China’s Communist Party at 90

David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh
David Shambaugh Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs; Director of the China Policy Program - Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University

June 30, 2011

Nationwide ceremonies and a deluge of media coverage have been mobilized by China’s ruling Communist Party to mark its 90th anniversary today. But all the hoopla cannot conceal the party’s insecure state.

Central China Television (CCTV) has been airing long narrative documentaries about the party’s history; bookstores are full of red-covered histories; museums have mounted special exhibitions — including the new National Museum’s “Road to Rejuvenation.” And the buildup will be capped by a nationwide address by the party’s general secretary, President Hu Jintao.

The main theme in all these celebrations has been that the party has provided China prosperity and dignity following a “century of shame and humiliation.” The narrative of past aggression and aggrievement is pervasive, as is the affirmation that the party has rebuilt Chinese society and restored China’s rightful place in the world.

Accompanying the festivities is an unprecedented official look into the party’s past. After 16 years of preparation, the Central Party History Research Office has produced a 1,000-plus-page compendium of the party’s history from 1949 to 1978 (post-1978 apparently remains too politically sensitive because many of the officials involved are still in power).

While the tome provides many new details of sensitive events during the Mao era, it is still highly selective and largely in step with the master narrative laid down in the 1982 publication: “Certain Questions in Our Party’s History.”

Nowhere mentioned is the violence of political campaigns during the 1950s that cost the lives of tens of millions (some of the campaigns are discussed, but not the persecutions and killings). The 1956 Hundred Flowers Movement, in which intellectuals launched broadside critiques of party rule (many which remain apt today), is totally absent. Only the subsequent “Anti-Rightist” purge is covered (in a sanitized fashion) — but not Deng Xiaoping’s role in directing it.

The Great Leap Forward, which produced the “three bitter years” (1960-62) and claimed the lives of up to 45 million, according to new archival research by the historian Frank Dikotter, and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) receive substantial treatment. But both catastrophes are essentially attributed to the usurping of party rule by “leftist opportunists” like Lin Biao, Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four.

Mao himself does come in for criticism, but overall the blame is shifted to others. Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng does benefit from a posthumous “rehabilitation,” but no such luck for the disgraced Zhao Ziyang.

The official treatment of these events is clear: maintain a strong institutional apparatus and remain vigilant against inner-party usurpers and foreign saboteurs. Thus, even in the midst of an anniversary celebration, the party’s continuing inability to honestly and fully confront its past speaks volumes about its present and future. It is symptomatic of existing insecurities.

Since the autumn of 2009, following the Fourth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee, China and the world have witnessed a more repressive and insecure Communist Party, including a slowing of some political reforms undertaken from 1997-2009.

Despite the political stagnation, three sets of reforms have continued: expanding multi-candidate elections to local level party committees; increased transparency in local budgeting and resource allocation; and efforts to improve meritocracy at all levels of the party and government. But efforts to make central policy making more transparent, to prosecute pervasive corruption, to improve “intra-party democracy” and “extra-party supervision,” and to open up the media have all stagnated.

These reforms all grew out of the party’s study of the collapse of the Soviet Union and other one-party regimes. The main lesson the Chinese Communist Party drew from these foreign examples was to be proactive, flexible and adaptive, and to manage political change from above. Stasis and dogmatism were seen as recipes for stagnation and collapse.

What we are witnessing as the party turns 90, however, is the opposite. Instead of being secure and confident, it is seemingly frozen in fear of the future, unsure about its grip over ethnic regions (Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia), afraid of rising social unrest and ad hoc demonstrations, worried about the macro-economy and foreign relations, and on the cusp of a major leadership transition in 2012.

Moreover, a coalition of internal security forces, giant state-owned corporations, the propaganda apparatus, and the military have joined with hard-line elements in the party to pull back from reforms.

Yet there is a reformist wing in the party, led by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, which advocates more open politics. But it does not have the resources or allies to re-ignite political reforms. The intra-party cleavage runs high and deep and party members here indicate viewpoints and factions are becoming increasingly polarized. The pending leadership transition only adds to the risk aversion and crackdown.

China’s Communist Party at 90 is a bit like many 90-year-olds: increasingly infirm, fearful, experimenting with ways to prolong life, but overwhelmed by the complexities of managing it.