How has the CCP managed this impressive run? How does it view some of the darker corners of its past and present? And what comes next?
The combination of factors that the CCP has brought together in today’s China has no exact parallel in history.
The second is the creation of a consumerist lifestyle. Back in the Cold War, then-US Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev clashed in the “kitchen debate” over which system, capitalism or communism, could create a better lifestyle for ordinary people. In that case, most people might say the US has been the clear winner.
But today, China’s emerging middle class can point to a lifestyle that is far beyond anything their parents or grandparents might have imagined. They have some of the world’s most sophisticated mobile phones, they go on vacation to glamorous locations within China (the tropical paradises of Hainan or Dali), and they live in some of the fastest-growing cities on earth.
Of course, this is still just one part of the population. There is plenty of poverty all over China, and even for well-paid urbanites, there are many problems ranging from expensive mortgages to lack of pensions. But the creation of the party’s idea of the “Chinese dream” is a reality for many of the new middle class.
The third element the CCP has brought to bear is its global ambition. Back in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who followed Mao Zedong, advised that China should lie low and bide its time, getting rich first and only seeking global glory later on.
This serves the party’s purposes, giving people everyday convenience while generating huge amounts of data that, many predict, will allow for unprecedented political control.
A prized — and curated — history
Those four factors — authoritarianism, consumerism, global ambition and technology — define the CCP of today. But the party is also deeply fixated on its own history.
The Cultural Revolution, which turned China upside down in 1966-76 and led to millions suffering torture, murder and suicide, was acknowledged as an error in 1981. However, the most recent textbooks in China have altered that explanation, eliding some of the period’s horrors.
The CCP’s guiding principle: nationalism
The CCP has succeeded in holding onto power because it is an unashamedly nationalist party.
It believes that China was weakened in the 19th century because it did not have a clear idea of what kind of state it wanted to be. The CCP fiercely guards its territorial boundaries, and it regards criticism of its internal actions as “interference” with its sovereign rights. In the past year, there has been global alarm at the constraining of rights regarding free speech and democratic activism in Hong Kong under the National Security Law of 2020, as well as the detention of Uighur citizens in what the government terms “re-education” camps in the western province of Xinjiang. (The party also maintains the stated goal of reuniting Taiwan with mainland China and has laid controversial claims on disputed territories in the South China Sea.)
The party has responded similarly to all these criticisms: by declaring that they are purely internal matters for China.
In fact, there have been times in the recent past when China had a more diverse and permissive policy toward its ethnic minorities, as well as more space for free discussion on social media and for investigative reporting. However, the current direction of travel is toward a much more hardline, top-down definition of nationalism imposed by Beijing, in which regional, ethnic and linguistic differences are marginalized — and, indeed, in some cases are forcibly suppressed.
Where the party goes from here
The CCP and its leader, Xi Jinping, can look out on the world of 2021 with some satisfaction.
As things stand, opinion surveys from within China over the past two decades suggest that there is a high level of overall satisfaction with the party among the wider population. (That said, polling in China can be difficult — the size and diversity of the country makes representative sampling, and reliable poll findings, a challenge to produce.) The CCP has to remain alert to the economic bargain it has made with the population, which has come to expect rising living standards along with a more vocal role for China in the world.
The CCP has weathered its first hundred years. The next century will pose very different challenges to it.