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The Chinese Communist Party at 100: What's old is new again

History suggests the party will soon face another existential crisis

From Mao Zedong through Xi Jinping, China's Communist Party leaders have had a lot on their plate in trying to maintain the legitimacy of their rule.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- As the Chinese Communist Party marks its centennial on July 1, the rulers of the country's 1.4 billion people apparently have plenty to celebrate.

For starters, it has done much better than its counterparts in former or surviving communist regimes. The CCP's ideological inspiration and one-time patron, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, imploded in 1991 at the age of 88. In terms of longevity, the CCP -- which has ruled China since in 1949 -- is also on track to surpass the CPSU, which was in power for 74 years.

The CCP may have some competition for the title of the longest-surviving communist party in the years ahead: Both the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Communist Party of Cuba were founded in 1925, only four years later than the CCP. But the countries under their rule do not have the same geopolitical clout as China, now the world's largest economy in real terms.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his colleagues are understandably eager to highlight the party's success and gloss over its failures. If one bothers to read the latest abridged official history of the party released for its centennial, it is not hard to find the dominant narrative Chinese rulers would like everyone to buy. In the last 100 years, strong leadership and firm ideological commitments have enabled the party to achieve unimaginable accomplishments against impossible odds.

There are obviously some elements of truth in the party's official narrative, especially the part about the odds it faced in the last 100 years. When it was founded in July 1921, the party had about 50 members scattered across China. Few of them -- Mao Zedong included -- dreamed that they would conquer China in less than three decades.

Communist troops march past the Park Hotel in Shanghai in June 1949.   © AP

In fact, before Mao's troops marched victoriously into Nanjing -- capital of the Nationalists, or the Kuomintang as it was known -- in 1949, the party had several close encounters with violent death.

The split between the Nationalists and the Communists in 1927 decimated the party in urban areas and drove it into the mountains of Jiangxi and Fujian. The campaign launched by Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to "exterminate" the Communists in 1934 forced the party to abandon its "Soviet republic" in Jiangxi and flee from Chiang's forces in what is now known as the "Long March." When Mao, who took over the party's top leadership position during the Red Army's legendary journey, reached Shaanxi in 1935, he had only about 30,000 soldiers.

But before the party could fully recover its strength, it found itself again on the verge of annihilation. Chiang surrounded the Communists with a massive force and was about to deliver his coup de grace when fate intervened. When Chiang was on an inspection tour of his forces in December 1936, he was kidnapped by Zhang Xueliang, a flamboyant warlord from Manchuria who attempted to force Chiang to forge a united front with the Communists to resist the Japanese. In September 1931, Zhang was driven out of Manchuria after Japan staged the Mukden Incident as a pretext to seize that part of northeast China."

The outcome of the famous Xi'an Incident, as Chiang's kidnapping was called, was a commitment by Chiang to end the civil war and unify China to fight the Japanese. It will never be known whether Chiang intended to keep his words. But events soon rendered Chiang's commitment irrelevant.

On July 7, 1937, Japan launched a full invasion of China, fundamentally changing the fortunes of the Communists. By the time Tokyo surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, the Nationalists, who did most of the fighting, had lost more than a million of its troops. The military balance, lopsided against the Communists before the Japanese invasion, became less unfavorable on the eve of the resumption of the Chinese civil war in 1946. Chiang had 4.3 million troops against Mao's 1.2 million.

That Mao's numerically and technologically inferior forces trounced the Nationalists in the final phase of the civil war remains a subject of endless scholarly fascination -- and arguably the CCP's greatest military triumph. But this historical fact should not blind us to a counterfactual few would dispute: without the Japanese invasion, the Communists would not have survived another of Chiang's "extermination campaigns."

If luck brought the CCP to power, nowhere would you find it mentioned in the party's narrative. According to the official hisotry, its successes came from a firm ideological commitment to communism and strong individual leadership. Mao before 1949 and Xi after 2012.

The problem with the party's official narrative is that it is mostly false. If we review the party's fluctuations in fortune over the last 100 years, two patterns become clear. The party did poorly when it pursued ideological dogmatism, and suffered catastrophically if its power was concentrated in the hands of a dominant leader. Things improved only after pragmatism trumped ideological orthodoxy and collective leadership replaced one-man rule.

We can even find these two patterns revealed in Mao's checkered history as the CCP's leader.

Before leading the party to victory in 1949 -- and before his disastrous turn to radical leftism in the late 1950s -- Mao largely followed his pragmatist instincts and, despite his political dominance, was willing to share power with his comrades. As a result, the party fared relatively well. Mao's talented fellow revolutionaries were given a relatively free hand in fighting the civil war and building the new communist state.

With the aid of the Soviet Union, China fought the U.S. to a draw in Korea and achieved rapid economic recovery. In the minds of older Chinese communists, the early 1950s were the golden days of the party. It enjoyed genuine popular support, kept internal feuds to a minimum, and implemented policies that improved the lives of most people, despite the brutal suppression of its domestic enemies such as landlords, counterrevolutionaries and capitalists.

But the good times of the 1950s came to a sudden end in 1958 when Mao adopted a rigid communist ideology that attempted to turn a largely agrarian China into a modern industrial power overnight through the so-called "Great Leap Forward." Against the objections and reservations of his comrades, Mao ordered the complete dismantling of household farming to set up "people's communes," a watered-down version of Soviet collective farms. To catch up with the U.K. in steel production, Mao mobilized the entire nation to produce the metal.

The consequence of Mao's radicalism was calamitous, precipitating complete economic collapse and resulting in a three-year famine from 1959 to 1961. The worst famine in human history, up to 36 million people starved to death. The political fallout was even worse.

To defend his authority, Mao bullied the party into purging military Marshal Peng Dehua, who had urged him to reverse the Great Leap in 1958. As the toll of the famine weakened his power, Mao grew increasingly paranoid about his comrades' loyalty and, when their rift became irreparable, launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 -- a massive political purge and a last-ditch effort to transform China into an ideologically pure society engaged in permanent communist revolution.

By the time Mao died in 1976, the CCP was internally split, ideologically lost, and politically demoralized. It was the return of pragmatism and collective leadership under Deng Xiaoping in 1979 that gave the party a new lease of life.

By any measure, this cycle of pragmatism and collective leadership represented the high-water mark of the CCP's rule. Between the beginning of Deng's opening and reform and the rise of Xi Jinping in 2012, the party thrived on every front. Politically, collective leadership offered most elites an unprecedented degree of security. Power-sharing also prevented the party from engaging in risky adventures as no single leader could impose his will on his colleagues.

Top: A Beijing policeman directs traffic in front of a newly opened Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet -- China's second at the time -- in January 1989. (AP) Bottom: An aide helps Deng Xiaoping put on a cowboy hat he was presented with at a rodeo while visiting Texas in 1979. (Getty Images)

To be sure, the post-Mao period had its share of political conflict within the party. In the 1980s, ideological battles between reformers and conservatives were constant and fierce. They were resolved only after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 saw liberals purged, with conservatives and technocrats rallying behind Deng's strategy of authoritarian modernization.

Besides achieving an unprecedented level of security and unity inside the party, the post-Mao pragmatism and collective leadership also yielded economic gains unimaginable in the Maoist era. The party's single-minded focus on development unleased explosive private entrepreneurship, attracting more than a trillion dollars in foreign direct investment and elevating China from an impoverished agrarian society to a global manufacturing behemoth in just one generation.

Chinese people might no longer be reading Mao's Little Red Books, but the party did not seem to care. It now had a new source of legitimacy: rising prosperity and expanding personal freedom for the average Chinese.

The party's foreign policy achievements from 1979 to 2012 were even more astonishing. Of course, luck again played a critical role. In the 1980s, the West, in particular the U.S., welcomed Deng's reforms with open arms because Beijing was seen as a quasi-ally against the Soviet Union. After the end of the Cold War, Washington continued its engagement policy, despite calls for a preemptive policy to contain China's rise. When the neocons in the administration of George W. Bush were finally ready to confront China, 9/11 intervened. The Bush administration's misadventure in the Middle East allowed China to focus on its economic development for another decade.

But more important than luck was the party's foreign policy pragmatism. Faithfully adhering to Deng's dictum of "keeping a low profile and building up your strength," presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao exercised strategic restraint and took great pains to avoid conflicts with the U.S. They relied almost exclusively on China's growing global economic footprint to expand its geopolitical influence.

Top: Workers assemble a car at a Volkswagen joint venture factory in Shanghai in December 1995. Bottom: A rush-hour traffic jam in central Shanghai in July 2013, by which time China had already become the world's largest automobile market and manufacturer.    © Reuters

This cycle of pragmatism and collective leadership abruptly ended with the rise of Xi in 2012. Party cognoscenti have long noticed an intriguing pattern. A period of pragmatism and collective leadership would usher in political stability, economic prosperity and -- for the first three decades after Mao -- a benign external environment. But the party's success would breed arrogance, complacency, corruption, factionalism and recklessness. Because the party had never acquired the internal checks and balances needed to preserve collective leadership, the danger of a return to one-man rule was always present.

Although few in the party foresaw the drastic policy changes he would bring, Xi has wasted no time in dismantling collective leadership and reintroducing ideological dogmatism. In the last eight and half years, his policies have gutted the survival strategy formulated by Deng in the wake of Mao's disastrous Cultural Revolution. At home, his laser-like focus is not on the Chinese economy, but the rejuvenation of the CCP's ideological loyalty and the restoration of social control and repression.

Abroad, Xi's government has replaced Deng's pragmatism with aggressive expansionism, building militarized artificial islands in the disputed areas of the South China Sea and launching a grandiose infrastructure scheme known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

It may be still too early to render a verdict on the return to ideological dogmatism and one-man rule under Xi. But there are enough signs suggesting that, like the last cycle of dogmatism and one-man rule, the party will encounter another existential crisis in the coming decades. China and the U.S. are now locked in a geopolitical duel reminiscent of the Cold War. Its economic fallout will darken China's economic prospects. The removal of the presidential term limit has all but ensured Xi's open-ended rule. This eliminates a midcourse correction as long as Xi remains in office.

So the party's centennial must be a bittersweet moment for its leaders. As they toast the party's good fortune, many of them can be forgiven for worrying about the great perils lurking ahead. The last cycle of dogmatism and one-man rule nearly destroyed the party. Perhaps the only thing the majority of the CCP's 92 million members can do now is hope that the party will survive this cycle with less self-inflicted devastation.

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