Contemporary China cannot be comprehended without understanding the role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With 85 million members it represents a tiny share of the total population (1.4 billion) but is the world’s largest political party.
Its organisation, structure and internal discipline ensure it is the spinal cord of governance of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), moving all the parts. Extraordinarily, it has remained one of the world’s most opaque and enigmatic political organisations in the world. We often know more about the inner workings of mafia families than we do about the CCP.
Power from behind the screen
Richard McGregor in his indispensable book The Party describes the CCP as the “power behind the screen”. It is everywhere, but largely unseen. The Party stands behind all formal bodies of State, as Dowager Empress Ci Xi sat behind the throne of the boy emperor, directing the powerful courtiers from deep within the shadows.
The PRC political system is structured as a diarchy, except that the Party is above the formal state positions. Like fractals, Party and state positions are replicated from the highest-level down. Many are even vested in the same individual office holder. So General Secretary Xi Jinping is also President Xi, with the former more powerful than the later. Provincial Party Secretaries out rank provincial governors and so on down to towns, villages and rural hamlets.
The CCP’s roots are deeply anchored in the Soviet Communist Party. From before the CCP’s formal creation in Shanghai in 1921, Soviet agents had been acting as advisers to various cells of political radicals. Chinese communists, like communist revolutionaries everywhere looked to Moscow and the Third International formed under Stalin for leadership, financial support, and models for political and administrative organisation.
Today, this legacy is present in the quaint, European nomenclature used to describe various important bodies such as the Standing Committee of the Central Committee, the Central Committee, Politburo, and Party General Secretary.
Retention today of these seemingly anachronistic forms of political organisation is a powerful reminder of the debt PRC modern leaders owe towards the founders of International Communism, particularly Stalin.
For Chinese Communists, the Soviet Union’s biggest mistakes were for General Secretary Khrushchev to denounce Stalin’s crimes and then for General Secretary Gorbachev to allow the Soviet empire to dissolve itself.
Deriving from Lenin, all power is to be held and exercised by the ruling centre, no matter how ruthless. Having gained power, as Stalin showed, it must never be relinquished no matter what the cost of continuing to hold onto it.
In 1989, the PRC leadership responded to months of demonstrations in the way Stalin would have done. Troops were used against Chinese people. Since its founding, the PLA had always been the Party’s army, not the People’s, despite its name.
In 1992, the Soviet Union collapsed. This was a shock around the world, in democracies and autocracies alike, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the PRC. The impact of this for the leadership was to double down on its determination to stay in power, to eschew political reform and study the collapse of the Soviet Union in minute detail to ensure such a thing could never happen in China. It was to revitalise the CCP.
Soon to mark its centennial in 2021, the leadership is also looking forward to 2025 when the PRC will have the longest-standing ruling Communist Party government. As the last remaining major Communist state, the achievements in rebuilding the Party after 1989 and then strengthening its control over the country have been significant by any measure.
Party building, as it is known, is the major priority of the leadership. Intra-Party discipline is maintained through education in Party doctrine and lore from an early stage, the prestige attached by parents to children becoming “Red Pioneers”, Party representatives in workplaces, schools and universities, from time-to-time old-fashioned Party purges, and anti-corruption campaigns led by the Inspection and Discipline Committee.
Daily discipline and ensuring ideological conformity was once done mainly through study sessions of the Party’s main media organs, principally the People’s Daily. Today, in addition to these materials, Party members are required to fill in a daily on-line quiz to test their understanding of the “correct line”.
An extremely important body in ensuring Party discipline and cultivating the next generation of leaders are the various Party Schools for mid and senior-career cadres. These are something like a cross between Marxism-Leninism boot camp, France’s Ecole Nationale, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Of course, the Party controls all the traditional media outlets to ensure it is always presented in the most favourable light and is active in the digital space including China’s Great Fire Wall of censorship and, among other things, employing an army of trolls and others spreading “fake news” to its benefit.
Xi Jinping and Destiny
For Xi Jinping, re-establishing the authority, respectability and legitimacy of the CCP has been his overwhelming policy objective. This is driven by a complex set of self-reinforcing beliefs. Of course, self-preservation and that of his family are paramount but it would be a mistake to see only venal motivations.
Many of his generation, despite the damage witnessed during periods of Party madness, such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, deeply believe that the Party is the only thing that stands between order and chaos and that can ensure that China realises its greatness in the world. Xi also carries the legacy of his father, one of the pantheon of Communist Party lore. So filial piety is an important element as well.
On coming to power in 2012, Xi inherited a party rife with corruption, riven by scandalous rivalries and greed by the scions of powerful Party figures; and an economy where the private sector dominated, and wealth was being created outside the Party’s control. The population was cynical, and increasingly resentful of the Party and its privileges.
Xi set about righting the course of the Party. He has overseen perhaps the biggest anti-corruption campaign in 70 years. He promised to catch “tigers as well as flies” and has surprised all by the extent to which he has done it in both civilian and military bureaucracies. Certainly, this has also been a political purge of a grand scale of potential challengers and opponents, but it has gone a long way to restore the Party’s standing.
Continued economic growth and an increasingly muscular foreign policy have also helped restore the Party’s standing. In all of this, Xi has been helped along the way by foreign reactions which seek to challenge the legitimacy of the CCP or by the trade war with the US.
These play to the Party’s strengths of promoting patriotism and nationalism.
Expect the CCP to become the longest ruling Communist Party in history. Xi will be happy about that.
Geoff Raby is an economist and former diplomat. He served as Ambassador to China 2007-2011.
See also previous articles in China Series:
For further reading:
- Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers, Allen Lane, 2010.