The Chinese Communist party: 100 years that shook the world

As China marks the centenary of its ruling party, we examine key episodes in its tempestuous history, including the Long March, Mao’s purges and Xi Jinping’s rise to the top of an emerging superpower

1921: The first meeting

Anyone visiting First Meeting Hall in Shanghai, the museum recreating the site of the first conclave of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) in 1921, will also find themselves in one of the city’s fanciest districts.

The precise time of the meeting is murky, and 1 July was chosen by Mao Zedong years later for commemoration when he couldn’t remember the exact date on which the dozen or so comrades had held their conclave.

In addition to the Chinese at the meeting in the city’s French Concession, including Mao, there was one representative of the Comintern, or the Communist International. For a period, some attendees were airbrushed out of official accounts, as they were later accused of collaborating with the Imperial army in the treacherous civil war and Japanese occupation in the 1930s.

In 21st-century China, such apparently glaring incongruities – allowing one of the party’s “sacred sites” to sit amid a yuppie wonderland of upmarket shops and restaurants – barely generates a resigned sigh these days, let alone criticism.

“People can see the progress of the party,” Xia Jianming, the Shanghai party school’s director general, told me when I visited some years back. “This [setting] is a kind of harmony. In our society, people of different levels may have different ways of meeting their requirements.”

1934: The Long March

As origin stories go, the Long March is hard to beat. With Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists gaining the upper hand in their struggle for power, the Communist armies embarked on a series of lengthy retreats into the hinterland.

Mao Zedong on the Long March in Shaanxi province in 1934 or 1935.
Mao Zedong on the Long March in Shaanxi province in 1934 or 1935. Photograph: Fototeca Storica Nazionale./Getty Images

As the historian Jonathan Spence wrote, for all the mythology and embellishments later added to the tale, the Long March “was an astonishing saga of danger and survival against terrible odds”.

The end point was Yan’an in Shaanxi province, in north-central China, the Communist base camp from 1935-47, in readiness for the revolution to come. Mao took over as leader in 1935 and instigated a series of purges that would come to typify his leadership of the CCP until his death in 1976. Being holed up far from the invading Japanese had its advantages. Although the CCP doesn’t highlight it, the burden of the fighting against Imperial Japan was borne by Chiang and his armies, who also suffered the bulk of the casualties.

1949: Revolution

After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the leadership of China was in play again. The Communist armies’ relative isolation had allowed them to maintain their strength, with the ability not just to conduct guerrilla campaigns but to wage all-out war against a tottering Chiang.

Communist troops on the march during the assault on Shanghai at the end of the Chinese Civil War, 21 May 1949.
Communist troops on the march during the assault on Shanghai at the end of the Chinese Civil War, 21 May 1949. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

The Nationalists had more modern equipment, but the Communists had better generals. By 1949, Beijing, or Peking as it was known then, fell almost without a fight into the Communist hands. Mao’s portrait replaced that of Chiang above the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the entrance to the Forbidden City.

The CCP took over a country that had been ravaged by decades of conflict. They had to send armies to quell Xinjiang and Tibet to plant the flag of the new republic. Mao’s first trip was to the Soviet Union, with which he formed an uncomfortable partnership to offset US sanctions.

Chiang, meanwhile, relocated his government in exile to the former Japanese colony of Taiwan, an island that Beijing covets to this day.

1958/1965: Calamity

The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution can be lumped together – two humanitarian disasters wreaked on the country by Mao. To this day, their legacy scars the body politic in China.

The first was a man-made famine, triggered by Mao’s attempt to rapidly industrialise China. Farmers were forced to build backyard furnaces. Grain output collapsed, and between 35 million and 40 million people starved to death, a figure confirmed by Chinese historians. (No, this was not a CIA plot.)

The Cultural Revolution was set off in 1965 when Mao, fearing rivals, turned young Red Guards on the political system. “Bombard the headquarters,” went the slogan, a tactic successfully mimicked decades later by Donald Trump.

Red Guards brandishing copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, as they parade in Beijing’s streets during the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966.
Red Guards brandishing copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, as they parade in Beijing’s streets during the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966. Photograph: Jean Vincent/AFP/Getty Images

In the words of one Sinologist, it was a “revolution on a revolution that wasn’t revolutionary enough”. Millions were killed, families were broken up and the economy was driven into the ground.

The CCP doesn’t like to talk about either event and still limits criticism of Mao, even more so under Xi Jinping. As Justin Trudeau remarked last week, China doesn’t do truth and reconciliation commissions.

The violence, destruction and chaos has since been leveraged by the CCP to support its own often harsh rule. The alternative, Chinese officials say, is a return to the chaos that took hold then.

1976: The arrest of the Gang of Four

There are moments in time which can genuinely change a country, and the direction of world history. The death of Mao in September 1976 was one such turning point.

The atmosphere in Beijing was already febrile. Zhou Enlai, his foreign minister, had died earlier in the year, unleashing an outpouring of grief on the streets of the Chinese capital. The protests channelled a swell of public anger about the depredations of dictatorship.

Mao’s death unleashed a power struggle between the Gang of Four, the ultra-leftists led by Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao; and reformers including Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor.

Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, on trial in Beijing in November 1980.
Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, on trial in Beijing in November 1980. Photograph: AFP

The Gang of Four were masters of manipulation, of the media and the Red Guards, and expert in the political invective that was the very stuff of China’s radical politics.

But the reformers managed to win the loyalty of the Central Security Bureau, also known as the Central Bodyguard Bureau. About a month after Mao’s death, the army unit – the equivalent of the US Secret Service – arrested Jiang Qing and her comrades in the dead of night in Beijing. The four were imprisoned and later tried in 1980-81, a trial staged in public at the moment China was finally opening up.

1978: Reform and opening

CCP insiders know it by its bland official name, as the third plenum of the 11th Central Committee. Held in December 1978 in the Jingxi hotel in west Beijing, the meeting built on the reforming energy unleashed by the arrest of the Gang of Four three years earlier. The plenum decisively repudiated Mao’s political style and economic legacy, kickstarting the process of reform that has made China the superpower-in-waiting that it is today.

A host of leaders who had been banished in the Cultural Revolution – collectively, they were known as the “fell off the stage” group – were rehabilitated. Mass class struggle ended. Market reforms that had started in the countryside were built on.

The next year, China approved its first special economic zones, small pockets of the country like Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong, where the market was given freer rein. Deng Xiaoping, in the conventional telling of the story, gets the credit for these reforms and several “Man of the Year” covers on Time magazine. More recent research says credit should also go to his much-maligned predecessor, Hua Guofeng. Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was also instrumental in setting up the first special economic zones in southern China.

Still, Deng’s instincts were right. As one of his advisers said: “Deng didn’t know much about the economy. He just knew he wanted fast development.”

1989: Tiananmen Square

The mass protests which culminated in what is often called the Tiananmen Square massacre – it is more accurate to call it the Beijing massacre, as the protesters had been removed from the square before the shooting started – were about many things. They came at the end of Chinese communism’s most freewheeling decade, when private businesses were allowed to prosper for the first time and when political reform was openly discussed. By the end of the decade, however, students and workers were getting angry about corruption, inflation and floods of imports, Japanese electronics and the like which only the newly wealthy could afford, and a lack of democracy.

A man blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Blvd in Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989.
A man blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Blvd in Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989. Photograph: Jeff Widener/Associated Press

The death of Hu Yaobang, the popular former party secretary who had been toppled in 1987, sent them into the streets. Months later, the capital paralysed by the protests, they were blasted out by the People’s Liberation Army. The impact of the military crackdown was profound, as evidenced by the fact that the CCP has tried to erase it from popular Chinese memory. The reputation of the military took years to recover. China’s standing in the world suffered immensely. Most importantly, the leadership decided that while economic reform could go on, party rule had to be tightened.

2001: The private sector

The irony, at least for westerners, is that Chinese communism has survived and prospered because of the very thing that Marxism was meant to wipe out – a profit-hungry private sector.

Jiang Zemin, the party chief from 1989 until 2002, was smart enough to recognise the value of entrepreneurs, who had begun to flourish in the 1980s. In 2001, Jiang pushed through a policy change to welcome them into the party as members in good standing.

Polo teams from Oxford and Cornell universities at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin in 2016.
Polo teams from Oxford and Cornell universities at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin in 2016. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

There had always been “red capitalists” in the CCP who had survived by handing over their assets after the revolution and helped manage state businesses and foreign exchange. But this was different – a reform that would literally change the face of the party.

Around the same time, Jiang’s tough-talking premier, Zhu Rongji, negotiated China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, another reform that would, in this case, transform the global economy.

Jiang was attacked as “unmarxist” for letting entrepreneurs into the party. Zhu was assailed for putting the economy at the mercy of predatory foreigners. The strength of the party and the Chinese economy today has more than vindicated both reforms.

2008: The west in crisis

If you are looking for moments when Beijing made threshold decisions to compete head-to-head with the west, and US military power in particular, two confrontations come to mind.

In 1996, Beijing shelled the waters near Taiwan to demonstrate its fury at the island’s first democratic presidential election (and its eventual winner) but was humiliated by its powerlessness to influence the process. It swore this would never happen again.

In 2013, China built islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea and then turned them into military bases without the US seriously responding, demonstrating how far the country had come.

But 2008, and the global financial crisis, was the event that psychologically ties these revanchist sentiments together. While the west plunged into a prolonged crisis, Beijing launched a massive stimulus and quickly returned its economy to growth. For the country’s leaders, this was a pivotal moment.

Their system had proved its worth. America, by contrast, which has been tutoring China for years about how to run a financial system and manage risk, turned out to have feet of clay.

2018: Leader for life

The conventional view of many in democracies is that China does economic, but not political, reform. From a Chinese perspective, however, that’s wrong.

Within the CCP, there has been substantial reform since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping introduced measures to ensure the country was never lumbered with another dictator like Mao.

The cornerstone was de facto terms limits on the top position in the country, of party secretary of the Communist Party, effectively giving him (and it has always been him) two five-year terms and no more.

The CCP, in effect, solved the big problem faced by most authoritarian states, of how to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. No one benefited from this reform more than Xi himself when he took power in 2012.

Images of Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China.
Images of Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

In 2018, by abolishing term limits on the presidency, Xi threw that reform out, effectively making himself leader in perpetuity. Xi has lots of disparate enemies, but nothing has united them in fury like this measure, which harks back to the bad old days of dictatorship.

Xi completes his second five-year term towards the end of next year. No one expects him to step down, and it is not clear whether he will start to groom a successor.

Xi may keep China stable. Equally, he may be setting the party up for its greatest fear, a full blown succession crisis and an ugly split at the top.

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute. He is a journalist and author and was formerly the Beijing and Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times

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Richard McGregor

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