China's CCP celebrates centennial by looking back – and ahead

Celebrating its 100th anniversary, China’s ruling party again uses a selective picture of history to justify its rule. The party’s goal – global Chinese leadership and prosperity for all its citizens – may also be its biggest challenge, scholars say.

Andy Wong/AP
Residents ride bicycles past Tiananmen Square displaying the Communist Party's emblem in Beijing on June 28, 2021. The Square, where Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of China in 1949, looks very different from the days when protesters rallied for a democratic society.

For China’s Communist Party, celebrating its 100th birthday on Thursday is not just about glorifying its past. It’s also about cementing its future and that of its leader, Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In the build-up to the July 1 anniversary, Mr. Xi and the party have exhorted its members and the nation to remember the early days of struggle in the hills of the inland city of Yan’an, where Mao Zedong established himself as party leader in the 1930s.

Dug into earthen cliffs, the primitive homes where Mao and his followers lived are now tourist sites for the party faithful and schoolteachers encouraged to spread the word. The cave-like rooms feel far removed from Beijing, the modern capital where national festivities are being held, and the skyscrapers of Shenzhen and other high-tech centers on the coast that are more readily associated with today’s China.

Yet in marking its centenary, the Communist Party is using this past – selectively – to try to ensure its future and that of Mr. Xi, who may be eyeing, as Mao did, ruling for life.

“By linking the party to all of China’s accomplishments of the past century, and none of its failures, Mr. Xi is trying to bolster support for his vision, his right to lead the party, and the party’s right to govern the country,” said Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

This week’s celebrations focus on two distinct eras – the early struggles and recent achievements – glossing over the nearly three decades under Mao from the 1950s to 1970s, when mostly disastrous social and economic policies left millions dead and the country impoverished.

To that end, a spectacular outdoor gala attended by Mr. Xi in Beijing on Monday night relived the Long March of the 1930s – a retreat to Yan’an that has become of party lore – before moving on to singing men holding giant wrenches and women with bushels of wheat. But it also focused on the present, with representations of special forces climbing a mountain and medical workers battling COVID-19 in protective gear.

The party has long invoked its history to justify its right to rule, said Joseph Fewsmith, a professor of Chinese politics at Boston University.

Shoring up its legitimacy is critical since the party has run China single-handedly for more than 70 years – through the chaotic years under Mao, through the collapse of the Soviet Union, and through the unexpected adoption of market-style reforms that over time have built an economic powerhouse, though millions remain in poverty.

Many Western policymakers and analysts believed that capitalism would transform China into a democracy as its people prospered, following the pattern of former dictatorships such as South Korea and Taiwan.

The Communist Party has confounded that thinking, taking a decisive turn against democracy when it cracked down on large-scale protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and quashing any challenges to single-party rule in the ensuing decades – most recently all but extinguishing dissent in Hong Kong after anti-government protests shook the city in 2019.

Its leaders have learned the lesson of the Soviet Union, where the communists lost power after opening the door to pluralism, said Zhang Shiyi of the Institute of Party History and Literature.

Instead, China’s newfound wealth gave the party the means to build a high-speed rail network and other infrastructure to modernize at home and project power abroad with a strong military and a space program that has landed on the moon and Mars. China is still a middle-income country, but its very size makes it the world’s second-largest economy and puts it on a trajectory to rival the United States as a superpower.

In the meantime, it has doubled down on its repressive tactics, stamping out dissent from critics of its policies and pushing the assimilation of ethnic minorities seeking to preserve their customs and language in areas such as Tibet and the heavily Muslim Xinjiang region. While it is difficult to gauge public support for the party, it has likely been boosted at least in some quarters by China’s relative success at controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and its standing up to criticism from the United States and others.

“We have never been so confident about our future,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told journalists on a recent trip to the party’s historic sites in Yan’an.

Tiananmen Square, where Mao proclaimed the founding of communist China in 1949, is no longer a home for student protesters with democratic dreams. On Thursday, the plaza in the center of Beijing will host the nation’s major celebration of party rule. While most details remain under wraps, authorities have said that Mr. Xi will give an important speech.

The anniversary marks a meeting of about a dozen people in Shanghai in 1921 that is considered the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party – though it actually started in late July. The festivities will likely convey the message that the party has brought China this far, and that it alone can lift the nation to greatness – arguing in essence that it must remain in power.

Mr. Xi also appears to be considering a third five-year term that would start in 2022, after the party scrapped term limits.

The centennial is at once a benchmark to measure how far the country has come and a moment for Mr. Xi and the party to move toward their goals for 2049, which would mark the 100th year of communist rule, said Alexander Huang, a professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. By then, Mr. Xi has said, the aim is basic prosperity for the entire population and for China to be a global leader with national strength and international influence.

“Whether they can achieve that goal is the biggest challenge for the Chinese leadership today,” he said, noting growing tensions with other countries, an aging population, and a young generation that, as elsewhere, is rejecting the grueling rat race for the traditional markers of success.

Still, the party’s ability to evolve and rule for so long, albeit in part by suppressing dissent, suggests it may remain in control well into its second century. The party insists it has no intention of exporting its model to other countries, but if China continues to rise, it could well challenge the western democratic model that won the Cold War and has dominated the post-World War II era.

“In the United States, you only talk, talk, talk,” said Ms. Hua of the Foreign Ministry. “You try to win votes. But after four years, the other people can overthrow your policies. How can you ensure the people’s living standards, that their demands can be satisfied?”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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