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Chinese Communist Party Centennial—Struggle and Flexibility

From the series The Chinese Communist Party Centennial, 1921 to 2021

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) commemorates its 100th anniversary this year. While not all will celebrate, it is an important and remarkable milestone. We will have several posts over the next week or two about the history of the CCP and God’s remarkable work during these one hundred years.

Imagine a group of leaders hiding out from the authorities, meeting in secret, drafting documents to organize people and convert them to a movement. Sounds like a familiar story, right? These particular people were not house church leaders, though. They were the first leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Modernization, development, and arrival on the world stage were just dreams when that first group of twelve individuals gathered in 1921. Today those dreams of a modern and powerful China move ahead at a seemingly inevitable pace, heralded by headlines the world over.

As the CCP celebrates its centennial, we should seek to understand how the party views and defines itself. Party identity has grown strong in the forges of struggle and conflict, yet paradoxically, it is also rooted in remarkable ideological flexibility.

According to the official story, a group of twelve delegates from around China came to the leafy streets of the French Concession in Shanghai to meet as the First National Party Congress on July 1, 1921. The group hoped that this enclave of the French Empire nestled in the city would provide the perfect hiding spot for their clandestine Party Congress. Even still, under pressure from local Chinese authorities, French police broke up the meeting and the gathering eventually resumed on a boat in rural Zhejiang.

Those first twelve members of the Party held no power; they could barely find a time and place to meet without police interference. Persecution and violence ironically drew members to the ranks and forged the CCP into a governing power. Events like the Shanghai Massacre, the Long March, World War II, the civil war against the Nationalists, and the Chinese involvement in the Korean War are simply the largest examples of how the Party defines itself through a history of violent struggle. The Party looks back on these struggles as a sort of spiritual identity and inheritance. Modern leaders of the CCP continuously call upon the grit, determination, sacrifice, and heroism embedded in the history of these struggles to urge the Chinese people to face the challenges of today’s world.

Responding to those challenges requires grit and strength, yes, but also flexibility. Most people in the West would never associate the words “communist party” and “flexible,” especially when it comes to ideology. But the ideological flexibility of the Party has played a crucial role in China’s development throughout the 21st century and continues to do so today. China survived and eventually thrived with the CCP in charge partly because the CCP has proven to be surprisingly ideologically flexible. A few examples will illustrate this adaptability.

From its earliest days, some within the CCP recognized that elements of the prevailing wisdom of Marxist Communism would not translate well into a Chinese context, so leaders deviated from these principles to make communism work in China. In the twenties and thirties, the communist world was dominated by Russian Soviet interpretations of Marxism and, in particular, that the revolution would occur in cities among the urban working class. It is difficult to overestimate the level of faith put into this theory in Communist circles around the world. A young party leader with growing influence named Mao Zedong was not swayed. He looked around China and saw that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people lived in a rural context. So, Mao departed from the ideological winds of the day and argued that the Chinese revolution would not happen in cities: it would happen in the countryside. Throughout the thirties and forties, that is exactly what happened.

Another example of this ideological flexibility came in the wake of Mao’s death, when China shifted its economic model to what we now call State Capitalism. Common Cold War wisdom held that a State-planned, socialist economy and a market-based economy were incompatible, like oil and water. Such thinking disobeyed the neat bi-polar world order that the Cold War powers had constructed. China ignored this ideological framework and forged a path combining State planning with a limited free market. The CCP has tweaked and adjusted this potent mixture of economic forces for more than forty years. On the one hand, these adaptations have resulted in uneven development, wealth gaps, and rural-urban divides, but on the other hand, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted from hand-to-mouth poverty.

This flexible outlook toward ideology has prompted flexible policy responses on a host of issues. A rigid Party structure made hard and brittle with age and privilege would have shattered under the social strain produced by the online world. This, of course, has not happened. Instead, the CCP has adapted to the technological world and responded with a mixture of control, investment, and integration. Modern China, under the stewardship of the CCP, is home to both “the great firewall” and, arguably, the most advanced digital economy in the world.

The point of looking at the Party as a body capable of flexibility is to help us move beyond what we desire the dominant narratives about the Party to be. It can be tempting to look for stories of coercion, control, censorship, and repression. Those stories exist, without a doubt. However, if we really want to understand what has enabled the Party not simply to subsist but thrive over the past one hundred years, we must look beyond our preferred narratives and “seek truth from facts.”

The Party has forged a path of wealth and power for China in the modern world by leaning heavily on both muscular wartime narratives of struggle and on being flexible enough to deal with contextual challenges. At various times hard and rigid, at other times, soft and flexible, the Party will continue to adapt its policy responses to modern challenges faced by the Party and the People of China.

In all of this, as we look on across the Pacific at the Chinese Communist Party celebrating one hundred years of itself, we too must remember. We must remember that the way the Party views itself is critical to how it interacts with its own populace, particularly to people belonging to faith communities rooted in belief systems beyond Marxist-Leninism. Most of all, we must remember we serve the Lord of Lords who will put all powers in their place before his feet.

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Image credit: Site of the 1st Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in July 1921, on Xintiandi, former French Concession, Shanghai by  Uploadalt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Ping Pong Diplomat

The “Ping Pong Diplomat” has lived and worked in China for more than 15 years. Since the very first day, the culture, politics, and trends of China have captivated him and informed the work he has been involved with these many years.View Full Bio

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