As the People’s Republic of China is set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its foundation on October 1, 1949, the world is once more looking at the political organisation that has dominated China for the past seven decades. Having survived – partially self-created – decades of turmoil, the Chinese Communist Party has led China to become one of the world’s economic and military powers. But where does this political party stand seventy years after founding the state that it has been ruling ever since?
After an extended period of domestic turmoil and war, the Chinese Communists, the People’s Republic of China was officially founded in 1949. In a famous speech given from a balcony above Tiananmen Gate, the entrance to the former imperial palace in Beijing, Mao Zedong officially declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and the central people’s government on October 1, 1949. The initial years of this newly founded state were at least partially characterised by attempts at state-building and the development of a legal system, culminating in the passing of the first socialist Chinese constitution in 1954.
Despite initial attempts at institution building, the largest part of the Maoist era is known for its disastrous political campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. These campaigns largely strangled regularised and institutional forms of politics and followed the Maoist logic of ‘permanent revolution’. It was also this erratic mass mobilisation-based campaign approach to politics that the post-Mao leadership wanted to avoid under all circumstances. Instead, they embarked on a path of profound reforms of the economic system that led China to become what it is today.
Throughout this process of reform, the Chinese Communist Party faced a number of challenges that repeatedly caused observers to predict the demise of the Party and the ultimate collapse of the socialist state in China. Such challenges particularly include the bloody military crackdown of the protests in Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing on June 4, 1989 and, shortly afterwards, the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s. Rapid economic reforms and the resulting economic and social inequalities, as well as a lack of political reforms, were also causing repeated challenges to the rule of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, it managed to address these challenges in a manner that allowed it to stay in power. One of the keys to this puzzle according to Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry is what they call “guerrilla-style policy-making” – a decentralised and experimental approach to policy making carried out within the framework of central authority. This approach has its roots in Maoist revolutionary techniques and allowed for dealing with sudden changes and uncertainties. Local experimentation with different policy solutions has indeed been a core feature of policy implementation in China in the reform period. Nevertheless, the Chinese leadership has indeed abandoned the erratic style of politics based on mass campaigns and permanent revolution that was characteristic of the Maoist era.
Despite significant political developments and profound socio-economic changes since the beginning of the economic reform policy in the late 1970s, the ascension to power of President Xi Jinping, has caused a number of observers to speculate about a neo-Maoist turn in Chinese politics. One development giving rise to such thoughts has been the extraordinary concentration of power in the person of Xi Jinping himself who heads a number of high-level commissions dealing with central political questions, e.g. the Central Leading Group for Deepening Overall Reform or the Central Economic and Financial Affairs Commission. In addition to this, analysts argue that Xi is creating a cult of personality around himself that, for example, manifests in a number of propaganda videos portraying Xi as a caring leader close to the people. This is also reflected in the nickname Xi Dada (Uncle Xi) that is used for him in the Chinese media.
In the ideological sphere, Xi is equally accused of showing Maoist tendencies because he seems to be fostering a return to stronger ideological orthodoxy. Additionally, he had his contributions to Party ideology, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, enshrined in the Charter of the Communist Party of China at the 19th Plenary Session of the Party’s National Congress in October 2017 and in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China at the 13th National People’s Congress in March 2018. This meeting of the National People’s Congress also saw the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party enshrined in article 1 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China as well as the term limits for the president removed. Having Xi Jinping Thought enshrined in both in the Party Charter and in the Constitution of the People’s Republic while he is still in office is unusual and seen as a break with the practices of his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.
Having the leadership of the Party codified in the constitution of the People’s Republic is an even bolder step. The Communist Party as an institution has been mentioned in the constitution of the reform era, first passed in 1982, but only in the preamble and never in the main body of the text. By enshrining the leadership of the Communist Party in the main body of the constitution of the People’s Republic, the Party also officially declares that the Party and the state are one and that the separation between the two is merely functional at best. It lifts the curtain on the façade that the Party maintained among others with its policy of “one office, two plaques”. This practice implied the office-sharing of a Party and a state agency that had the same functions and duties and shared resources and sometimes even staff but formally belonged to two different parts of the Party-state bureaucracy. By formally inscribing its leadership into the state constitution, the Communist Party explicitly made itself part of the state and of the law.
While it seems that Xi Jinping has assembled more personal power than any other Chinese leader since Mao and that the Chinese Communist Party under his leadership is stronger than it has been under his predecessors, the Party as an institution is nevertheless plagued by a number of challenges. One of the most crucial of these challenges comes from within the Party and involves its ability to enforce Party discipline among its own cadres and rank and file members. Any authoritarian state depends on its ability to control its staff, and to ensure the successful enforcement of its policies and coercive actions in order to sustain its rule. Plagued by rampant corruption and lack of discipline among its own ranks, however, the ability of the Communist Party to control its cadres and members and to have them work for the Party’s larger political goals under a strict disciplinary regime is increasingly challenged. Personal enrichment seems to have become a major motivation for membership in the Party.
It is to this background that Xi Jinping launched his large-scale anticorruption and Party discipline campaign shortly after coming to power in November 2012. While the campaign has been of unprecedented length, scale and depth with a large number of – sometimes very high-ranking – Party cadres being disciplined for breaches of Party discipline and state law, it is still unclear whether the campaign will indeed achieve an improvement of the Party’s problems of corruption and lack of Party discipline. What the campaign has definitely achieved so far is to stifle large parts of the bureaucracy into fearful inaction because they are uncertain whether they might be punished for broad experimental policy initiatives that used to characterise China’s reform policies. Considering that Heilmann and Perry see this experimental “guerrilla-style policy-making” as a core element of the Party’s capability to adapt and deal with uncertainties and challenges, such bureaucratic paralysis does not bode well for the ability of the Communist Party to deal with a number of – both internal and external – challenges ahead. As Kerry Brown argues “There is a simple reason why the struggle has been so fierce and so prolonged. It is a fight for the very soul of the Party, and one that ranges far beyond the figure of Xi.”. The jury is still out on whether the Party will really manage to successfully fight for its soul and strengthen its rule with the help of strict ideological indoctrination and disciplining its members. However, considering the challenges that lie ahead, a rigid, inflexible and indoctrinated party-state might not be the right answer for it.
Featured image by Remko Tanis