Q. & A.
Reconsidering the History of the Chinese Communist Party
On the centenary of the C.C.P., a scholar examines the roots of Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism.
By Isaac Chotiner
July 22, 2021
Xi Jinping speaks at the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, at Tiananmen Square this month.Source photograph by Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
Founded in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party has ruled the country since the Communist takeover in 1949, moving between harder and softer forms of authoritarianism. Today, in many ways, Chinese people live in the harshest climate since Mao’s death, as President Xi Jinping has cracked down on dissent, forced more than a million Uyghur people and other Muslim minorities into concentration camps in western China, and stripped Hong Kong of its autonomy. In a new book, “From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party,” Tony Saich, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a longtime China scholar, considers these developments in light of the history of the C.C.P. How, Saich wonders, did it transition from “a revolutionary party to a ruling party,” and what has allowed it to reach its current state under Xi?
I recently spoke by phone with Saich, who is also the director of the Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the C.C.P.’s complicated relationship to Marxism, why Xi Jinping embarked on a more authoritarian path for his country, and what the U.S.-China relationship may look like going forward.
You ask in the book, “What holds the party together?” and continue, “A former secretary of Mao Zedong once told me that a communist party needs only two departments: organization and propaganda.” Can you explain why that is and why those two departments have been so crucial to the success of the C.C.P.?
I think one of the strengths of the Communist Party when it has been functioning well is that it’s been a strong, unified, and coherent organization. That is certainly what Xi Jinping sees as a core element to drive forward his agenda and his policies, and that plays out through a number of ways. One, of course, is his control over key appointments and making sure those in important leadership positions are faithful to the current leadership. It is also underpinned by the coherent narrative that holds the Party and what are now ninety million Party members together, so that, in public at least, they can all tell the same story. That is run through its propaganda apparatus and through a whole network of Party schools, publications, and television programs which puts forward the Communist Party and all that is good about China and portrays different aspects of its history. Of course, the one thing that that person left off is the coercive apparatus. If you fall outside the realms of permissible, there is a strong coercive apparatus that will come down on you harshly.
What made you want to focus specifically on the C.C.P. in this book?
The Party is always there, but you can’t always see it. And yet, citizens always know that there is a limit to what they can do that is bound by whatever the Party is deciding at a particular time. It is obviously the core institution in China at a political level. Even though there are a number of other political parties, they’re irrelevant in any genuine sense. So if you want to understand China, you need to understand the Party and its relationships with different aspects of society and the system.
And then looking at a trajectory of one hundred years, what in a way has been constant, and what has changed over that period of time? The first thing to know is that from its very founding, the leaders or the participants of that first Party Congress wanted to create a global order that would be more favorable to China’s interest. Now, at that time, of course, it was being part of a global proletarian revolution—they’ll get rid of the rapacious landlords, kick out the capitalists, and get rid of the foreigners. In the nineteen-sixties, under Mao, it was promoting, again, proletarian revolution, supporting Maoist parties that were seeking to overthrow the state. Today, I think the same agenda is there, to shake the global order—not necessarily overthrow it anymore but to shape it to benefit better China’s interests.
Then the second thing to understand is ambivalence about the role of the private sector in the economy. Whereas the founders of the Party wanted to get rid of it entirely, the Party’s been forced to embrace it in one way or another. The last thing, and this goes back to adaptability and flexibility, is that the Party has been successful by allowing localities to adapt central directives, to apply them in a way to their own particular circumstances.
In the book you call that “micropolitics.”
Yes, and I think that’s what has been one of the key saving graces. And where the Party has been unsuccessful has been where ideological dictates have driven activities throughout the system, mostly before 1949 but also in obvious cases, such as the Great Leap Forward in the Cultural Revolution. We often have this sense that because it’s a communist party, because it’s a Leninist party, whatever Beijing says must go. The reality on the ground is much more complex than that. One of the classic phrases is “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” Another phrase that local officials often use is “They have their policies and we have our countermeasures.” And a lot of people, ordinary people and officials both, even in Beijing and Shanghai, I think—once the new regulation comes in, often their first reaction is “O.K., how do we get around this?”
Is the central party O.K. with this because they think it’s good? Or do they just know there’s not too much they can do about it, and so they accept it?
Part of it is the latter. That they know they can’t exert complete control over it, but different leaders have taken different approaches to this question. I think under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, there was a sort of tacit acknowledgement that there had to be those escape valves and ways in which localities could take central directives and bend them to their own interests, as long as certain core things were not confronted directly. The C.C.P. makes it clear that there are certain key policies that you have to abide by. But I think it’s different under Xi Jinping. I think when he took power, in 2012, he looked around and thought it looked a mess. Corruption was growing in China. Society seemed to be pursuing its own interests—local government seemed to be pursuing their own interests. And I think Xi and those around him thought that the only way to keep this train on the tracks was to reassert their centralized control and strengthen and boost and fortify and discipline the Party to push his policies forward.
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You used the phrase “Leninist” in this conversation, and you use it in the book, too. My understanding is that you’re using it not to talk about doctrinaire Marxism but the idea of a centralized decision-making apparatus. Is that correct?
Yes, that’s correct. I’m not talking about it as an ideological construct. It’s an organizational structure, and some people use the phrase “market Leninism” to describe what you see in China today. I think that’s an interesting description, because it means that there has to be a strong organized hierarchy at the core dictating policy and the political process. So even though much of Marxism is gone in terms of daily life and daily practice, the idea of the Leninist party has remained to the present day.
You write in the book, and here maybe you’re using Leninism slightly differently, “As belief in Marxism-Leninism declines as a source of its legitimacy, the CCP loses its power to explain development by relying on its ‘supernatural ability’ to divine current and future trends. Instead, better-informed citizens begin to judge performance on more earthly criteria. Two key areas are managing the environment and the economy.” So you are saying that Marxism really did matter to the Party for a long time and its loss means something.
I think that’s one thing that Xi Jinping wants to reassert. He talks about Marxism quite extensively. Even while talking about China’s cultural traditions, he talks about the importance of Marxism, and he uses it in certain ways. So, for example, his view of historical materialism means that there’s an inevitable rise of the East and the decline of the West. But I think in terms of most people in China, and the way life is lived, Marxism doesn’t mean very much to them today. And what that does mean is that, even though the Party’s still talking about Marxism and maybe it sets some constraints around policy, they have to search for other forms of legitimacy, and that’s what I meant by the more earthly criteria. One is performance. Two is promoting a much stronger story around nationalism. And then, third, which was really interesting to me, is rather than presenting itself as a radical break with the past, which was what was true previously, Xi Jinping talks about the Communist Party being the inheritor of China’s fine cultural traditions.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of the environment as an issue within China?
Environmental degradation in China has been part and parcel of the Communist Party’s approach to development, and if one looks at surveys, you see that concerns about air pollution, water pollution, food safety, and scandals related to those frequently pop up. You have in China a growing middle class, which is also a product of reforms, admittedly. But they are living now in congested urban areas and are very concerned about the quality of air that they’re breathing, the kind of water they’re drinking, and scandals like the tainted-milk-powder scandal. We were doing some surveys from 2003 to 2016, and when we started doing this, questions of environmental health and environmental governance did not rate highly among citizens’ perceptions. But, by 2016, they ranked very highly in terms of areas of work the citizens were most dissatisfied with. And the Party’s aware of that. They do monitor what people are saying.
In the book, you talk about how the Party goes through periods of greater and lesser authoritarian control. And Xi is obviously in the more authoritarian tradition. That being said, does the manner in which he’s been able to consolidate power and pursue his vision surprise you in any way or change your fundamental belief about the ability of one man to control the system?
Yes. I still don’t believe there is the ability of one person to control the system, but let’s put that aside for a second. I think it took many of us by surprise, not only outside of China but also many people I know within China. First, the speed with which Xi Jinping could consolidate his power, and, second, how swiftly he moved to a harder authoritarian approach over the soft authoritarian approach that had existed in the previous couple of decades. I think most of us thought that China was bungling its way along to a softer authoritarianism that would have little pockets for greater expression from the public, and that collective leadership would be more prevalent moving forward. Xi Jinping has disposed of both of those notions. He clearly saw the collective leadership under his predecessor as weakness and as leading China into a loss of direction. His father [the longtime Party official Xi Zhongxun] was known to be more of a liberal reformer, who had sparked a lot of the reforms in the south of China, and Xi Jinping himself had worked in a couple of provinces that were much more open to foreign investment, that had relatively good relations with Taiwan. And so yes, I think most people were quite taken aback by the approach Xi Jinping took.
Do you think he made these moves because he felt they were necessary to the survival of the country or the Party? Or that he is, at heart, someone with very nationalistic impulses, or, if you look at what’s going in Xinjiang, perhaps some sort of Han supremacy or something like that?
I think the answer is all of the above. I think he thought China was going down the wrong path, that things were chaotic, they were messy. I think, secondly, he is a Party man. He’s a product of the Party. I think he believes in the Party. I think he believes only the Party can deliver the correct policies to move China forward. And there’s no doubt that he’s a very strong nationalist who is proud of what he thinks China has achieved. I think on the question of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, it relates in part, as you say, to questions of identity, and Tibet comes into that as well. The Party finds it difficult to accept alternative narratives and alternative histories from one which is presented by the Party itself. And, of course, the Party itself, as you said, is dominated by Han Chinese. So an idea of an independent history for Tibet or for Xinjiang is anathema to the Party.
For Xi, I think Hong Kong could be a crowning achievement. Mao unified China with the exception of Macao, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Deng Xiaoping set a framework for bringing back Macao and Hong Kong, but I think Xi Jinping will be seen as the person that really brought Hong Kong back under the fold of the mainland. I think it also influences his attitude toward Taiwan.
At some point, in some authoritarian systems, the structure of the party becomes less important than the personality of one man. I assume that, even though Xi has taken incredible power in China and surprised a lot of people, yourself included, we’re not at a point where that is the case or on the verge of being the case.
I think that’s true. We tend to focus on individuals, like Mao, Deng, and now Xi. The post of General Secretary, of course, has incredible authority and power. But if someone else is General Secretary, they would have that authority and power. I suppose one way of answering your question is, if Xi wasn’t there, who or what would replace him? And I don’t think it would be anything very different from what we see now. I think the Party would see the same concerns, the same fears, the same challenges, and would pursue reasonably similar policies. Maybe not with quite the same level of adulation around Xi Jinping that we see currently.
I know that during your career it has been important to you to have dialogue with people in the Communist Party, bringing some of them to Harvard for discussions and so on. How do you look back on that, now that we’re in a different place with regard to America and China?
You are right that we are in a different era. China itself has changed, and we’re responding to the actions of China since 2008 with the global financial crisis. I think that set off a reaction in China that caused many to lose their respect for the West and Western institutions and to feel more confident that their institutions, their approach, was much more suitable to China’s situation and maybe more beneficial for other countries. So I think we’ve seen that rising confidence among the élites in China, which is then transmitted through propaganda into a much more nationalistic, strident view among Chinese people, in many cases.
But I think there are three things that are important to take into account moving forward. The first is, like it or not, American businesses are not going to stop investing and trying to sell goods in the Chinese market. A second point is that for the United States to meet many of its own objectives it has to incorporate China in some way. John Kerry going to Shanghai to talk about climate is one obvious example, despite our differences over human-rights issues. You can’t really meet climate goals and objectives without China’s engagement in some way. And I think there’s a whole range of what I call global public goods that require the United States, the West more generally, and China to work on: global pandemics, disasters, peacekeeping, fisheries, water shortages, cybersecurity, financial regulation on cross-border transactions.
The third is the problem of extrapolating from the present into the future. If I went to China and I only visited Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, I would probably come back terrified of China’s power. But I spent a lot of my time in rural China, and it has a lot of problems. I think we need to be cautious of extrapolating that China’s economic growth is going to continue unchecked, and that its power is going to continue unchecked, because most of the factors that contributed to China’s economic growth over the last few decades have now declined or are gone. Foreign investment is not going to keep increasing, but it will remain significant. Trade will continue, but it can’t really increase much more than it already has, and so on and so forth. We really need to think about different scenarios for China’s development, taking into account possible problems it’s going to confront in the future.
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Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
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