and the collectivization of production. What followed were years of civil war against the ruling Kuomintang party, violent propaganda campaigns and internal party purges.  

Ever since the CCP started introducing elements of a market economy to China in 1978, communist ideals stopped playing a prominent role, at least in the PRC’s economic policies. Marketization laid the foundation for China's rise to a global economic power, turning it into a power that today claims the right to play a leading role in shaping the future world order, politically and economically.  

During the economic heyday of the early 1990s and into the first decade of the new millennium, it seemed that the CCP and its socialist ideology had taken a back seat. Policies focused on expanding the output of the "workbench of the world," increasing prosperity and consumption. But a technocratic-pragmatic succession of leaders like Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao came to an end when Xi Jinping took power in 2012.  

Nowadays, Xi rules the Party and the country with a tight grip. And not only does the CCP control all relevant state institutions, it has evolved to become a huge and influential corporation with interests that reach into all areas of the Chinese economy. Some experts have coined the term "CCP Inc." for this powerful ecosystem.

CCP 100This short analysis is part of a MERICS series on the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the coming weeks and months, we will be publishing short analyses, graphics, podcasts, videos and reports on the topic on this dedicated website. Make sure to take a look at our graphic story on the CCP here.

The fate of state-owned enterprises – oil and energy giants like Sinopec and State Grid or the Bank of China – are controlled by the top echelons of the CCP. And increasingly under Xi, the party is targeting the private sector. The case of Jack Ma highlights how market success is only acceptable to Xi’s CCP when it conforms with the party line the founder of the Internet giant Alibaba seems to have fallen from grace because his enterprises were getting too big to fail.     

The CCP’s priority to control private-sector market forces is also reflected in efforts to instal party cells in companies – they were established in 73 percent of the more than 15 million private entities in 2018 alone. Independent business decisions are still allowed, but only if they align with the party's overall economic strategies.

CCP membership is considered an important career prerequisite

Chinese citizens consider CCP membership an important career prerequisite, even in the private sector. Despite a recent drop in membership applications, the party still received 19 million in 2019 (most recent figures). Usually, slightly less than half of applications are successful.

Those who want to join the party have to provide a lot of personal information, including details about parents' and friends’ political backgrounds. Applicants must write essays on Marxism-Leninism and on current political developments. Eight colleagues, neighbors and acquaintances have to vouch for an applicant’s reputation. In the ensuing one-year probation period, the admission process can still be stopped if “party discipline” is breached.

The CCP’s membership structure reflects how it has changed. In 2019, 50.7 percent of members held an academic degree, while the proportion workers and peasants sank to 34.8 percent. Not much has happened in terms of gender equality – not even a third of members are women and with Sun Chunlan there is only one female representative in the powerful Politburo.

As impressive as the number of applicants and members may be, the CCP does have a bit of an image problem. Although most of them quickly get censored, ironic comments on social media suggest that many in consumer-oriented China have trouble identifying with Xi’s ideological return to socialist values. Training sessions and education campaigns for party members are supposed to bridge this divide. The chances for success are unclear, but many Chinese see conformity as the order of the day in a party state whose digital surveillance is increasingly encroaching on people’s privacy.  

Xi's quest for control is also taking its toll on higher-ranking cadres. Hundreds of thousands of them have fallen victim to a radical anti-corruption campaign launched by the party leader (also with an eye on getting rid of inner-party opponents). Over the past seven years, Xi has relentlessly centralized planning and decision making and filled key posts with allies. Inner-party resistance to Xi's autocratic style is nowhere to be seen.  

The CCP will celebrate its achievements with great fanfare

In its centenary year, the CCP will celebrate its achievements with great fanfare, the most important being the self-defined goal of overcoming poverty. The next big achievement is scheduled by 2049 – the "resurrection of the great Chinese nation." There are a few potential stumbling blocks on the way to reaching this lofty goal: demographic change and resulting social problems, the heavy debt burdens of local governments and companies alike, an unstable financial sector and uncertain export prospects in a crisis-ridden global economy.  

The coronavirus crisis has shown that authoritarian, top-down policymaking can perform well in extreme circumstances. On the other hand, centralized decision making threatens the flexibility and spirit of experimentation at local levels which made China’s economic miracle possible in the first place. Indeed, these very qualities will be needed to achieve the goal of high-quality economic growth and independence from foreign suppliers.

The CCP sees China ahead of other nations in the battle against the ongoing pandemic and is set to celebrate its centenary extremely assertively. The course of events in Hong Kong also shows that the party state is set to unwaveringly pursue its goals – and regardless of criticism and possible backlash from democratic countries. As the CCP and the party state it created are riding a wave of self-confidence, it is high time that we rethink our relations with this powerful institution.

Claudia Wessling
Claudia Wessling
Director Communications and Publications


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