People stand next to a display commemorating the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai on June 30, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hector Retamal

When Chinese intellectuals Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao co-founded the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1921, it likely would have been hard for them to imagine that the party would preside over the world’s second-largest and fastest rising economy a century later.

The CPC, currently the world’s largest political party with 95 million members, was founded by a group of magazine editors led by Chen.

In September 1915, Chen published the first edition of Qingnian Zazhi, which literally means Youth Magazine, to promote the so-called “Six Spirits,” namely anti-slavery, progressiveness, initiative, openness, pragmatism and science, to the public.

Significantly, the publication also initiated the “New Culture Movement” between 1915 and 1924, calling for democracy, equality and socialism. Today (July 1), the CPC opens a new chapter by celebrating its 100th anniversary in a gala spectacle aimed to show the world the party’s strength, unity and staying power.

CPC General Secretary and national President Xi Jinping on Tuesday awarded the “July 1 medals” to 29 people and praised them for their contributions to the party and the nation. Xi urged all party members to continue to fight for the “China Dream” – the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the second centenary goal.

It hasn’t been all peaches and cream for the CPC. China has endured especially tough times under its rule, not least the 1959-61 Great Chinese Famine that killed tens of millions and the self-destruction of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

By 1979, it formed diplomatic relations with the United States and began to open up its economy. Despite the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, China continued to receive foreign investments and became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in late 2001.

But what some now see as a golden era of US-China relations was upended by the Trump administration as economic and military rivalry intensified.  

People attend a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party at National Stadium, known as Birds’ Nest in Beijing on July 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun / Koki Kataoka

When former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping wore a cowboy hat during a visit to the US in 1979, many Americans thought that China was poised to integrate into the US’ system with its then inchoate economic opening, Xie Chuntao, vice president of the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, said in a meeting with the All-China Journalists Association on June 22.

The US people hoped to see a peaceful evolution in China but they were disappointed during the 1989 political dispute as Deng wasn’t the person they had imagined, Xie said.

They then wished for the CPC’s implosion after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 but they were wrong again, he said. They created what Xie calls the “China Threat Theory” – epitomized by its absorption of Tibet and repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, but in fact the CPC has been respectful to other civilizations since its establishment, he claimed.

Xie said Western countries had recently become hostile towards China as they did not want to see Beijing narrow the economic and technological gap between China and them in terms of economic and technological developments.

He predicted the CPC would continue to face economic, political, diplomatic and military challenges from the West for the foreseeable future but that it would not back down.

Power struggles

Before Xi became CPC General Secretary at the party’s 18th National Congress in November 2012, a political coup led by then-Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and security chief Zhou Yongkang nearly succeeded. Although Xi secured his leadership amid the infighting, he has since leveraged a sometimes politicized anti-corruption campaign to consolidate his hold.

“Xi is probably the product of a fairly broad view within its elites that existed in 2012, namely that the party was facing very serious internal and external threats. It needed a change of approach and a different style of leadership in order to survive. Xi was the man of the moment,” James Miles, China editor of The Economist magazine, said in an interview with Asia Times.

An elderly man watches Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech on a large screen in Beijing during the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, July 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been a major target of Xi’s purges in the name of crushing graft. Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, two of the highest ranking officers in the army, were early targets of the clean-up campaign, Miles said. The campaign has over time resulted in a huge political shake-up of the PLA’s top levels, he said.

“And now we see a big focus on the internal security apparatus, including the state and public security, law courts and prison system. They are all being targeted by what is being framed as an anti-corruption campaign,” he said, adding that the latest purges began last year and would likely continue into 2022.

In April 2020, Sun Lijun, the then vice-minister of Public Security, was investigated by the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the party’s anti-graft agency. On January 4 this year, the CCDI announced that Deng Huilin, former deputy mayor and police chief of Chongqing, was likewise under investigation.

Yet there are no clear signs yet that Xi’s campaign has caused dangerous rifts. “Perhaps some leaders within the elites may resent Xi’s power because of the anti-corruption campaign that has been going on…but we have no evidence that it has mounted any serious challenge to his authority,” said Miles.

Risks and challenges

Miles and others sense the West has under-appreciated the CPC’s ability to adapt to the demands of a fast­-growing middle class, tweak its message to suit the public mood and even act on public suggestions.

“Xi appears to be wielding supreme authority in a way that we haven’t seen since at least in the Deng Xiaoping era,” Miles said. “The system is responding rapidly to orders emanated from the high level of the party, supposedly from Xi himself. These include the party’s quick response to the Covid-19 epidemic. We see no sign that there is any push back directly against Xi.”

Citing a book published by the party last September entitled “Extracts from Discourses by Xi Jinping on Countering Risks and Challenges and Responding to Sudden Incidents,” an Economist special report released to coincide with the CPC’s anniversary notes Chinese leaders’ fears, ranging from soaring debt and property bubbles to plots by the West to foment “color revolutions” in China.

It said the party’s laissez-­faire approach that gives low-level officials freedom to be creative in economic matters often leads to collusion between party officials and mafia­like gangs in indus­tries such as property and transport.

Xi himself has mentioned certain general threats to the party, which include factionalism, ideological laxity and members’ lack of loyalty, Miles said. But these problems would definitely not shake Xi’s power and lead to the collapse of the party, he added.

People perform on the stage during the Great Conquest to celebrate 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party at the National Stadium, known as the Birds’ Nest, in Beijing on June 29, 2021. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun / Koki Kataoka

Beyond the anniversary

While the July 1 ceremony will revel in the CPC’s achievements in the past century, the gala event is also seen as a curtain-raiser for the 20th CPC National Congress, which will likely be held in October 2022. It is expected that Xi will seek to extend his term at the congress and could revive revolutionary leader Mao Zedong’s long-dormant “Chairman of the CPC” tile to further consolidate his rule.

The party usually announces personnel changes a year before a party congress, said Johnny Lau, a Hong Kong-based political commentator.

However, the fact that the party had announced changes of mostly mid-level cadres since early this year showed that Xi enjoyed overwhelming power in the party and can make decisions more readily than his predecessors, Lau said.

Miles said it was possible that Xi would receive the party chairman title but it isn’t really necessary considering he is already chairman of the Central Military Commission.

“I don’t think there is anything in concrete terms that Xi has to achieve in order to justify carrying on with his ruling beyond 2022…At present the evidence points to the fact that he is having an unrivaled authority,” Miles said.

“There is a strong belief among Chinese elites that Xi’s primary goal, which is to maintain the continuity of the party’s rule, requires a tough leadership,” he said.

“Although Xi is not entirely confident that China has sufficient power to really match America and change the global order, he does want to move China closer to the center of the global stage and in the long run be in a position to change the system much more to China’s liking.”