The Great Dictatorship: Chinese Communist Party Turns 100

by Tushar Gupta - Jun 30, 2021 07:13 PM +05:30 IST
The Great Dictatorship: Chinese Communist Party Turns 100 Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Snapshot
  • There is no government in China, as one may see in the United States or India, or even any weak democracy; there is only the party.

On 1 July, the Communist Party of China (CCP) will complete a hundred years in existence.

Looking at China today, helmed by President Xi Jinping, it is difficult to imagine the existential battles that the party fought in its early years, and yet, a hundred years after its inception, the CCP has emerged as amongst the strongest political forces on the planet, in steady control of an economic, military, and civilisational behemoth.

To the north of China, Russia, once home to the empire of the Soviet Union, ended its long association with the ideology of communism in 1991. However, it was the Third International, also known as the Communist International, controlled by the Soviet Union that must be credited for the origins of communism in China.

The Third International was a global organisation, controlled by the Soviet Union, and responsible for propagating communism across the world. The Chinese students who returned from Russia in the 1910s can be credited for sowing the seeds for what the CCP has become today.

Drawing from the May Fourth Movement in the mainland in 1919, the Soviets took an active interest in China.

In 1920, Grigori Voitinsky, born Russian and an official of the Third International was sent to China to mobilise communist groups. He began with the preliminary organisation and recruitment for what we today know as the CCP.

The first official meeting of the CCP, the first Congress, was held in Shanghai and Jiaxing in July 1921. Only 12 members were present then. However, the party came into being in a meeting that was held on a tourist boat on a lake in Jiaxing. Of the 50-odd members present on the boat, there was also a 27-year old man by the name of Mao Zedong.

From 1921 to 1927, the CCP supported the government under the Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang or the KMT.

The unity, however, did not last long. In April 1927, the KMT forces aided by many warlords and mercenaries launched an attack on the members of the CCP. This was the first existential battle for the CCP. Many communists were detained and arrested. The number of the ones assassinated or executed remains unclear to this day.

Known as the Shanghai Massacre, this attack by the KMT resulted in the Soviets also withdrawing their support to the KMT regime.

This was followed by an organised execution of communists in the following months, also known as a period of White Terror. Official figures from the then KMT government put the number of communists killed around 50,000 around April. Within a year, more than 300,000 communists and their sympathisers had been killed.

Thus, the Shanghai Massacre of 1927 created the foundations for the Chinese Civil War that would end more than two decades later.

The communists retaliated with the creation of the Chinese Soviet Republic (CSR), an empire of distributed territories, mainly in Eastern China. The CSR resistance was led by Mao Zedong who would go on to lead the Communist Party of China.

However, between 1931 and 1934, the KMT government launched five campaigns, killing as many as 700,000 as per some estimates.

In 1934, the CCP began its long walk towards the western and northern enclaves of the CSR. The march came to be known as the ‘Long March’ and was a series of marches undertaken by the communists to escape execution.

Mao Zedong led one of the longest and most difficult marches that covered more than 9,000 kilometres in more than a year. This single march established Zedong as the future leader amongst the supporters. For CCP, this was a defining moment as from more than the 100,000 communists that had begun the long march from the main CSR enclave of Jiangxi in East China, only around 8,000 survived.

By ensuring the survival of the few thousand who had departed Jiangxi, the CCP had ensured the continuation of the Civil War between them and the KMT.

Around the beginning of the Second World War in 1937, when Japan invaded parts of China, the KMT sustained its focus on eliminating the members of the CCP. While there was an eventual yet forced alliance between the CCP and KMT in the face of the Japanese invasion, the clashes between the two factions intensified.

For CCP, the invasion of the Japanese proved to be a blessing in disguise. One, the invasion significantly weakened the KMT and its forces. Two, the attack of the Japanese resulted in CCP showcasing its techniques in guerrilla warfare and winning the popular support of the people it defended in many regions.

Thus, where KMT was faltering, CCP was succeeding. America's defeat of Japan in 1945 further strengthened the prospects of the CCP, so much that by the end of the war, CCP’s army, also known as the Red Army, was now more than 1.3 million members strong with an additional military strength of 2.6 million. Within the CCP controlled zones alone, 100 million Chinese were living, around 20-25 per cent of the total population.

The war between the two factions intensified further after 1945, but the CCP was no longer the CCP of the 1920s and 1930s, and eventually, the CCP prevailed, ending the Civil War in 1949. Tiring out the KMT forces by means of guerrilla warfare, the CCP wiped out more than 1.1 million troops of the KMT. Whatever was left of the KMT escaped to the island state of Taiwan.

The Chinese Communist Party was finally in complete control of China, merely 28 years after its inception. The proclamation of the People’s Republic of China was carried out by the leader of the Long March from 1934, Mao Zedong.

However, the challenges for the CCP were far from over.

The first mistake was ‘The Great Leap Forward’, initiated in 1958. Desperate to transform China into an industrial economy from an agricultural one, Mao, under the second five-year plan, ordered all the farms to be collectivised, and thus, the entire production, resources, distribution of food grains were taken over by the CCP. Mao also initiated grand irrigation projects along with modern agricultural techniques. The entire pursuit failed.

The unplanned leap resulted in millions of farmers dying due to forced labour, low crop yield.

Somewhere between 30 to 55 million Chinese perished due to starvation and extreme poverty. The scale of poverty and starvation was so extreme that people had to consume tree bark and dirt. The farmers who failed to meet the required quota of crops grown or tried escaping the brutalities were tortured, had their bodies mutilated, and were eventually killed.

As per most estimates, Chairman Mao’s ‘Great Leap’ Forward was the biggest non-wartime campaign of mass killing. It wasn’t until 1961 that the project was called off, but the aftermath was felt in the ‘Great Chinese Famine of 1962.

The ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Great Chinese Famine’, together, caused the birth rate per thousand people in China to drop from 37 to 17 and the death rate to shoot up from 11 to 25. Thus, between 1959 and 1961, the Chinese population decreased by more than 14.5 million. Such was the scale of failure of the CCP that people had to resort to cannibalism to survive.

Mao did not stop there on his spree of self-destruction. In 1966-68, what came to be known as the ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' was announced. Coming back to power after being inactive within the political leadership for three years post-1962, Mao went for the communists who wanted to change the trajectory of the CCP in the wake up of the Great Famine.

The revolution resulted in the targeting of the party and the government. The entire leadership of the party, mostly senior members, were thrown into prisons or killed. Alongside, in excess of hundreds of thousands were tortured by the CCP army that roamed in the countryside. The CCP broke into many factions, each fighting against the other, leaving the party severely weakened and stagnated.

What the opposite faction needed was a leader like Mao, one who could stand up like Mao did in 1934 during the Long March. However, for the lack of any united leadership, the opposing factions were without significance.

The government tried curbing the chaos through the rule of the army in many places, but it wouldn’t be until the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976 that the party would return to any signs of stability.

More than fifty years and more than fifty million deaths later, the party was surviving, barely, but holding on to power in China, and this is when Deng Xiaoping took over. His rule ushered in an era of stability and the gradual opening of the country’s economy in post-1978.

Such was the success of Xiaoping’s reforms that it set the foundation for China’s economic success, resulting in an increase of per capita income by 25 times between the late 1970s and 2010s, the upliftment of more than 800 million Chinese from extreme poverty.

The last existential challenge to the party’s existence came from the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Demonstrations led by students were demanding the rule of democracy in China, but unlike the communists of 1921, their organisation was not quite as strong. Chinese soldiers, on the orders of the CCP government, led the massacre in which thousands of students were killed.

The party had again survived, and from here, there was no turning back.

The eternal chaos under Mao Zedong followed by the economic consolidation of Deng Xiaoping has resulted in the exuberant control under Xi Jinping.

Today, the Chinese Communist Party has become the brain, heart, and soul of China. There is no government in China, as one may see in the United States or India, or even any weak democracy, but there is only the party.

The CCP has inherited critical lessons from the Soviets during the course of its history. While the origins of the party can be attributed to the political transformation of Soviet Union, the implosion of the same empire inspired the CCP to further strengthen its mandate.

The Chinese leaders today, led by Xi Jinping, figured three reasons for the collapse of the Soviets. Firstly, relaxing political control before the economy took off. Two, corruption plaguing most levels of the communist party, and lastly, nationalisation of the military which resulted in them swearing allegiance to the country and not the party. Therefore, the relaxation in individual freedom that was beginning to be visible before 2012 is now almost gone.

Today, the CCP relies heavily on control of human rights, active digital propaganda, and the complete control of the military (People’s Liberation Army). For the PLA, the primary objective is to safeguard the interests of the party. The party is the country, and the country is from the party.

Learning from its past, the party has reincarnated itself to suit the contemporary world by controlling 1400 million people. Within the party, Xi has led a mass anti-corruption drive, eliminating his closest rivals and ensuring indictment of more than 100,000 of 'corrupt' party members.

The stellar economic progress of China has also allowed the CCP to justify its hardening stance on issues of human rights, free speech, media freedom, and geopolitics.

In 1980, the GDP of China was less than $300 billion, and today it is more than $14 trillion. In 1980, China’s external trade was around $40 billion, but by 2015, it was more than $4 trillion. Between 2008 and 2014, the increment growth in China’s GDP, for every two-year period, was more than the entire GDP of India then.

Led by the CCP, China, with its unparalleled economic growth, has challenged the global dominance of the United States.

Today, it’s the largest producer of critical commodities like steel and aluminium, and is the leading producer of toys, textiles, furniture, clothing, cellphones, and computers. It is also the largest consumer, by virtue of its huge market, of most finished goods, thus giving it enough diplomatic leverage with countries and room for negotiation with global conglomerates.

From Hong Kong to Xinjiang, and from Taiwan to South China Sea, the world has however maintained an uncomfortable silence on the misadventures of the CCP. What else explains the stunned silence of most countries when it comes to the Wuhan virus?

A lot many people have made their careers by predicting the imminent doom of China or of the Communist Party of China (it’s hard to separate the two at this point), but the CCP has mastered the art of reincarnation. For the critics, the question is not of CCP's credibility, but their denial.

The CCP has overcome complete extermination, annihilation during the Japanese invasion during the Second World War, self-inflicted economic disasters, famines, self-implosion, an unpredictable phase of economic liberalisation, democracy movements, and the age of globalised internet, and therefore, the criticism feels a bit misplaced, even to the suppressed Chinese nationals.

The party has come a long way from being an idea on a tourist boat with 50-odd members to a conglomerate with more than 90 million people.

A hundred years old, the Chinese Communist Party, is now the Great Dictatorship.

Tushar is a senior-sub-editor at Swarajya. He tweets at @Tushar15_
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