The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which turned 100 this week, is undoubtedly the most successful communist party, or indeed authoritarian regime, in the world. It has ruled China, unelected, for 72 years, presiding over one of the most astonishing socio-economic transformations ever witnessed.
In steering China from an agricultural backwater to the world’s second-largest economy (with a GDP of $16.64 trillion in 2021), the CCP has defied decades of predictions that its uncomfortable blend of authoritarian politics and economic liberalisation was unsustainable.
The reasons for the party’s surprising success are manifold, but perhaps one stands out. Instead of relying wholly on coercion, it has followed a strategy of co-option. And in the process, it has proved to be ideologically flexible, a remarkable feat for a “Communist Party” which one would imagine by very definition to be doctrinaire.
Contemporary China is, in fact, rife with contradictions. The CCP espouses a communist, egalitarian ideology while presiding over the emergence of a hugely unequal, capitalism-driven society. The divergent interests of the urban middle class clash with those of peasants and migrant workers. It has the world’s largest number of internet users (989 million by the end of 2020) and four Chinese companies account for 44% of global e-commerce. All this despite being one of the world’s most censored digital environments.
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And yet, the CCP has proved adept at squaring seeming circles and proved doomsday scenarios of its imminent collapse wrong, time and again. A crucial tool in achieving this feat has been the pilot project, poetically rendered as the Deng Xiaoping maxim, “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” This approach was characterised by experimentation and local policy tinkering, to establish what worked best in practice before adoption at the national level. Consequently, the CCP swapped the kind of abrupt, ideologically based upheavals that characterised Mao Zedong’s mass movements from the 1950s to the 1970s, for pragmatic solutions that worked.
What ‘worked’ was defined by certain parameters, most fundamentally the preservation of the CCP’s power. To this end, Beijing deployed a range of strategies including censorship and purges, but also the co-option of key constituencies like the urban middle class by associating itself with a set of aspirations — urban living standards on par with the West, state-of-the-art technological innovation and world-class infrastructure. By tying the prosperity of this group to the continuance of the party at the helm of policy making, the CCP effectively neutralised what could have been its most formidable foe.
Unlike the sclerotic and kleptocratic leadership that has characterised most authoritarian regimes, the CCP has developed a problem-solving approach. Beijing’s air pollution is a case in point. From being a poster boy for foul air, the Chinese capital has transformed into a model to be emulated by cities like Delhi.
The legacy of the Deng Xiaoping-initiated era of “reform and opening up” and the pragmatic attitude that accompanied it is crucial in explaining how China got to where it is today. However, President Xi Jinping has sought to reimpose ideological purity. He has, for example, reinstated the ritual recitations of communist classics by party cadres. Deng Xiaoping had spoken of separating the roles of party and government. Xi has fused them, putting the party more firmly in charge. Harking back to the Maoist era, ordinary members serve as the eyes and ears of the CCP in workplaces, neighbourhoods and university campuses. In Xinjiang, Xi has used party committees to build detention camps where upwards of one million Muslims from the Uighur ethnic minorities are thought to be held. It is party secretaries, and not courts or legal panels, that have the final say over who is imprisoned and when they are released. The Xi-era CCP has even reined in China’s free-wheeling private entrepreneurs with regulatory crackdowns, criminal prosecution and confiscation of wealth.
Under Xi, the focus on China’s supposed peaceful economic integration into the global system is being supplanted by a trade war that some fear could degenerate into a new Cold War. Nationalism has clearly trumped the Dengist strategy of “hiding strength and biding time”.
As it turns 100 years old, the CCP today has almost 90 million members. And yet the party means different things to different people. To some it is a pragmatic pathway to better job prospects. To others it is tied up with patriotism and a sense of being victimised by the rest of the world.
What is clear is that the predicted collapse of the CCP by western commentators is unlikely to happen in a hurry. Nonetheless, under Xi, the party does face some serious challenges. How will Beijing cope with the US as an open adversary, rather than the trade and investment partner it has been so far? The answer, while critical, is unclear. What is clear is that the CCP will need to do a balancing act that could prove tough for acrobats even as skilled as the Chinese.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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