Getting to 100 is no small feat for any institution, but the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is reaching its centenary this week with 92 million members. It had a hell of a ride from its founding in 1921 to assuming power in 1949. It then faced many internal difficulties before settling down in 1979 to modernise the country. At the time, China was an industrial and technological midget, and dirt-poor.

The CCP’s legitimacy comes from its success in improving the lives of the Chinese people. The party’s governance effectiveness can be seen from its ability to contain Covid-19 in 2020, where massive manpower and resources were quickly directed to fight the new virus. As the party sets itself new goals to achieve by 2050-60, the world will have to pay greater attention to a more powerful China.

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012. Photo: WikiMedia

Founding and early years

The CCP, formed in 1921, was a revolutionary Marxist movement and a political party. By the end of World War II in 1945 it had established a well-oiled Marxist-Leninist party structure. After the Nationalists were defeated and retreated to Taiwan, the CCP assumed power and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The early years were marked by internal strife and disagreements. After falling out with the Soviet Union, China attempted to strike out with its own form of socio-economic development with the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-60) that resulted in famine and tens of millions of deaths. Later on, Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) plunged the country into chaos that left China in a desperate state.

Evolution of Chinese Marxism-Leninism

Deng Xiaoping is revered in party history as the great stabiliser and architect of reform. His pragmatism led the CCP to assert in 1978 that “practice is the sole criterion for judging truth,” meaning Marxism must adapt if something didn’t work. As to how to change, Deng admitted he “groped for stepping stones to cross the river.”

Thus, Chinese Marxism evolves according to changing circumstances. In 1984 Deng asserted that the CCP had not paid enough attention to “developing the productive forces” in society. This provided the ideological justification for the new “socialist market economy” in which central planning and market forces could co-exist.

Deng Xiaoping
Deng Xiaoping. File

Leninism too, which governs the party’s structure and system, must be continuously upgraded. As a party-state, China has a parallel party-and-government structure, with the party calling the shots. Party leaders are certain that the CCP is essential to China’s progress because they believe only the party can provide the discipline, loyalty and commitment needed for stable long-term leadership to guide development.

The CCP knows change can be perilous. Much of the internal party argument over the years has been about the speed of reform. Going gangbusters could lead to resistance and chaos, but going too slow could result in stagnation and discontent. Some of the hardest things were achieved in the 1980s – such as de-collectivization of the rural economy, relaxation of price controls, rolling back state ownership, and allowing foreign investment and private ownership in special economic zones.

Party narratives for change

Every major party reform agenda – such as the “Three Represents” under Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and “Scientific Outlook on Development” under Hu Jintao (2002-12) – contained socio-economic reforms that reshaped Marxism “with Chinese characteristics” as well as upskilling the party structure and system.

Thus, “Three Represents” opened party membership to people in private businesses as the private sector grew in China; and the “Scientific Outlook” incorporated science, sustainable development, and social equity into policies, as pollution levels rose and the divide between rich and poor widened.

Jiang Zemin Tung Chee-hwa
Jiang Zemin (right) and ex-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Photo: GovHK.

Xi Jinping, who became China’s leader in 2012, faced two immediate challenges – corruption, and going the last mile in eliminating extreme poverty.

Cracking down on both “Tigers and Flies” was a national-scale anti-corruption campaign. While it rocked many vested interests, it resulted in some four million party and government officials being punished since 2012. The ongoing campaign requires strong support from the party rank-and-file. It is popular with the people and saved the party from loss of legitimacy. The CCP has become much more selective in recent years in accepting members.

As for poverty elimination, the problem was how to deal with the hardest cases of people in faraway areas with no means to partake in markets, and rural people with long-term illnesses and special needs. Leaders didn’t rely on desktop ideas – they sent 775,000 officials in 2016 to identify and implement location-specific solutions.

The CCP was able to announce in 2020 that between 1980-2020, China successfully lifted a staggering 800 million people out of poverty. The next stage is for more people to share in a higher level of prosperity and well-being. Zhejiang province is the designated site to test policies to achieve “Common Prosperity” in a fair society.

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping. File photo: World Economic Forum via Flickr.

Starting in Deng Xiaoping’s time, China invested heavily in education, especially in science and technology. The CCP learnt about management systems. Party schools flourished. Party and government officials work closely with universities, think tanks and experts. China participates internationally in many forms of joint research, including with United Nations agencies.

Future-forward 2050-60 goals

In 2017, Xi announced that China would realise “socialist modernisation” by 2035, and China would be a modern socialist country by 2050. Last year he also pledged that China would achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Taken together, the party intends China to develop an “Ecological Civilisation” – a concept based on environmental sustainability, embedded in the party constitution in 2012 and the national constitution in 2018. These tight timelines and high ambitions require China to take a revolutionary leap in transformation. Change will have to be accelerated from five-year plan to five-year plan.

External challenges

Meanwhile, the external environment has become less favourable. Western powers saw China positively through the lens of globalisation of production and investment. However, they now see China’s rise as a threat to their dominance in world affairs. In playing defence, the CCP is strengthening its national security, as well as speeding up the development of its domestic economy. It has also put forward the idea a “Community of Shared Interest” to emphasise its desire to share prosperity with other countries.

National People's Congress npc beijing great hall
The Great Hall. File Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

It would be too simplistic to describe the CCP as monolithic and authoritarian, or demonise it as oppressive. Labels limit understanding. The CCP is a strong mobiliser, not for elections like many parties in the West, but in operating “big government” to achieve long-term goals. It has the capability and capacity to learn, adapt and reform. It can be justifiably proud of its many achievements for China. The test going forward is not to become arrogant and excuse its own shortcomings.

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Christine Loh was a former legislator in Hong Kong and ministerial appointee in the HKSAR government. She is the author of Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong; and the chief development strategist at Institute for the Environment, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.