Schoolchildren wave party and national flags at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, 2021 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
As China launches a series of celebrations marking the centenary of the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), one question cannot be avoided: Is there anything to celebrate?
As far as the party is concerned, the answer is yes.
To start with, the CCP is the oldest Communist party still in power, and that in a major country. It is also the world's second-largest party in terms of numbers, just after India's BJP or People's Party. Moreover, the CCP has led an impressive economic program that has transformed an underdeveloped country into a rapidly modernising power with global leadership ambitions. More importantly, perhaps, the CCP has created the largest Han-dominated state in history, something that even the greatest Chinese emperors never achieved.
Seeing things from a broader historic angle, however, a different narrative takes shape.
To start with, the CCP has been an instrument for ruthless repression ever since it seized full power in 1949. By best estimates, its misguided collectivization strategy, the successive purges it carried out at all levels of society, the famines it inadvertently triggered and the many atrocities it led have claimed at least 80 million lives. The damage it did to Chinese culture and literature during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was as great in intangibles.
Decades of misguided policies in Tibet, Xinjiang, Manchuria and Inner Mongolia have surpassed the worst cases of ethnic repression recorded under successive dynasties. The one-child policy, initiated by Mao Zedong, has produced problems that could take generations to solve.
China has not had the equivalent of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) that exposed and denounced Stalin's personality cult and its many crimes, let alone something like the Nuremberg Trials to reveal the crimes against humanity committed at different junctures during the past century.
The CCP was injected into China as a foreign virus in 1921 when the Communist International (Komintern) set up by Lenin to "set the East ablaze" by exporting revolution targeted China, along with India, Korea, Japan and Iran as launching pads for a pan-Asian uprising against "Imperialist powers", principally Great Britain. Komintern's boss Zinoviev despatched several trained propagandists to the targeted countries to spread the Bolshevik message of "world revolution". Their mission failed in Iran, India and Japan, but was successful in China, then caught in a seemingly endless war among warlords, and in Korea where the Kim dynasty was to prove a durable asset.
Thus for the first decades of its existence, the CCP, which held is first congress on 23 July 1921, was to remain an instrument of Soviet influence. It danced to every Soviet tune even by allying itself to the National Party (Kuomintang) which, having had close ties with Moscow, was to tilt towards the West, especially the United States, while preaching a nationalist discourse.
In the Civil War that followed, the CCP, supported by Soviet arms, money and "advisers" emerged victorious. Less than two decades later, the newly created People's Republic of China was embroiled in an ideological war with the Soviet Union, punctuated with a series of border clashes in which it lost territory to Moscow.
The Kuomintang (KMT), the loser in the Chinese civil war, ended up by leading a tiny portion of China, the island of Taiwan (formerly Formosa) to capitalism and democracy while the winner, the CCP, has adopted capitalism but only in the service of an increasingly authoritarian political system. In the past few years, the CCP has abandoned its own "democratic centralism" by abandoning collective leadership and concentrating the presidency of the republic, the secretary-generalship of the party and the chairmanship of the Military Committee that controls the armed forces and security services to one man: Xi Jinping.
The theory that economic development inevitably leads to democratisation has been proved wrong, at least for the time being. Instead, President Xi, pointing to China's success in leaving major Western democracies behind in certain scientific and technological domains, now describes democratization as an obstacle to further economic and technological progress. Internal political and cultural feuds within some major democracies, notably the United States with the rise of Donald Trump and Great Britain with the Brexit insurgency, are presented as so many warnings to those who want China to move towards liberal democracy.
The CCP's first aim was to dismantle the structure of the Chinese state as it had taken shape over more than 2,000 years of history. The systematic destruction of the mandarinate (the traditional state bureaucracy) inspired by Mao Zedong's slogan "Destroy the old to build the new" was extended to uprooting centuries of traditional art, literature, music, drama and social mores and their replacement by a synthetic culture crippled by its contradictions.
The CCP started with a handful of self-loathing bourgeois intellectuals who sought power by appealing to a peasantry they hardly knew. A century later, it is led by another handful of self-adulating intellectuals who maintain themselves in power with the support of a new class of wealthy entrepreneurs they find harder and harder to control.
Mao Zedong pseudo-ideological rants notwithstanding, the CCP, always regarded by its leaders as an instrument for wielding power, never had an ideology. After decades of trial and mostly error it has resigned itself to a bureaucratic pragmatism chiefly concerned with what it terms "economic success". However it ignores the fact that quantitative change is bound to lead to qualitative transformation and that the emerging Chinese society is unlikely to remain satisfied with regimentation, arbitrary rule and repression.
The CCP may be proud of its economic success after Deng Xiaoping's reforms, but it celebrates its centenary with "re-education camps" in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), crackdown in Hong Kong and childish but dangerous imperial gesticulations in neighboring seas. With the possible exception of Pakistan, the People's Republic has poor relations with almost all its neighbours complicated by old but resurgent irredentist disputes.
At home, the CCP's increasing reliance on pseudo-nationalistic and xenophobic mantras cannot hide its ideological hollowness. Today, Chinese society, propelled by economic success, is moving towards greater openness to the modern world while the CCP is moving in the opposite direction by adopting an arrogant posture of closing on itself.
In terms of economic power and a popular thirst for progress, China today is a colossus. That colossus, however, has a foot of clay in a centenarian CCP. Happy birthday!
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.