The ruling Chinese Communist Party marked its 100th birthday last Thursday. There is a lot for the party and the Chinese people to celebrate: China’s international power and influence are at a historical high — at least for the modern era — and the country and its leadership are convinced that this trajectory has not reached its apogee.
The CPC’s accomplishments are many, but the confidence feels somewhat forced. For all its successes, modern China is sometimes brittle, possessed of an anxiety, not quite a fear, that all could be lost. Sadly, this insecurity, rather than China’s very real problems, could be the greatest threat to the CPC.
The party’s accomplishments are impressive, not least of which is its survival. A once outlawed organization, the CPC surmounted the Long March, war, invasion, civil war and a leader — Mao Zedong — who relished chaos and destruction. It managed to outlive its model and supporter (at least for its first several decades), the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Since the death of Mao and the end of his idiosyncratic and malignant rule, the CPC has embarked on a remarkable journey, one that lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and built the world’s second largest economy. And the engine of Asia (if not the world) appears set to overtake the United States as number one in a decade or so, if it hasn’t already done so.
Those successes are a testimony to the vision and tenacity of Deng Xiaoping and like-minded reformers who put pragmatism ahead of ideology despite considerable opposition.
Their decisions also enabled China to amass international power and influence that is unprecedented in its history. That wealth has yielded a modern and growing military; the Belt and Road initiative, the most ambitious development scheme the world has ever witnessed; and scientific accomplishments like a space program that has successfully landed rovers on the moon and Mars.
China has also demonstrated an ability to overcome hardship. It surmounted the global financial crisis over a decade ago and after initially mishandling the COVID-19 outbreak, its economy has bounced back faster than any other and the government has used vaccine diplomacy to win friends around the world. There is no disputing the claim of a senior party official who crowed, “The Chinese Communist Party’s international influence, appeal and attraction have continually increased, placing it at the forefront of world politics.”
In Xi Jinping, the man who is overseeing the celebrations, China has a leader determined to leave his mark on the country and the world. He is committed to the goal of achieving China’s “national rejuvenation” and, in the belief that only he can do that, Xi has eliminated the term limits and the collective leadership that Deng imposed to prevent a return to Mao’s capriciousness and tyranny. “Xi Jinping Thought” has been enshrined in the country’s constitution and he has ruthlessly purged his rivals to ensure that he faces no challenges.
Yet Chinese confidence looks like hubris and its assertiveness often resembles aggression, an image reinforced by “wolf warrior” diplomats who brook no challenge to Chinese policies and priorities.
Japan knows well China’s heavy hand as Beijing presses its claim to the Senkaku Islands. So too does Australia, which has felt China’s lash for having the temerity to suggest that the world deserves a better explanation of the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak and insisting that Beijing halt all interference in its domestic politics.
Yet the party’s work is not yet done. For all its successes, shortcomings — some of them glaring — remain. China is wracked by inequality. While it has produced millionaires and billionaires, tens of millions of its citizens still experience abject poverty. Its breakneck economic development has produced equally devastating pollution and periodic calamities engendered by pervasive corruption.
Its population is also set to shrink, promising that China will be the first country to get old before it gets rich. Its horrific attempts to force the assimilation of non-Han cultures, as has occurred in Tibet and Xinjiang, have been described by Washington and human rights groups as genocide.
The CPC leadership is alert to these dangers. More worrying are its blind spots. The CPC has inculcated a deep and sometimes dark nationalism, believing that this would insulate the country from foreign influences.
Xi’s warning Thursday that foreign forces would have their “heads bashed bloody” was a graphic and gratuitous appeal to this sort of thinking. This has contributed to a prickly defensiveness and generated suspicion of Chinese intentions among others.
Intensifying efforts to prevent citizens from accessing the darker parts of China’s history and shielding them from nonconforming facts and opinions suggests that the Chinese leadership is not confident that its views are shared by the Chinese people. And the leadership appears to worry its citizenry remain, despite prodigious propaganda efforts, vulnerable to ideological contagion by foreign forces.
The Beijing government’s readiness to forcefully repress any challenge to its orthodoxy, as in Hong Kong with the passage of the National Security Law, is not a sign of strength.
Its continued monopoly on the use of force, and the willingness to use it, means that there will be no challenge to CPC leadership for the foreseeable future. But the imposition of ideological uniformity upon an increasingly sophisticated, empowered and wealthy public means that tensions are growing within China. Xi’s increasingly tight grip on power means that all important decisions are made by or associated with him. As a result, policy is increasingly politicized and the space for dissent is shrinking still more.
This is perhaps the most radical departure from Deng’s pragmatic socialism. He was no liberal, but he understood that danger of consolidating power in one man. It magnifies the flaws in the Chinese system and reduces its margin for error. It threatens a record of amazing successes that China, its ruling party and its citizens celebrated last week.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.