As an organization, there can be few in modern history that have had so much impact on the world as the Communist Party of China (CPC). Since 1949, it has been the ruling party in a country whose population comprises a fifth of humanity. That alone means it merits attention and study. But in addition to this, over that time, it has also seen the People’s Republic grow from a country with huge developmental and economic challenges to the world’s second largest economy, and one of its great modern powers. In this way, the CPC has become increasingly important for the outside world to understand as the impact of the country’s economic growth increases.
Some context here is important. It is often forgotten, but when the CPC came to power in 1949, average life expectancy in the new country was a little over 30 years. Levels of literacy were low. Healthcare provision was primitive to non-existent. Whatever had existed of China’s transport infrastructure had been decimated during Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in the previous decades. Entrenched poverty existed across the country, with only around 10 percent of people living in cities. A miniscule proportion attended universities.
In 2021, the year that the CPC celebrates its centenary in existence, everything has changed. China announced the eradication of absolute poverty early in 2021. Literacy levels are at close to 100 percent. More than 8 million young Chinese graduate from one of the 2,500 universities across China each year since 2018. In 2019, according to the QS rankings, 12 Chinese universities were in the global top hundred. All the while, in terms of construction of infrastructure (over 30,000 km of high-speed train alone), urbanization (now more than 60 percent live in cities), per-capita GDP increases (making China a middle-income country), and general healthcare, the People’s Republic has become a transformed place.
A clear identity
Because the CPC is politically unlike the other major global economies like the U.S., or India, or countries in Europe, it is often this dimension that gets most of the focus in outside commentary. For me, as someone trying to understand and study China, however, I tend to focus not so much on this, or the vastness of the Party. I think more about the lived experiences of those who belong to it (91 million members in 2020), work for it, and engage with it. After all, at its foundation, the Party was first and foremost a gathering of people. Its first congress in 1921, held in the Xintiandi area of Shanghai, had only a dozen or so members. Over its first decades in existence, it grew initially slowly, and often had to endure setbacks. These are all part of the narrative that the Party has about itself today and which people within it know and understand.
As I have studied the Party and its operations and history over the last few decades, a number of things have slowly become clear. The first is the way in which the Party talks about itself and how much this differs to the outside world. Its leaders in recent years have often used the term “learning Party.” The have also referred to the organization having a “historic mission.” Frequently, this aspect of the Party being a kind of epistemic community is forgotten. It has, after all, been at the heart of government life in the People’s Republic for over seven decades. This intimate knowledge of the circumstances of China’s development, and of the country’s specific needs and dynamics, is something only the Party has. It played, after all, a core role of the decisions that have made China today. That is something that should be recognized by anyone seeking to understand where the modern country has got to.
I have also thought a lot about the cultural impact of the CPC--the ways in which it introduced into China new frameworks by which Chinese were able to understand their historic development, and how they might shape their future. The Party also brought a number of different behaviors, and a different kind of language to talk about the world, which combined the specific circumstances of life in China with key elements of modernity which had appeared in Europe, North America, and elsewhere in the world. These have fundamentally changed China. The way that happened and what it means needs too to be better understood.
Visiting the museum which now exists on the site where the First Congress of the Party was held in July 1921 is always an interesting experience. The CPC at its genesis held out an interpretive framework for Chinese emerging from their imperial history, one that helped them in their mission to try to modernize the country. It also gave them a language of idealism. This element of idealism is often forgotten, but it was clearly a key ingredient for the CPC as it grew and developed in China. This is when I think of the roles of specific individuals and what motivated them--those who campaigned for it in its early years, some of whom were martyrs for its cause, some of whom went on to fight for it, and who played a role once it had come to power.
A further thing that is often forgotten when people speak about the Party in the outside world is that, for the vast majority of the officials within it, their tasks are often complex, and their workload frequently gruelling. For them, the main function of the CPC is to solve problems. It does this from village level up to national level. Much of this work is to broker consensus and compromise between different groups.
China is a huge, complex country in terms of geography, spread of wealth and development, and variety of different ethnic groups. That complexity is reflected in the way that the Party has to structure itself. It also means that much of its work and its identity are poorly understood in the outside world. Assumptions are made about it just because of its name and its size. Keeping in mind the individual humans that are within the Party story is important. At the end of the day, it is a human organization, not something impersonal and unknowable.
Deserving more study
The demands of governing China today are significant. People’s expectations as the country has grown economically more successful have also increased and intensified. This too is often forgotten in discussions of the role of the CPC--the ways that the Party has to serve the aspirations of a huge population, with many often wanting different things and wanting these to happen quickly and effectively.
The CPC probably has one of the most demanding jobs on the planet, both in terms of the number of people it needs to deliver things to, and the complexity of that population. On top of that, of course, is added its international role now--something new and unexpected as China has becoming an increasingly key global actor on climate change, sustainability, public health and economic growth.
The centenary this year should be at least an opportunity for the outside world to better understand not just what the CPC is, but what it does. It offers a moment to look at the history that the Party had emerged from, and the ways that path has led to what the CPC is today. It is also a chance for the outside world to at least try to understand what the world looks like within the Party--how it sees itself, with those elements of idealism, and of mission and aspiration, which were mentioned above.
The CPC finally is a Chinese organization, but it now has global reach and relevance. That means that it has never been more important to understand what the CPC’s intentions are, what the Party itself believes its core mission is, and how these relate to the wider world. It is an important actor--and has been for many decades. It merits deeper study and understanding by the outside world.
(Print Edition Title: A People's Party)
The author is director of the Lau China Institute at King's College London and an associate fellow on the Asia-Pacific Program at Chatham House
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