China’s ruling creed at 100: the Party never stops

The Chinese Communist Party is a state within a state. It is also a ninety-million-strong faith community on a hundred-year moral mission.
Primary school students sing together to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China
Primary school students sing together to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Zaozhuang, Shandong Province, China, June 22, 2021. Credit: Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
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The Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrates its hundredth anniversary in July. While this event will be marked with maximum fanfare within the People’s Republic, for much of the rest of the world there will be a mixture of indifference, bemusement, and, more than ever before, downright antagonism.

There is a very simple reason for this. ‘The Party,’ as it is known within China, is largely only recognised for one thing beyond China’s borders – that it is communist.

Feelings about communism usually cloud more prosaic issues about what the Party actually is, beyond its stated ideology. To understand these other aspects better, we can examine a number of ideas – the way it rose from a very specific history involving war and experience of colonisation, for example, to how far longer established traditions of leadership in the country’s deep past shape the way its current rulers behave today. Another is to ponder what the other word in its title apart from ‘Communist’ actually means – what does it mean to say the CPC is a ‘party’, and how does it compare with other entities with a political purpose in Europe, for instance, or the US?

In the West we have political parties – the Democrats in America for instance, the Conservatives or Labour in the UK. Even in autocratic environments like Russia we have the United Russia party, which Vladimir Putin leads, or the Justice and Development Party under Recep Tayip Erdoğan in Turkey. In all of these, however extensive the powers these organisations might have, they at least have to operate with a few other competing parties around them. In theory at least, these others might one day supplant those in power today, however unlikely it might look at present.

The Communist Party of China, however, occupies all the political space in contemporary China, and has done so since it came to power in 1949. Whilst there are a surviving eight patriotic parties, as they are known, these are tiny in terms of membership (no more than a few tens of thousands even for the biggest). They are also utterly without meaningful power. Their function is symbolic, and they exist only in order for the Party itself to say it allow others to co-exist with it – wholly on its terms.

As an institution, then, in terms of vastness and the completeness of its reach, the CPC is a thing to behold. That too differentiates it from others. Historian Jerome Ch’en said in the 1950s it was like a ‘state within a state.’  With 90 million members today, its population would place it as the sixteenth largest in the world between Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The People’s Liberation Army, for example, is the armed wing of the Party, not the state. The CPC is the only institution that extends itself across the whole country, and down to the most local levels of governance. In the State Constitution, there are five levels of administration from the centre down to townships. It is the Party and its committees that effectively run rural China at the village level – a place where, still, hundreds of millions live.

But it is more than this that makes the Party unlike any other political force on earth. Its identity, its function, and the ways in which it relates to China as a nation-state are also unique. The Party has an ideological function which aspires to embrace people of all shades of opinion and attitudes. Those Chinese that resolutely and overtly oppose this are labelled ‘dissidents’ and simply ostracised – or worse. And while it is possible, sometimes, for non-party members to work at ministerial level in the government, these account for minuscule numbers of appointments. For anyone who wants to operate meaningfully in the political realm, the Party is the only route to do so.

The Party presents itself, and functions, as the ultimate broad church. It claims to be about ‘harmony’, creating consensus, making sure there are ways for contentious issues to be ironed out before they see the light of day. Public consultations and processes happen over laws and policy measures, and even appointments – but in mysterious ways so opaque that vast numbers of scholars and observers, both foreign and Chinese, continue to argue fiercely over their precise operation.

Perhaps this behaviour is a hangover from its earliest period in existence in the 1920s, when it was a marginalised, outlawed minority party fighting for its own survival for much of the time. Back then, the CPC needed to use subterfuge and secrecy to protect itself. Members worked in the shadows, and the almost paranoid mindset from this era lingers today in the Party’s collective unconsciousness, lending it a key element of its enigma and the mystique of its power. 

This gives rise to the great paradox that despite endless scrutiny and observation in the West – and everywhere else –  the Party remains one of the few blacked out spaces on the planet with perhaps less known now about its inner working under Xi Jinping than ever before. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.

All of this creates the impression of an entity markedly different, not just in scope, but in terms of the type of political party Westerners are more used to. Scale and ambition are one large area of discrepancy. But beyond this, there is something more fundamental, which is very rarely given the prominence it deserves. This is the way in which, through a very specific language and narrative, the Party conveys a world-view more akin to a religious organisation than a political one. It creates purpose and meaning. It operates as the self-proclaimed saviour of China. The story of China’s modern history according to the Party, the one that will be deployed during July for its centenary celebrations, will, at its heart, be the story of how, before the unity and strength the Party brought, China in the Qing era up to 1911, and then under the Nationalists, was a place that was victimised, bullied and done down by the rest of the world. The Party, it says, has changed this.

With its vision of Marxist modernity, the Party brought two great elements in to achieve this. The first was to introduce the notion of history in China as one that was purposeful, pointing towards a future in which tomorrow was always better than today. Deng Xiaoping, paramount leader in the post-Mao era after the late 1970s, stated that as a communist he was an optimist. History for the CPC is about teleology, about a process of improvement and onward success. The endless cycle of failure and success through dynastic histories in the past is gone forever. This accounts for the language used by Xi and his predecessor of the Party being engaged in an ‘historic mission’. That mission is to deliver the positive, good outcomes that the country not only deserves, but which the scientific logic of Marxist history will deliver. As long as you believe in the Party creed you will believe in truth, and see the positive things truth delivers. This, the Party claims, will endure, once it happens, forever.  

Secondly, the Party created a sense that this view of historic development was not only inevitable and scientific, but morally correct too. That meant its view of history was not just logically engaging, but emotionally so too. Before the Party’s reign, China had suffered injustice. It had been a great culture, with a great peoples, trampled on by treacherous groups within the country, and by the hostility of others outside. From 1949, therefore, in the Party’s narrative about its own function, it has been seeking restoration of justice. This means that, whatever the outside world might think of China today, for leaders like Xi and the members of the political entity he follows, there is no difference between their administrative and their moral functions. In making victimised, unjustly treated China return to its position of historic centrality, strength and self-respect, they are engaged in a righteous cause. This point of view in particular accounts for their defensiveness and irritation by what they see as, in particular, Western attempts to disrupt this just process.

All of this is heady, grand stuff. Political parties in Britain, France or America say they are aiming to make their countries great again if you vote for them. But the context in which they do this (time-limited elections) and the history these claims operate against (countries which have experienced recent years of economic slow down or stagnation) makes those claims different. China’s rise as a nation is not about its last ten or so years, or about ensuring the good standards of living of the recent past can be maintained. It is a process of a hundred years or more, one that has taken the country from widespread poverty and weakness to being the world’s second largest economy, with the first place in the world order within its grasp. The sheer speed and scale of China’s transformation gives the Party’s claims to be regenerating and renewing the country far deeper reach and far greater dramatic impact.

In that sense, the Party must be seen in a very particular framework. The extent of its institutional reach, the largeness of its claims about its key mission and the extraordinary annexation of almost all political and much of public life (civil society groups, under Xi, have been increasingly controlled and aligned with the Party, as have enterprises, even when they are ostensibly in the private sphere) mean that even this notion of ‘a state within a state’ is perhaps too modest. The Party, in fact, looks more like a world within a world.

In this framework, the Party is the equivalent of a religious organisation in the West. Its main distinguishing feature is not, as some might think, Marxism, nor even Xi Jinping himself, or communism – but the spiritual importance and reality of a great Chinese state.  This is not a new dream. It is one that haunted the imaginations and hopes of reformers from the late Qing Dynasty onwards – the grand idea of a `rich, strong country.’  There is a longstanding Chinese phrase for this – `fuqiang guojia’. This has occurred throughout the phases of modern Chinese history as a beacon of hope even while the country looked the precise opposite – poor and weak. 

If the communists are celebrating a single thing during July, it will be not so much be the Party prevailing for a century, but more that it has placed itself as the key body which is now, more than at any time in modern history, closer to bringing about that dream of the ‘rich, strong country.’ Chinese people outside the upper levels of the Party, and maybe a good number of the 90 million members, might have little understanding, and no real desire to know much, of Marxist-Leninism. Strikingly, Xi’s speeches are filled more with references to authors and figures from classical Chinese history, long before the Party existed. This illustrates that what really stirs people is the way the CPC has presented itself as the great deliverer of that quasi-religious dream of a renewed, strong, modernised Chinese nation.

This dream is not some abstract, remote hope, either. Those that visit China today will see a landscape inscribed with signs of visible success of its modernising mission. There, 30,000-plus kilometres of high-speed train streak across the landscape – more than the rest of the world put together. Chinese cities are monuments to ultra-modernism. The ever-expanding Chinese middle classes are working in new areas of technology and finance which make their lifestyles now seem to outpace Western ones. All of this, it is often forgotten, in a country that had widespread famine and entrenched poverty within living memory. ‘Make practice the key criterion for truth’ was one of the slogans of the early Deng reform period in the 1980s. The Party can point to any doubters amongst the Chinese population, and, like the architect Christopher Wren, say that if they seek the signs of its success, look around.  All religions needs miracles. For the CPC, what China has achieved in the last 30 years or so is close to one.

This spiritual and moral narrative is taught in school. It is the key point of orientation. China, a nation with a cultural history going back thousands of years, one of the world’s great civilisations, experienced tragic and unjust suffering in the modern era, but is now on its way back, everyone is told. The Party, as a faith community, will be able to witness, against all the odds, the resurrection of their great country from the ashes of near-defeat during the Second World War, and the terrible suffering they had to endure during their early years. Xi talks of this period as being one of learning and development, however, not of defeat and implosion. The horrendous torment of that dark past is redeemed, he claims, by the fact that it contributed to a nation today that has built, in its own unique way, economically and politically, something that stands in pole position to become, in aggregate terms at least, the richest nation on earth sometime in the near future.

In cementing this narrative, the Party will also be able to celebrate disproving to many outside China who said this victory would only happen if the country fundamentally changed its political model and became a liberal democracy. The Party will also be able to show that, contrary to orthodox thinking, one can indeed practice communism in governance, and yet run a capitalist economy. It might even be able to claim that, unlike the religious beliefs held by many in much of the rest of the world, the Party is delivering what its faithful need not in the next world, but in this. That, however, might be a claim too far. What is certain is that while one doesn’t have to agree with these grand visions, it certainly helps to recognise that they are a fundamental part of the Party’s identity. If you deny them, it is hard to see how the Party – a faith community, guided by a nationalistic vision – really is.

Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King​'s College London, and Associate Fellow of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of over 20 books on modern China, the most recent of which is China: A History​ (Polity Press, Cambridge).

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