By: Jacob Anthony
For sixty-eight tumultuous years of both devastating despair and unimaginable growth, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ruled over China. For nearly seven decades, this 88-million strong organization, originally founded by fifty idealistic socialists, has controlled the daily lives of hundreds of millions—and now billions—of people.
The CCP has undergone several dramatic transformations over its existence, the first of which was its transition from an agrarian revolutionary party to a governing party. The transition was rough and hasty, with one man playing the system to grant himself nearly unopposed power. Mao Zedong, the peasant hero of rural Hunan province, triumphed to become the first leader of socialist China. Under his reign, China was unified and the lives of some improved in specific regards. However, his rule ushered in a period of tyranny reminiscent of the days of the First Emperor. Tens of millions starved to death as a result of his historically incompetent production campaigns, and Chinese culture was pushed to its breaking point by a movement that turned students against their teachers, children against their parents, and friends against friends.
After the death of Mao, the CCP transformed into a party quite cognizant of its disastrous mass movements and their unpopularity. Until 1989, China enjoyed a period known domestically as one of “reform and opening-up”, with the CCP walking a thin line between increased economic freedom and stagnant political reform. To the world abroad, China’s period of opening up was a godsend. A billion cheap-labor workers could produce stunning quantities of goods for inexpensive prices. For a multitude of reasons, though, the pot boiled over in 1989. Students and the educated at large were tired of Leninism’s firm grip on their words and thoughts. Ultimately, nevertheless, the greatest threat to the CCP during that time was the disunity of top government officials.
A chilling and unforeseen series of events led to a Politburo stalemate on how to handle the demonstrators. A secret intra-party resolution uncovered by leaked Chinese documents showed that all Politburo “ties” were to be passed onto the de facto Party and government leader; Deng Xiaoping. Deng decided that the CCP’s future was more important to the nation than the lives of thousands of students and other civilians. The blood painting the streets of Beijing, Chengdu, and other cities symbolized a new beginning for the Communist Party. No longer would the CCP maintain an ambiguous stance on demonstrations and dissent; the Party was clearly backing the use of force against peaceful protesters.
That fateful night in June 1989 has directed the moves of the CCP ever since. A hopeful people, optimistic after Mao’s tumultuous era, spiraled into a populace content with economic reform, not daring to speak against the regime. The world forgot the images of brave young people taking on tanks and lines of armed soldiers in favor of open trade policies with the People’s Republic of China. Countries using accusations of dictatorship as grounds for the denouncement of other nations welcomed China into the world order with open arms. When Chinese leaders ordered the arrest and torture of people associated with a spiritual quasi-cult known as “Falun Gong,” the world remained silent. After nearly 90,000 people perished in an earthquake due to shoddily-built buildings with little regulations, the world rewarded the Chinese government with the opportunity to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Now, in 2017, the Chinese government is facing momentous challenges. The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party convened in the third week of October, with Chairman Xi Jinping set to pitch his strongman vision of China to his people. He knows a period of recession and economic downturn may be inevitable; in the absence of significant economic progress, Xi has decided to employ both traditional and new tactics to maintain public support for his government. For several years, the Chinese government has used the sensitive issues of control over the Diaoyu islands and Taiwan to bolster nationalism in the country. Interestingly, the CCP has carefully contained public xenophobic sentiment over the past couple years, perhaps hoping to strike a balance between a destructive and soft form of nationalism.
Xi’s other infamous method to continuing his grip on power is his anti-corruption campaign. Since he assumed control over the Party in 2012, Xi has launched a purported crusade against corruption. He’s snagged both “tigers and flies” (large bosses and local officials), promising the Chinese people that his goal is to rid the country of corruption. A son of a man tortured by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, Xi Jinping grew up in the shadow of a period of chaos. When he was 14, young Communist ideologues who called themselves “red guards” threatened to execute Xi “a hundred times.” His family was denounced and his father imprisoned, despite his father’s devotion to the Communist Party during the civil war. This traumatic upbringing would lead some to believe that Xi resents the legacy of Mao due to the egregious disrespect towards his family and himself, but Xi has wisely avoided criticizing Mao while in power. Perhaps Xi sees his anti-corruption campaign as a counter-Cultural-Revolution campaign. Instead of a ‘bottom-up’ campaign like Mao’s social revolution, Xi and the Politburo have called the shots on his campaign against corruption. This could be due to the experiences of his youth, or out of a lust for power.
If one were to assume Xi legitimately believes he can succeed in ridding the party of corruption, the Chairman would seem gravely mistaken. Corruption is endemic in a centralized system; in a system ruled through nepotism rather democracy, it is inevitable that corrupt officials will rise through the ranks. Fighting against corruption in a dictatorship is as pointless as shining a flashlight into the night sky, hoping to illuminate the world.
It’s more likely that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is a targeted campaign meant to eliminate rivals and potential enemies from power. In a dictatorship, the key to remaining in power is the support of the elders and leaders behind the curtain. With a largely apathetic populace, Xi’s path to maintaining control is the backing of those with influence. It appears that Xi’s goal is to consolidate power to the point where the support of other officials matters little. He’s targeted allies of former leader (and influential behemoth) Jiang Zemin, carefully poking holes into his influence over months and years. Within the past five years, Chairman Xi has destroyed once admired officials such as Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai. With every official purged, the chorus of whispers of disapproval grows louder, and more cracks appear in the CCP’s united facade.
One of the strangest twists in the unfolding drama over political power in China has come with the defection of Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui to the United States. Guo, once an ardent supporter of the CCP, became a vocal critic of the Party following the ousting of officials he had ties with. Using Twitter to communicate in a method not unlike that of Donald Trump (interestingly so, given Twitter is blocked in China), Guo has accused the anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan of having corrupt ties to powerful banks. Guo hasn’t directly attacked Chairman Xi, but his explosive claims could be seen as targeting Communist power by tainting the image of the CCP. Regardless of whether the accusations are accurate, the turning of the powerful on Xi and his allies threatens to spill over into intra-party conflict, a dark zone avoided by previous leaders at all costs.
The Chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Liu Shiyu, claimed on October 20 that there had been a major plot to remove Xi Jinping from power around 2013, the year in which powerful leaders such as Bo Xilai were arrested on charges of corruption. Previously, the CCP denied charges of an attempted coup, ever careful to maintain their united facade. This admission means either that the regime plans to use failed coups to bolster its own power, or that the internal conflicts in the party have become so sweeping that they simply can’t be covered up anymore.
The moment to watch will be after the death of Jiang Zemin, the 91-year old former leader whose once massive influence has waned under Xi’s campaigns. Chairman Xi may be waiting for the demise of his prominent foe, after which he can happily depose officials he sees as being against him. This would likely trigger a chain reaction from Xi’s foes, who would have no reason to hold back their fire. At the same time, enemies of Xi could be saving their revolution for the fall of Jiang. An intra-party civil war of that magnitude would be unprecedented and potentially fatal for the Communist Party.
This means that Xi’s options are remarkably limited. He could make nice with power players while maintaining the facade of his anti-corruption campaign, while at the same time increasing public support towards nationalism; unfortunately for Xi, this is a losing strategy in the long run. Chinese leaders are generally wary of nationalism, well aware that nationalism has marked the end of previous Chinese regimes. Perhaps history will be found repeating itself again.
Judging by the recent political signs in China, the Communist Party faces a dire time of choosing. Chairman Xi could soon find himself in the midst of a real power struggle, and he must prepare himself for the possibility that victory is not a foregone conclusion. The future of the Communist Party depends on it.