July 1st is the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, which dominates politics in the world's most populous country. You have probably read, or will read this week, a barrage of media coverage about the CCP's history, how it has changed under General-Secretary Xi Jinping, or what are its future plans for China. But today — and with some help by Eurasia Group expert Neil Thomas — we'll answer more basic questions about the famously opaque party.
What is the CCP? It's the ruling political party in the People's Republic of China. In power since 1949, the CCP has now controlled China for almost as long as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union controlled the USSR before the 1991 collapse.
Although it may seem communist only in name following the economic reforms that began in the late 1970s, the structure of the Chinese state under the CCP is similar to that of other socialist authoritarian regimes. But both ideas coexist peacefully: China pursues economic policies that are capitalist — albeit state-directed — yet the party remains the ultimate political authority.
How does the CCP work internally?CCP officials are "elected" to leadership positions every five years, when top officials meet in Beijing for national party congresses, although outcomes are decided earlier by party leaders in secretive negotiations. The most coveted positions are on the Politburo's elite standing committee, whose seven members have the final say on major political, economic, and social issues.
As CCP general-secretary, president of the People's Republic and chairman of the Central Military Commission, Xi has centralized decision-making power to become the most influential Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. What's more, since rising to the top of the party's leadership almost nine years ago, Xi has purged its ranks of potential rivals and removed presidential term limits, meaning he could well stay on for decades more.
How does the CCP rule China? It's often said that the party and the government are pretty much the same thing in China. In reality, the CCP controls the government, and through it — and the military — the country.
Party leaders, however, insist on referring to the CCP by its slightly different official name — Communist Party of China, or CPC — because in their view it belongs first to China and its people. The party, according to the official narrative, exists to support Chinese business and workers, rather than the other way around. That said, public criticism of the party itself is unwelcome, no matter how powerful you are... as billionaire Jack Ma found out a few months ago.
How much does the CCP control the population? It depends. As authoritarian as the party is, the CCP is in many ways not totalitarian. Most Chinese go about their daily lives without worrying much about the party, which nowadays rarely meddles in where people choose to live, what they study, or which job they can get. What the CCP does is set strict limits on political expression and enforce harsh punishments for those who cross its lines, and takes a hard line on surveillance and persecution of political dissidents and of ethnic minorities in places like Xinjiang.
At the same time, the CCP invests enormous resources in propaganda and censorship systems that ensure its message remains dominant. Yet the party knows that creating growth and delivering public services is key to its long-term political resilience, and so actively monitors public sentiment and welcomes citizen feedback on the performance (good or bad) of local officials.
How popular is the CCP among Chinese people? Overall, most Chinese don't live in fear of the CCP, whose nationalist appeals, development success story, and containment of COVID have endowed it with a surprising degree of popular legitimacy. Indeed, a lot of people want to join the party — which boasts almost 92 million members — because CCP membership is a ticket to upward mobility. Xi knows this, and has raised the bar to apply because he only wants the best, the brightest, and — importantly — the most loyal Chinese to rule.
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