Can China's communists rule for another 100 years?
Beijing is organizing a big celebration to commemorate the 100th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party, which has ruled the world's most populous country since 1949. Ahead of a much-hyped speech to be delivered to a large audience by leader Xi Jinping on Thursday in Beijing, the party has been conducting a wide-ranging campaign to raise public awareness of its 100-year history. Beijing has ordered officials across the country to make sure nothing mars this week's events.
We spoke to Neil Thomas, a China analyst at Eurasia Group, to better understand the importance of this anniversary for China's leadership.
What exactly does the anniversary commemorate?
It marks one hundred years since the first National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which actually began in Shanghai on 23 July 1921. That first party congress, held at the suggestion of a Dutch Comintern agent, brought together 13 party members from across the country, including future leader Mao Zedong, who represented the city of Changsha.
Wait, so why is it commemorated on July 1st then?
By the time the party became a political force significant enough to celebrate its founding, in the late 1930s, Mao had forgotten the exact date of the first congress and chose July 1st.
Understandable, Mao was a busy guy. Ok, so what will the celebrations consist of?
The main event will be a "grand gathering" of dignitaries in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, at which Xi Jinping, as CCP general-secretary, will deliver an "important speech
."that reflects on the party's history as he looks toward its future. There have already been a lot of awards given to model communist citizens and officials — both by Xi himself as well as at the local level — along with a huge output of new books, textbooks, movies, performances, and study programs for party members and for schools, all dedicated to shaping and bolstering people's understanding of the history of the party. Even China's rappers are involved!
One of the main focuses of these propaganda efforts is to shape the image of Xi as a titanic figure in the party's evolution. He's effectively being elevated alongside Mao himself in the pantheon of party greats. This rewriting of official history is a significant maneuver that both confirms Xi's consolidation of power and further entrenches his political authority.
Why is this anniversary so important for the government?
Legitimacy. The party has always leant on its history of a successful communist revolution and then rapid economic development to burnish its political legitimacy. China's constitution, after all, credits the party explicitly with realizing the "historic mission of the Chinese people to overthrow imperialism and feudalism."
Will the anniversary have an impact on other political developments in the country?
The anniversary comes roughly a year before the 20th Party Congress in fall 2022, where the party will reselect the country's most powerful political posts: the Central Committee, the 25-member Politburo, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, and of course the general-secretary, the position currently held by Xi Jinping. It's almost certain that Xi will secure a norm-defying third term as general secretary, but he wants to use the 100th anniversary to further burnish his authority as leader of the party and the country.
The centenary celebrations are also happening just a few months before the sixth plenum of the 19th Central Committee, an annual meeting which is likely this year to focus on "party building"— improving how the CCP operates — and could expand on themes introduced by Xi in his speech on Thursday.
Will the anniversary have any consequences for the rest of the world?
It is primarily a domestic event, but the national pride invoked by the centenary celebrations certainly bolsters Beijing's sense of purpose as it carries out assertive policies toward Xinjiang, Taiwan, and the South China Sea in the face of foreign criticism and opposition. However, Xi's desire for stability ahead of the 20th Party Congress makes highly risky moves in these areas unlikely.
A hundred years is a pretty good run – what does the CCP need to do to make it to 200 years?
Crystal ball-gazing so far into the future is a fool's errand but, if the party is to stand a chance of surviving for another hundred years, it will likely need to continue to grow the Chinese economy, keep improving the quality of life enjoyed by Chinese people, reduce its reliance on foreign technology, and maintain its domestic grip on the levers of military and political power. There's a lot that could go wrong, but the CCP's competence, resilience, and luck have continually surprised outside observers.
Neil Thomas is China and Northeast Asia analyst at Eurasia Group.