As the Communist Party Turns 100, How Red is China?

chinese communist party 100th anniversary
Performers dressed as rescue workers gather around the Communist Party flag during a gala show ahead of the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on June 28. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

America has gotten used to the idea that it is in a standoff with China, though the degree and nature of that conflict is a subject of debate. Still, despite its formal trappings as a socialist entity, many think of the struggle as having more to do with markets and spheres of influence than the ideological divide that characterized the Cold War.

China’s leaders see things differently.

On July 1, the nation held a mass celebration to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which has been in power since 1949.

To mark the event, China’s President Xi Jinping delivered a speech touting the party’s achievements.

“To realize national rejuvenation, the Party has united and led the Chinese people in pursuing a great struggle, a great project, a great cause, and a great dream through a spirit of self-confidence, self-reliance, and innovation, achieving great success for socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era.”

Much of the West’s media coverage of Xi’s remarks focused on his threat that “any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us … will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Yet, what seemed to some observers incongruous was the prominent place that an ideology many thought was relegated to mere window dressing for the CCP played in his address.

“Marxism is the fundamental guiding ideology upon which our Party and country are founded; it is the very soul of our Party and the banner under which it strives,” said Xi. “Based on China’s realities, we have developed keen insights into the trends of the day, seized the initiative in history, and made painstaking explorations. We have thus been able to keep adapting Marxism to the Chinese context and the needs of our times, and to guide the Chinese people in advancing our great social revolution.”

China’s Leninist style one-party authoritarian system has defined it since the CCP took power over 70 years ago. While China has seen significant reforms since the terrors of Chairman Mao Zedong, the 1989 crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square and the last decade marked by tighter controls on public discourse, freedom of information, a campaign of oppression against the Uighur Muslims, and the past year of heavy-handed policies in Hong Kong are just a few actions that highlight how far the country is from an open society.

Yet how a nation that has thrived on free markets for close to 40 years continues to hold Marxism as its “fundamental guiding ideology” calls for explanation.

The question is compounded by what some portray as Xi’s embrace of Mao’s approaches to governance, punctuated by his occasional donning of the “Mao suit.” The drab uniform of proletarian unity which was favored by the late Chinese dictator fell out of widespread use in China and was largely jettisoned by the nation’s more recent leaders. Yet, Xi has increasingly favored the suit and, appropriate to the occasion, wore it to the celebration of 100 years of the CCP.

A More Stable Red Brick Road

While the Soviet Union presented a formidable challenge to the West for decades, by the 1970s, the country and the bloc under its influence was imploding, suffocated by the failures of the purported system of class equality upon which it was premised. The collapse was accelerated by poor management, corruption, and oppression.

chinese communist party 100th anniversary
Late Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong in 1969. (AP Photo)

Despite the dissatisfaction with the CCP’s system revealed by the Tiananmen Square protests and international condemnation of the mass killing of those involved, when nearly all the rest of the communist world fell in 1989, China’s system marched on.

China had broken with the Soviet Union in 1960, largely due to Mao’s criticism of Nikita Khrushchev’s program of de-Stalinization and statements that the USSR sought “peaceful coexistence” with the West. The schism detached China from the USSR’s decline and, unlike the Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe, was not dependent on Soviet military strength.

“Eastern Europe collapsed because none of their governments had legitimacy on their own; without Soviet bayonets, none of them could stay in power. The USSR’s collapse did not have an impact on the CCP’s legitimacy,” said Dean Cheng, a China expert for the Heritage Foundation.

Another of the CCP’s strengths that Mr. Cheng suggested helped it avoid the pitfalls that brought down the Soviet Union has been a consistently positive narrative of its own history. Beginning in the early 1960s, Khrushchev publicly acknowledged the horrors of the Stalinist era and worked to remove the trappings of what he labeled a “cult of personality” from society.

Yet, in China, even as Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were responsible for the murder, torture, and starvation of millions, his image remained a symbol of the party’s ascendance and his countenance “graces” the nation’s most central sites and its currency to this day.

“China didn’t go through a de-Maoification like the de-Stalinization that left a lot of Russians feeling very demoralized about the party,” said Mr. Cheng. “The CCP doesn’t talk about the Great Leap Forward and the famines or the lives ruined, and cultural sites destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping, who rose to power in the late 1970s and ruled China until his death in 1997, basically said that what Mao did was 70% right and that he made some mistakes.”

Ironically, while the Sino-Soviet split was marked by China’s assumption of the harder line on Marxist ideology, around 20 years later and under new leadership, the nations would prove far nimbler in admitting the limits of socialism and adapting to a market economy.

Ian Johnson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations with an expertise in China, posited that the CCP’s nearly 30 years as a rebel entity in China before it rose to power made its leaders more pragmatic than their Soviet counterparts. From the time of its founding until its ultimate victory in 1949, the party survived through a series of alliances during its period of quasi-exile in various parts of China.

“Dating back to the ’20s and ’30s they had to cut deals with Muslims and with warlords and farmers in order to survive,” said Mr. Johnson. “They were always experimenting; and in the economic reforms of the ’70s they showed an ability to improvise.” Deng initiated a series of economic reforms that promoted private ownership and largely introduced a capitalist system while keeping political power consolidated in the hands of the CCP. In describing his nuanced approach to what was still labeled socialism Deng famously commented, “No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.”

chinese communist party 100th anniversary
Deng Xiaoping in 1988. (AP Photo/File)

“[Deng] created a system where whatever works was called socialism and whatever didn’t was capitalism. In reality, he began to glorify becoming rich and the country steadily became more capitalist,” said Mr. Cheng.

Mr. Johnson pointed to key differences between reforms in China and those that ultimately broke the USSR.

“The Chinese did Perestroika without Glasnost,” he said, referencing the late Soviet periods — the former connoting economic and political reform and the latter government transparency and tolerance of free thinking.

“The Soviets allowed for more freedom of expression which led to an explosion of unhappiness and upheaval,” said Mr. Johnson. “The Chinese started with economic reforms like giving farmers long-term usage of their land and free markets. They were able to deliver the goods in a way the Soviets could not do. It’s important not to underestimate that most people are not disgruntled about freedom but about wanting a decent life and not wanting to wait in line for bread. A rising standard of living can usually quell 80% of political discontent.”

Mr. Cheng said that the difference between the USSR and China on freedom of movement played a role in the two regimes’ disparate outcomes.

“In the Soviet Union there was a pathology that anyone who got out was a failure,” he said. “In China the attitude is that if you want to see the world go ahead and if you want to defect, we don’t care. Your average Chinese person does not feel that he’s held hostage in his country.”

Socialism With Chinese Characteristics

When Deng initiated his campaign of economic reforms, he was well aware that it challenged the Marxist vision long preached by Mao and the CCP. To smooth the incongruity, he moved the party to embrace a model that became known as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

chinese communist party 100th anniversary
Chinese paramilitary police march past the logo for the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party, outside the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

In a simple sense, the theory, referenced in Xi’s recent speech, implies that the CCP’s version of communist ideology would now mean doing whatever is in the Chinese people’s best economic interests, and given the circumstances, that essentially meant an embrace of capitalism.

The ideological bridge, which still largely reigns in present day CCP thought, is that in order to achieve the ultimate Marxist goal of total equality, the nation must first have abundant wealth.

“Therefore, the fundamental task for the socialist stage is to develop the productive forces,” as Deng put it in a 1984 speech on Marxist theory at a party meeting. “As they develop, the people’s material and cultural life will constantly improve. One of our shortcomings after the founding of the People’s Republic was that we didn’t pay enough attention to developing the productive forces. Socialism means eliminating poverty. Pauperism is not socialism, still less communism.”

Some feel that socialism with Chinese characteristics is little more than a cover for the party to justify its embrace of free market economics; still, elements of the Marxist-Leninist system remain.

“There is still a lot of the economy that is state owned,” said Mr. Cheng. “Even in the private sector, the state picks champions. Huawei is a private company, but the state tells them what to do and they don’t have much of a choice in the matter.”

While China has risen to become the world’s second-largest economy, boasting many highly competitive private companies, 60% of its enterprises are still in state hands, accounting for 40% of its GDP. The list includes auto companies, steel manufacturing, power infrastructure, and major grocery chains.

Mr. Johnson said that even state ownership often manages entities with the shrewdness of an entrepreneur.

“These companies function on market principals,” he said. “If a state-owned grocery is not making a profit, they’ll fire the manager. The difference is that if someone wants to open a competing store, they might have difficulty.”

Much of Xi’s rhetoric seems to take the CCP’s nuanced vision of Marxism seriously. He pledged to use the nation’s present era of economic prosperity to bring about a state of heightened power and socialist harmony by 2049, which would be the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

chinese communist party 100th anniversary
Chinese President and party leader Xi Jinping delivers a speech at a ceremony marking the centenary of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing, July 1, 2021. (Li Xueren/Xinhua via AP)

In what is a somewhat self-serving reality, arguably the most “communist” element of modern China is the central role the party plays in governance. A key element of Leninist thought is that the party should serve as the “vanguard” of society, a group representing the most enlightened of the nation’s workers, constantly working for socialist ideas in the ongoing class struggle characteristic of Marxism.

While China has layers of local government and private sector leadership, lower-level party leaders often play the role of a more powerful shadow authority stepping in or threatening to do so if they feel the CCP’s preferred approach is not being followed.

In his address, Xi clearly laid out a vision for the central and permanent role that the party must serve in order to deliver the China its leaders envision.

“We must uphold the firm leadership of the Party. China’s success hinges on the Party. The more than 180-year-long modern history of the Chinese nation, the 100-year-long history of the Party, and the more than 70-year-long history of the People’s Republic of China all provide ample evidence that without the Communist Party of China, there would be no new China and no national rejuvenation. The Party was chosen by history and the people. The leadership of the Party is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics and constitutes the greatest strength of this system.”

The Party Goes On

The question of whether Xi is actually more Maoist or whether the suit is just for effect is a subject of debate.

His consolidation of power is an element that feeds comparisons between Xi and Mao. During Deng’s tenure, rule by consensus between the leader of the party and senior members of the politburo became an accepted norm of Chinese governance — partially as a guard against a repeat of the excesses and terror that marked the Mao era.

chinese communist party 100th anniversary
Performers form the number 100 at a gala show in Beijing ahead of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Some observers feel that Xi rules largely on his own with the party’s upper echelons increasingly manned by members who fall in line with his vision.

In 2018, under Xi’s guidance, the National People’s Congress suspended constitutional rules that limited his terms as president, paving the way for him to serve as the nation’s leader for life. Next year, he will break with recent precedent and begin a third term.

After years of more liberal attitudes toward freedom of expression and information, under Xi, the government’s grip on intellectual debate and media has steadily tightened as has the net of its surveillance regime.

Mr. Cheng felt that comparisons between Mao and Xi were “overblown,” given the importance of the cult of personality surrounding Mao and the more technocratic image held by Xi, but said there were certain throwbacks.

“Deng had a bargain: don’t ask awkward political questions but feel free to make money. Now getting too rich can get you in trouble,” he said

The most recent high profile example was tech billionaire Jack Ma, who, after a speech criticizing some of China’s regulatory bodies, mysteriously disappeared for months only to emerge this past January striking a far more conciliatory tone.

Despite tightening strings on many aspects of life and a catalogue of oppressive campaigns, most reports show that Xi and the CCP remain highly popular.

“If you are an 80-year-old Chinese person, in your lifetime you’ve seen your home electrified, your children live longer and get better education, better food, the ability to travel,” said Mr. Cheng. “The party takes credit for all good things and they control the way people are taught, so people don’t hear about the failures.”