On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) will commemorate its centennial. But even before its 100th anniversary, the CPC has already been recognized as the most powerful and long-lived autocracy in history.
Today, as the world’s most populous country deepens its strategic competition with the United States, its authoritarianism is growing ever stronger domestically, with its foreign policy growing increasingly assertive and aggressive.
The crux of the Communist Party and China’s challenge for Japan and other countries is that over the past hundred years the CPC has created the richest, freest and the most powerful China that the country has experienced in its long history. Internally — and despite its many shortcomings — its citizens support the Party.
Their lives are substantially better, the government has managed COVID-19 and economic growth better than most, and for most ordinary Chinese, China under the CPC is more powerful, more prosperous and is finally pushing back against the West (including Japan), which is seen domestically as having humiliated China and is determined to keep China from developing.
Behind the CPC’s power
In its early years, the CPC built its legitimacy around the false narrative that it had fought off Imperial Japan — even though in reality, it was the Nationalists who did most of the fighting. Today, as Oxford University’s Rana Mitter writes, the CPC is actively rewriting the history of the Sino-Japanese conflict, placing China and the Party at the center of the global battle against fascism.
During the mid-20th century, the CPC spent nearly 25 years bogged down in domestic political and social chaos. The 100 Flowers Movement, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution resulted in over 45 million deaths. The substantial human cost is difficult to imagine and is one of the reasons that the citizens of both Hong Kong and Taiwan prefer to maintain their political systems and freedoms.
The death of Mao Zedong took with it domestic political chaos and mismanagement. So much so that the party delivered sustained and substantial economic growth to its citizens for four consecutive decades.
When Deng Xiaoping initiated his reform and opening program in 1978, food and clothing were rationed, 700 million lived below the poverty line and 788 out of 956 million Chinese were rural dwellers. Only 60% of students at the time went on to secondary school and the number of college and university students and graduate students was 856,000 and 10,000 respectively.
Fast forward to 2021, China is unrecognizable. Absolute poverty has been eradicated. Over 900 million Chinese citizens are considered urban dwellers compared with 500 million rural citizens. Today, more than 270 million students are enrolled in 514,000 educational institutes and China’s Tsinghua and Peking University are ranked among the top 25 universities in the world according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021.
From Shanghai to Beijing, Nanjing to Guangzhou, China is filled with the hallmarks of open consumption and capitalism. Stunning skyscapes, designer shops and high-speed rail can be found through much of the country. Citizens are highly digitally literate, conducting most of their commerce through smartphones.
China is also home to world leading high-tech and internet firms such as Huawei, Xiaomi, Tencent and Alibaba.
The CPC’s economic achievements are substantial and they have not only benefited China. Nearly every country that trades with the Asian giant has enjoyed the benefits of China’s economic rise, including Japan and the United States. For example, in 2019 the U.S., Japan and Germany respectfully exported to China $106.6 billion, $146 billion and $253 billion in goods.
Despite geopolitical tensions and concern over the CPC, businesses still want to trade with China. According to the American Chamber of Commerce in China, “China remains a top long-term priority for most U.S. companies, according to a new survey released today by the American Chamber of Commerce in China (“AmCham China”), despite slowing growth, wider U.S.-China tensions, longstanding business challenges in the country, and the COVID-19 outbreak.”
These results were echoed in the “Chinese Economy and Japanese Enterprises 2021 White Paper” released by the China-Japan Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, with 92% of Japanese businesses having no plans to adjust their production bases.
Notwithstanding the tremendous achievements of the CPC during its first hundred years and the benefits that the global community has accrued, this period has not been without serious blunders, human rights abuses and broken promises.
The images of the indomitable “Tank Man” will always be associated outside of China with the bravery and courage of ordinary Chinese citizens standing up to the CPC during the Tiananmen Square Incident. The numbers of citizens killed or detained in the wake of the June 4, 1989, crackdown on the protesters remains unknown.
The iconic image seen alongside well documented human rights abuses against Tibetans and Uyghurs in Xinjiang province further contribute to a negative external image of the CPC and its policies toward its minorities and those who do not share the same vision for China.
Further damaging the CPC’s image is the June 2020 National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong, which has silenced the voices of the city’s citizens and destroyed the one country two systems framework as laid out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Arguably, China has broken this international agreement with the implementation of the NSL, dramatically reducing the confidence of partners that China will keep its promises in the future.
China’s rapid militarization since 2000, its assertive behavior in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and disregard for a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific have not won friends in the region — nor has its acerbic “wolf warrior” diplomacy and economic and vaccine coercion most recently targeted at Australia and Ukraine.
What democracies can do
At home, the hard tilt towards a technologically enhanced Marxist–Leninist authoritarian regime is worrisome for liberal democratic societies. As the Party inserts itself into most aspects of society, it raises serious questions as to the separation of the government and business. What does this mean for data privacy? Fair, market-based competition between firms? The weaponization of technology?
The problem for the CPC going forward is that its internal and external policies are challenging the existing rules-based order, especially in the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s trust levels are at record lows in many countries, including Japan. It’s seen as a revisionist power in the region, and its drive to reshape the region through programs such as its Belt and Road Initiative are seen as attempts to move from being a rule taker to being a rule maker.
To achieve China’s 2049 centenary goal of “building a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious,” the CPC will need to find ways to allay the concerns of many states. If it doesn’t, it will face significant pushback as countries ban together to protect themselves.
China will likely only be able to be changed from within. That means Japan, the U.S. and other like-minded countries must provide a credible alternative to the CPC’s model of governance. That means demonstrating that democracies can deliver sustained economic prosperity, social justice, culture, health and national security for their citizens.
Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
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