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An Expert Explains: Triumph of the Party-state

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06 Jul 2021

The story of the Chinese Communist Party, which turned 100 this month, is a testimony to its ability to survive, adapt, and stay in power. What are the landmarks in its journey from humble beginnings to ruling a global superpower?

By Dr. Jabin T Jacob

The story of the Chinese Communist Party, which turned 100 this month, is a testimony to its ability to survive, adapt, and stay in power. What are the landmarks in its journey from humble beginnings to ruling a global superpower? How has its relationship with India evolved, and what does the future look like?

The beginning: What was the historical context, in China and in the world, of the birth of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?

The CCP was formed in the crucible of a China beset by domestic upheaval, economic backwardness and a floundering experiment with a democratic republic that followed the fall of the Qing Empire. It was obvious to Chinese intellectuals that their country’s imperial greatness was a thing of the past, and multiple ideologies competed in the search for a national revival.

The newly minted Soviet Union was keen to have more support in the east, and sent cadre — including at one point, the Indian revolutionary M N Roy — to support the growth of Chinese communism.

The CCP also views the May Fourth student movement of 1919 as a seminal influence on many of its founders. The students were protesting the Chinese government’s inability at the Treaty of Versailles to get Western imperial powers and Japan to give up their territories and privileges in China.

With the students also seeking a complete cultural and political overhaul, and calling for the adoption of science and democracy in place of traditional values, the May Fourth movement has found an echo throughout the history of Communist China, down to the present.

Early decades: What political and ideological imperatives guided Mao Zedong in the decades of the 50s and 60s? What did the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution achieve for Mao and the CCP?

In October 1949, Mao Zedong, Chairman of the CCP, announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The road to his declaration in Tiananmen Square was littered with the detritus, both intellectual and physical, of intense ideological struggles within the Party, as well as of a brutal civil war with the ruling Kuomintang government under Chiang Kai-shek. In the process, the intellectuals who led the CCP were forged as soldiers and generals who fused their ideas of communism with Chinese nationalism, and learned strategy and statecraft along the way. These experiences also created in these men an acute sense of the difficulties of dealing with human nature and frailties, of guiding the masses, and of governance.

Mao was in a hurry to change China’s conditions to strengthen it against the threats he perceived from the outside of Western and, later, Soviet imperialism, as well as the internal threats of cultural backwardness and lack of commitment to Marxism-Leninism. He thought big but seemingly without much thought to the consequences — and was more likely than not to consider opposition to him as opposition to the CCP and its ideology.

Thus, it was that Mao launched such mass campaigns as the Great Leap Forward — to transform the Chinese economy — and the Cultural Revolution — to transform the very thinking of the Chinese people, to rid the country of the last vestiges of what he believed were conservative, feudal and anti-communist elements. Mao was certainly the undisputed leader of the Party, charismatic and with a fertile intellect, but there were other capable men with similar life experiences who were devoted to the Party — and while being loyal to him, had their own views about the CCP’s direction. Such differences with Mao’s thinking were inevitably punished with imprisonment and torture — ‘struggle sessions’ or ‘reeducation’ aimed at reforming such thinking — approaches that have persisted and been scaled up today.

Mao was no economic planner, and while he inspired millions to ferment — to “bombard the Party headquarters” — both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were, unsurprisingly, massive failures with the economy and administration falling into a shambles, and scores of millions losing their lives.

The Deng turn: In what ways did Deng Xiaoping alter the guiding philosophy of Chinese Communism? Why was this turn needed, and what did it achieve for China?

Deng Xiaoping possessed a pragmatism born of surviving the early years of the CCP and two purges by Mao. He understood well the need to reassess China’s strategies in the post-Mao world. While alive to popular aspirations, he calculated that the masses were more interested in economic well-being than in political freedoms. To this end, instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, he allowed China’s many localities and provinces to experiment with different economic models, and to implement what worked.

He prioritised agricultural reforms; threw the country open to foreign capital, beginning with that from the Chinese diaspora; mended fences with neighbours, launching a process of settling several boundary disputes and keeping the intractable ones for later; and expanded channels of political communication with the two superpowers as well as other countries, arguing that China needed to integrate better with the world in order to secure its economic prosperity.

Yet, Deng was no less committed to the perpetuation in power of the CCP than Mao. He dealt with opposition ruthlessly, purging his own chosen successors and ordering the People’s Liberation Army to deal with student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

In many ways, Deng built on Mao’s legacy of the destruction of feudalism and gains in education and public health infrastructure to drive economic growth, and of the centralised but extensive reach of the political apparatus to maintain political control. This created for China an opportunity to both clock rapid economic growth and to remain politically stable despite growing regional and personal income inequalities, environmental degradation, and political disaffection.

Following Deng, China was able to gradually convert its economic strengths into regional and global political influence under General Secretaries Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

The Xi era: What is CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s idea of the China dream, and how has he gone about seeking to achieve it? Why is he considered by some to be China’s most powerful leader since Mao?

The ‘China dream’ might have been introduced as a concept by Xi but it is a long-standing one. Put simply, it represents a model in which a growing economic capacity based on innovation and modern technology supports a strong single-party state in power. This CCP model in its foreign avatar is sold as ‘Chinese wisdom’ or referred to as the ‘Chinese model’. Despite the Chinese rhetoric to the contrary, it is fundamentally anti-democratic, and views alternative political systems as threats its own existence and legitimacy.

Xi has centralised power to a greater extent than any leader since Mao by adopting multiple approaches.

One, on taking office, he launched a vigorous and sustained anti-corruption campaign that has also appeared to target political rivals.

Two, he has actively taken charge of practically all sectors of the Chinese Party-state — the economy, military, intellectual spaces. The Party “is above all”, and state institutions have been undermined or have lost power. He has achieved this by a strong ideological campaign to recentre the Party in the life of the people and the country.

And three, Xi has been bold in foreign policy, using it to convert China’s economic heft into global political advantage and in turn using his successes, including territorial aggrandisement, to boost his nationalist credentials at home.

However, it remains too soon to say that Xi is China’s most powerful leader since Mao.

The future: Where is the CCP headed in the years to come, with China’s miracle growth engine slowing, its working-age population declining, and a global coalition of democracies preparing a pushback against its military and technological assertion?

The capacity of the CCP to learn from its — and others’ — mistakes and to course-correct should not be underestimated. China’s challenges are many but its leadership. with their combination of technical education and political acumen, have so far managed to remain ahead of the problems, including even such long-standing and serious ones as the country’s massive environmental degradation, and the high levels of local debt.

While such changes as abandoning the one-child policy might appear to have come too late, it is important to remember that the quality of China’s working age population — in terms of skills, health, and longevity — remains robust. A declining population in an age of fast technological progress, including a sharp focus on robotics, AI and other frontier technologies, also opens up other possibilities for the Chinese Party-state.

It is true that global opposition to China’s political, economic and military assertiveness is growing, but the Chinese leadership anticipated this — and used mechanisms like the BRI and its huge diplomatic capacity to target vast areas in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, to build coalitions of its own against any putative concert of democracies. This is for the moment, a fight that China is reasonably well-placed in.

CCP & India: How has the relationship between the CCP/China and India evolved from the Nehruvian decade of the 50s to now? What are the major milestones in this evolution, and what does the journey ahead portend?

For both the CCP and India, the conflict of 1962 is in the past, though its legacy lives on. From about the late 1970s to perhaps the early 2010s, India certainly had cause to believe that the direction of Sino-Indian relations had potential to progress in a positive direction despite regular pinpricks such as the Chinese support for Pakistan and their lack of support for India’s international ambitions.

The 1988 visit by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the conclusion of the boundary agreements of 1993, 1996, and 2005 are the major milestones of this period. But this phase is well and truly over.

The beginnings of a new phase were evident in the 2013 Depsang incident and is now explicit in the incidents in eastern Ladakh beginning in April-May 2020. In both countries, internal dynamics have a major impact on how the relationship will proceed. This being the case, the future of India-China ties is fraught — military confrontation will continue, economic competition will increase and, above all, ideological competition will sharpen.

This article by Dr. Jabin T Jacob was published in The Indian Express. You can also read the article here.

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