BEIJING -- Red lanterns and flower terraces dotted the Chinese capital ahead of Thursday's 100th anniversary of the founding of the China Communist Party. Cities across the country have been decorated in a similar fashion, with memorial halls hosting exhibits of the party's history, punctuated with self-acclaimed tributes and ideological slogans.
The party, founded in 1921 at a time of upheaval, came to power in 1949 after driving the nationalist Kuomintang to Taiwan and founding the People's Republic of China. The CCP, which boasts over 95 million members, is credited with lifting millions out of poverty during the country's rise to become the world's second-largest economy and keeping China's COVID-19 epidemic under control after the virus was originally discovered in Wuhan.
President Xi Jinping, who heads the CCP as its general secretary, will lead the celebrations on Thursday -- the first of two centennials. The second is the 100th anniversary of the republic in 2049, a year by which Xi envisions China to be "modern, prosperous and strong," and the world's most powerful economy.
China's economic rise was built on embracing a socialist market economy, and has emboldened Xi, who is now seeking to exert greater influence on the international stage.
"It is important to speak in the right tone, open, confident, but modest in order to create a credible, likable and respectable image of China," Xi told top CCP leadership on May 31.
But the CCP's top-down governance has led to accusations of excessive use of advanced digital and surveillance technology, restrictions on personal freedom, human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslim minorities in the country's western Xinjiang Province, walking back certain freedoms under the "one country, two system" policy in Hong Kong, and growing hostility against Taiwan. Clampdowns against private companies in the financial and education sectors are recent examples of the party extending an iron fist to prevent systemic risks.
While China's influence globally has grown hugely over the past few decades, Beijing's actions are not always seen in a positive light.
A majority of people across 17 developed economies hold a negative view of China, according to a Pew Research Center's study published on Wednesday. In the survey conducted on nearly 19,000 adults between Feb. 1 and May 26, a median of 69% had unfavorable opinions of China, citing Beijing's low respect for the personal freedoms of its people among the reasons.
Few have confidence in Xi's handling of international affairs.
Xi promised to make China's COVID-19 vaccines "global public goods," and engage in vaccine diplomacy to appease other countries.
In Southeast Asia, which accounts for 29% of Beijing's vaccine donations, China's soft power has yet to deliver "strategic trust," according to Singapore think tank ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in a June report.
"China's assertions of hard power in other domains fundamentally undercut its soft power, preventing Beijing from translating its vaccine diplomacy advantage into sustained strategic dividends," the report said.
An example of this played out in Malaysia in June. The country, a receiver of Chinese vaccines, summoned the Chinese ambassador and lodged a diplomatic protest after 16 Chinese military aircraft flew in the country's airspace -- prompting Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's government to term it a threat to national sovereignty and aviation safety.
The incident is seen by some Malaysian officials as an escalation of provocation by Beijing, whose vessels have sailed through disputed areas in South China Sea.
"China knows Malaysia is governed by a weak coalition party and it wanted to see how strong we would respond," said an official, who asked not to be named.
Even before the pandemic, China was known for giving scholarships to students from Southeast Asia to study in its universities. Indonesia, the most populated country in the region, had some 15,000 students at one point in China. Muslim journalists from the region were also hosted for trips to Xinjiang to deflect allegations of human abuse against Uyghur minorities.
"China's soft power is not paying," said one Southeast Asian diplomat, adding that Beijing's aggressive push to safeguard its interests has marred its image among the region's populace, especially young people.
Such direct imposition of Chinese interests internationally based on the CCP's integration with the Chinese political system is carried out to foster a safer environment for the country's rise, said German think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies in a June report.
"This will increasingly spill over to international arenas, creating more friction when Chinese or the CCP's interests are perceived under threat," the report said.