In the summer of 1921, 13 young men severely disillusioned by China’s post-imperial development gathered in Shanghai to form a communist party. On 23 July, they convened in Shanghai’s French Concession and held the first “national congress”.
None of them would have thought that in 30 years’ time the organisation they had founded would rule the nation, or that in 100 years’ time it would be the world’s largest political party, with nearly 92 million members – today also an enigma to many outsiders.
On 1 July, as China celebrates the centenary, the political organisation that rules nearly every aspect of life inside the country has an ambition to reshape the postwar world order.
In January, China’s president, Xi Jinping, who is also the general secretary of the Communist party, told his cadres that regardless of the upheaval in the world, China was “invincible”.
“Judging from how this pandemic is being handled by different leaderships and [political] systems around the world, [we can] clearly see who has done better,” Xi told a meeting at the central party school on 11 January, five days after an angry mob stormed Capitol Hill in Washington. “Time and history are on our side, and this is where our conviction and resilience lie, and why we are so determined and confident.”
Since the start of the year, this piece of messaging – combined with the official history of the party – has been spread far and wide across the country, splashed across banners and billboards. “Listen to the party, appreciate the party, follow the party,” reads one roadside sign in Beijing. Tours have been organised for foreign journalists in an attempt to educate them on the official narrative. Buddhist temples across the country have held events to celebrate the party’s centennial.
A “festive and warm” environment for the big party on 1 July is being arranged, but the authorities also want the celebration to be “serious and solemn”. It’s a tricky balance. Clever businesspeoplehave tried to capitalise on the moment, leading China’s market regulator last month to clamp down on what it deemed as “hyping and profiting”.
In Xinjiang, where rights organisations say at least 1 million Uyghur Muslims are being incarcerated for “re-education”, the authorities have selected 100 “red films” to showcase the party’s immense achievements. In Tibet, learning about the party is now the top priority. “Our young people must cherish the party, listen to the party and be guided by the party and be loyal to our beautiful new Tibet,” Wang Zhen, the director of the department of education in Tibet, told Reuters.
And in Hong Kong, under increasingly tight control of late, buses and trams carry slogans celebrating the party’s birthday, emphasising that it falls on the same day as the 1997 handover that ended the territory’s time as a British colony.
Every public announcement made throughout the year is carefully scripted. They all make reference to the party’s might and the advantage of China’s political system. Poverty alleviation, the Mars mission and 1bn Covid vaccine jabs in the short span of a few months. The list goes on.
As the centenary approaches, the venue of the 1921 Shanghai meeting is one of the most sacred buildings in the city. It is in an area called Xin Tian Di, or New World, nowadays filled with high-end boutique designer shops and frequented by the country’s nouveau riche.
One dream, different dreaming
Supporters of the Communist party argue that it is only under its leadership that China has arrived at where it is today. The party – as the message goes – will help realise the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. It is what Xi called the “China dream”.
But in a country of 1.4 billion people, there is no uniform “China dream”, nor one single version of the party’s history. “At a time when censorship is a part of everyday experience of the Chinese people, even few historians actually know all the history of the party,” says Sun Peidong, a historian. “It’s hard to get hold of party history materials as a history researcher nowadays. It’s even harder to know what the past 100 years has really been about.”
On 1 July, the day the pomp and ceremony begins, Sun will start a new job at Cornell University in the US. She left China last year. For a China-trained Chinese historian, it pains her not to be able to do the work she does in her country of birth and in her native tongue.
Sun is one of a growing number of Chinese academics who have been ostracised in today’s China because of their interpretation of history. In the run-up to the party’s centenary, the authorities have ramped up their efforts to forge what Xi calls “the correct outlook on history”.
In Sun’s experience, this has been a project long in the making. Her life was turned upside down in 2015 when censorship in academia – in particular in her subject, Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the decade-long political campaign from 1966 to 1976 that the party itself now calls “a total mistake” – intensified at her university in Shanghai.
The change in the official tone and the mood among her colleagues reminds Sun of that era of Cultural Revolution. She alleges she was prohibited from publishing in simplified Chinese language in academic journals. Online, she was accused of being “brainwashed by the west”.
“I keep asking myself what has led us to where we are today?” she says. “I think it is a lack of careful study of our own history. When the official narratives offered by party historians spread and flood other narratives, it’s the saying that comes to my mind: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
‘The west cannot see China’s values’
Voices such as Sun’s are hardly mainstream in China nowadays. Beijing’s stringent censorship means that such dissent is not tolerated. The Chinese internet is a mixture of national pride and resentment of the west, particularly the US. Yet this has created an opportunity for those whose view of China – and the world – aligns with the party’s.
“When the CCP was born a century ago, it used the theories from the west, because [the founding fathers] at the time, like their contemporaries, thought the old China was good for nothing,” says Chairman Rabbit, a popular blogger nicknamed after his childhood pets. “But now China finds it confident enough to put forward its own political paradigm. In Beijing, this paradigm is thought to be able to make China great again.”
By any measure, 41-year-old Chairman Rabbit – whose real name is Ren Yi – is the type of personality to whom Beijing would like to give a voice. Once a research assistant to the late Ezra Vogel, the renowned Harvard sinologist, Ren is well versed in western discourse. But perhaps most important in today’s China, he is the grandson of Ren Zhongyi, a prominent figure who served as party secretary of Guangdong province in the 1980s.
Like many in China’s well-connected elite, Ren’s day job is in finance – an ironic contrast, some say, to the party’s founding doctrine. He sees his freelance championing of China as what a dutiful son of the nation should do, however hard it is.
“Since [Xi came to power following] the 18th party congress, there is a slight reorientation of domestic policies that address insufficiencies in the past decade or so. Yet the west is struggling to understand it,” he says. “It’s difficult to get the western countries to accept China. The west cannot see China’s values.”
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a Chinese history professor at the University of California, Irvine, says the framing of China v the west is “deeply problematic”. “There’re always multiple strands involved, some of which are emphasised at different moments. And there are ironic crossovers, too,” he says. “For example, the party’s current stress on stability and claim that elections might lead to disorder can be seen as in step with Confucian values, but it also echoes things British defenders of colonial structures in Asia said a century ago.”
Outsiders may scoff at Ren’s theory of Chinese exceptionalism and dismiss it as party propaganda, but with nearly 1.8 million followers on the heavily sanitised Chinese social media platform Weibo, he is not a voice to be ignored.
Long gone is the age of China as a “wild west”, he says. “Instead, today’s China is like a big corporation. Its leader [Xi] is like the CEO, who’s mandated to exercise leadership and come up with new, long-term plans for the country,” Ren says, comparing Xi to Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.
“Xi Jinping is holding up the CCP’s baton and beefing up its confidence. If one tries to describe modern-day Chinese political values, it’d be cosmopolitan patriot, socialist traditionalist, environmental humanist and secular spiritualist. This is how I describe myself, too.”