Reconsidering the History of the Chinese Communist Party

Founded in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party has ruled the country since the Communist takeover in 1949, moving between harder and softer forms of authoritarianism. Today, in many ways, Chinese people live in the harshest climate since Mao’s death, as President Xi Jinping has cracked down on dissent, forced more than a million Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities into concentration camps in western China, and stripped Hong Kong of its autonomy. In a new book, “From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party,” Tony Saich, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a longtime China scholar, considers these developments in light of the history of the C.C.P. How, Saich wonders, did it transition from “a revolutionary party to a ruling party,” and what has allowed it to reach its current state under Xi?

I recently spoke by phone with Saich, who is also the director of the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the C.C.P.’s complicated relationship to Marxism, why Xi Jinping embarked on a more authoritarian path for his country, and what the U.S.-China relationship may look like going forward.

You ask in the book, “What holds the party together?” and continue, “A former secretary of Mao Zedong once told me that a communist party needs only two departments: organization and propaganda.” Can you explain why that is and why those two departments have been so crucial to the success of the C.C.P.?

I think one of the strengths of the Communist Party when it has been functioning well is that it’s been a strong, unified, and coherent organization. That is certainly what Xi Jinping sees as a core element to drive forward his agenda and his policies, and that plays out through a number of ways. One, of course, is his control over key appointments and making sure those in important leadership positions are faithful to the current leadership. It is also underpinned by the coherent narrative that holds the Party and what are now ninety million Party members together, so that, in public at least, they can all tell the same story. That is run through its propaganda apparatus and through a whole network of Party schools, publications, and television programs which puts forward the Communist Party and all that is good about China and portrays different aspects of its history. Of course, the one thing that that person left off is the coercive apparatus. If you fall outside the realms of permissible, there is a strong coercive apparatus that will come down on you harshly.

What made you want to focus specifically on the C.C.P. in this book?

The Party is always there, but you can’t always see it. And yet, citizens always know that there is a limit to what they can do that is bound by whatever the Party is deciding at a particular time. It is obviously the core institution in China at a political level. Even though there are a number of other political parties, they’re irrelevant in any genuine sense. So if you want to understand China, you need to understand the Party and its relationships with different aspects of society and the system.

And then looking at a trajectory of one hundred years, what in a way has been constant, and what has changed over that period of time? The first thing to know is that from its very founding, the leaders or the participants of that first Party Congress wanted to create a global order that would be more favorable to China’s interest. Now, at that time, of course, it was being part of a global proletarian revolution—they’ll get rid of the rapacious landlords, kick out the capitalists, and get rid of the foreigners. In the nineteen-sixties, under Mao, it was promoting, again, proletarian revolution, supporting Maoist parties that were seeking to overthrow the state. Today, I think the same agenda is there, to shake the global order—not necessarily overthrow it anymore but to shape it to benefit better China’s interests.

Then the second thing to understand is ambivalence about the role of the private sector in the economy. Whereas the founders of the Party wanted to get rid of it entirely, the Party’s been forced to embrace it in one way or another. The last thing, and this goes back to adaptability and flexibility, is that the Party has been successful by allowing localities to adapt central directives, to apply them in a way to their own particular circumstances.

In the book you call that “micropolitics.”

Yes, and I think that’s what has been one of the key saving graces. And where the Party has been unsuccessful has been where ideological dictates have driven activities throughout the system, mostly before 1949 but also in obvious cases, such as the Great Leap Forward in the Cultural Revolution. We often have this sense that because it’s a communist party, because it’s a Leninist party, whatever Beijing says must go. The reality on the ground is much more complex than that. One of the classic phrases is “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” Another phrase that local officials often use is “They have their policies and we have our countermeasures.” And a lot of people, ordinary people and officials both, even in Beijing and Shanghai, I think—once the new regulation comes in, often their first reaction is “O.K., how do we get around this?”

Is the central party O.K. with this because they think it’s good? Or do they just know there’s not too much they can do about it, and so they accept it?

Part of it is the latter. That they know they can’t exert complete control over it, but different leaders have taken different approaches to this question. I think under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, there was a sort of tacit acknowledgement that there had to be those escape valves and ways in which localities could take central directives and bend them to their own interests, as long as certain core things were not confronted directly. The C.C.P. makes it clear that there are certain key policies that you have to abide by. But I think it’s different under Xi Jinping. I think when he took power, in 2012, he looked around and thought it looked a mess. Corruption was growing in China. Society seemed to be pursuing its own interests—local government seemed to be pursuing their own interests. And I think Xi and those around him thought that the only way to keep this train on the tracks was to reassert their centralized control and strengthen and boost and fortify and discipline the Party to push his policies forward.

You used the phrase “Leninist” in this conversation, and you use it in the book, too. My understanding is that you’re using it not to talk about doctrinaire Marxism but the idea of a centralized decision-making apparatus. Is that correct?

Yes, that’s correct. I’m not talking about it as an ideological construct. It’s an organizational structure, and some people use the phrase “market Leninism” to describe what you see in China today. I think that’s an interesting description, because it means that there has to be a strong organized hierarchy at the core dictating policy and the political process. So even though much of Marxism is gone in terms of daily life and daily practice, the idea of the Leninist party has remained to the present day.

You write in the book, and here maybe you’re using Leninism slightly differently, “As belief in Marxism-Leninism declines as a source of its legitimacy, the CCP loses its power to explain development by relying on its ‘supernatural ability’ to divine current and future trends. Instead, better-informed citizens begin to judge performance on more earthly criteria. Two key areas are managing the environment and the economy.” So you are saying that Marxism really did matter to the Party for a long time and its loss means something.

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