CPC’s Centenary: Analyzing Reasons behind its Longevity

Published On: July 14, 2021 12:53 PM NPT By: Santosh Sharma Poudel

The CPC derives its legitimacy from its history and its central role in improving the living standard of a billion people. Now, growth will not be the same as it once was when China was just starting. There is no electoral mandate. The judiciary and the army are the arms of the party. It also means that there is no institution to ‘check and balance’ the party.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) celebrated its centenary with pomp and grandiosity on 1st of July. Speaking from Tiananmen Square, President Xi Jinping confidently announced that China will not be bullied. He said that China today is a ‘thriving nation advancing with unstoppable momentum toward rejuvenation’. The CPC has left no stone unturned to show the rise of China and its centrality in the process. The CPC established the modern Chinese state in 1949 and has remained in power since. It is arguably one of the most consequential parties of the 20th century globally and it will have even wide-reaching implications in the 21st century.

During these 10 decades, it faced several ups and downs but has survived, and appears to be as strong as ever. Many critics predicted the downfall of the party at various times or at least believed that the authoritarian system will gradually give way to more ‘democratic’ practices as the increasing middle-class was assumed to demand more political freedom. The centenary lends itself as an opportune time to analyze the basis of the CPC’s longevity and lessons that others can draw upon.

Firstly, during the reign of the CPC, China has been able to lift 800 million people out of poverty, while eliminating absolute poverty. President Xi proudly announced that China has fulfilled its first centenary goal of building a moderately prosperous society. In the process, China became a world power, one that the US labeled a near-peer competitor. Xi further stressed that China is confidently striding toward the second centenary goal of building China into a great modern socialist country. Many critics feared that China could turn into a kleptocracy, but Chinese people across the board have seen improvement in their lives, though the well-connected elites have benefitted more. It has been able to do so following the political ideologies of Mao Zedong and the economic pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping. The hybrid is referred to as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Xi even donned Deng’s attire for the ceremony.

Secondly, the CPC has been adept at adapting ideologies and policies more than the critics give it credit for. The CPC has been steadfast in following Mao’s ideology, but it has not meant the same during the reign of each of the party chairmen. Similarly, policies are discarded if they fail to deliver what they intended to. It is this ideological and policy agility that makes the party malleable. Because the public debate is controlled and limited, many critics misconstrue that as a total lack of deliberation. Additionally, because the party is not bound by ‘electoral politics’, it can plan strategically for the long term.

Thirdly, China has not been adventurous abroad. Most of the authoritarian regimes were obliterated because of their adventurism abroad. China has been cautious in this regard. For a long time, China hid its capabilities and bid its time. Some Chinese people even criticized the leadership for their passivity in foreign affairs. For long, China has resisted major military adventurism in Taiwan, though it passed the ‘anti-cessation law’ (partly knowing that time was on its side). As Chinese interests have broadened, so has its engagement. It has brought forth global projects like Belt and Road Initiative, the most expansive global infrastructure plan ever. Recently, we can see a more vocal Chinese leadership and diplomats, who believe that their time has arrived.

Finally, CPC has been ruthless in its goal of maintaining its control and centrality in Chinese politics. Be it the cultural revolution under Mao, the brutal crushing of Tiananmen protesters, or the current situation in Xinjiang, CPC has done what it needed to. It has also harnessed the power of technology to control the propaganda and behavior of people through surveillance and creating a great firewall among others. The recent passing of security law in Hong Kong is another example of China’s ruthlessness.

There seems to be no imminent danger to the CPC’s centrality in China. There is no space for complacency. Firstly, the location chosen to celebrate the occasion was Tiananmen Square. It was where the CPC crushed the protests brutally in 1989. However, most of the Chinese have not learned about it. Some of my Chinese friends learned about the incident for the first time when they went to Japan for higher studies. President Xi said ‘by learning from history, we can understand why powers rise and fall’. Ironically, the Chinese, especially the young ones, have learned little about the other side of CPC’s history.

The CPC derives its legitimacy from its history and its central role in improving the living standard of a billion people. Now, growth will not be the same as it once was when China was just starting. There is no electoral mandate. The judiciary and the army are the arms of the party. It also means that there is no institution to ‘check and balance’ the party. The much-touted collective leadership mitigated the risks, but the rise of Xi Jinping, who is seen by some as the most powerful Chairman since Mao, has changed the dynamics. The party lifted the two-term limits on the presidency in 2018, paving the way for Xi to be president till he pleases. With such absolute control, the party has resorted to promoting nationalist sentiment to keep the country together and create a foe. It has served the party well so far, but it is a double-edged sword.

President Xi ended the speech with ‘long live… the party, long live…people’. In another instance, he remarked that ‘remaining loyal to the party’ is a founding principle. Therein lay another limitation of the system. The CPC has put the party above people. What if the party interests do not align with the people’s interests? For the CPC, the choice is explicit.

Why it matters to us?

The longevity of the CPC and party leadership may be of envy to many political leaders around the globe, including Nepal where we have had 12 governments since 2008. The rapid transformation of China (and the fissures in democracy seen in the last few years), and the lack of development in Nepal because of the corrupt system have many Nepalis harkening for a ‘strong leader’. The CPC can offer some lessons, positive and negative, for both the leaders and populace though the Chinese system is unique in its way. First, the longevity of the governments depends upon delivering development and improving the standards for people. It is the economy, stupid. Even in democracies, it holds.

Like the CPC, some leaders may be tempted to have control over all co-equal branches of the government, including propaganda. For those with authoritarian ambitions, it may be appealing, but the socio-political context of Nepal is not the same. Additionally, such control often comes at a considerable cost, borne by the minorities.

In Nepal, the political chaos, despite the comfortable majority of the leftists, has got many harkening for a strong monarch, or hoping for a ‘righteous authoritarian’. Many of the populace may see that China has developed because of it. Yet, the Chinese model is not easily copy-able. And when things go wrong, it can go wrong fast. The venue of Xi’s address is a testament to that. The CPC is highly cautious and stamps out dissent beforehand quickly because it knows that it takes a minor issue for the dominoes to start falling.




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