From the Long March to the massive, glittering spectacle of the Beijing Summer Olympics’ opening ceremony in 2008, what a long, strange journey it has been for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On July 1, the party celebrated its 90th birthday, marking the occasion with everything from a splashy, star-studded cinematic tribute to the party’s early years to a “praise concert” staged by two of the country’s officially sanctioned Christian groups.
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
The party’s nine-decade existence has provided plenty of grist for both critics and apologists to debate its legacy. On the one hand, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s sensationalistic bestseller Mao: The Unknown Story, paints the party’s founding father as a demonic figure whose rule was brutal and disastrous for China. In the words of the authors, Mao’s sole accomplishment was bringing “unprecedented misery” to “the whole of China.”
On the opposite extreme, the self-aggrandizing accounts of the party’s history that are being promulgated in China right now portray its leaders as unstinting paragons of virtue. This is the impression given not only by the CCP’s commemorative film — which presents Mao as an idealistic young patriot in love — but also by the hagiographic accounts offered in the country’s newspapers. These articles refer to the party as a “powerful spiritual force” that has never stopped “achieving new victories” for the nation.
The truth is somewhere between Chang and Halliday’s spine-tingling horror story and the fairy tale endorsed by the party. With that in mind, what follows are five pairs of the Chinese Communist Party’s interrelated triumphs and tragedies. This list is not intended to deliver a final verdict on the party’s 90 years of existence, but to remind us that, while its failures have been very bad indeed, its accomplishments illustrate why some in China will sincerely wish the party a happy birthday.
Early in its history, the CCP played an important role in anti-imperialist mass struggles that galvanized the Chinese population. During the May 30 Movement of 1925, for example, it helped to bring thousands of protesters to the streets to decry the mistreatment of Chinese workers in Japanese mills, and it spearheaded major boycotts of Japanese goods when that country began making military incursions into north China in the 1930s.
Later, the Red Army contributed greatly to the 1945 rout of Japanese invaders, earning a reputation as determined and selfless guerrilla fighters and beginning the process of finally ending what the party refers to as China’s “century of humiliation.”
The CCP sometimes exaggerates its role in defeating imperialism and downplays the complementary activities of other groups, but it still has a patriotic and nationalistic record that is a source of pride for many Chinese.
But don’t forget: The CCP’s fear-mongering over foreign threats.
Time and time again, the party has used the bogeymen of international conspiracies and foreign influence to justify harsh acts of repression. In the 1950s and 1960s, people were persecuted as “capitalist roaders” due to having relatives in the West. When CCP leader Deng Xiaoping tried to defend China’s violent crackdown that curtailed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, he invoked the specter of “bad influences from the West.”
This paranoid strain of Chinese politics remains alive and well. It shows through in official references to foreign machinations and international ties as the cause of expressions of domestic discontent, such as when a Chinese official attributed unrest in Xinjiang to “hostile forces at home and abroad” that had stirred up trouble among local Muslims.
Success story: The CCP increased life expectancy and standards of living.
Even despite Mao’s failed social-engineering policies in the late 1950s and 1960s, life expectancy rates rose sharply during his years in power — and have, much less surprisingly, continued rising in recent decades during the economic boom. A baby born in Shanghai can now expect to live longer than one born in New York City. And though areas inland from Shanghai and other unusually prosperous cities of the eastern seaboard have not seen living standards and life expectancy rise as swiftly, millions have been lifted out of poverty throughout the country.
But don’t forget: The Great Leap Forward’s disastrous famine.
The biggest tragedy of the Mao years was the enormous loss of life — estimated in the tens of millions — caused by starvation due to his “Great Leap Forward.” This attempt at central economic planning, which included a call for farmers to concentrate on making steel in backyard furnaces rather than focus on their crops (due to Mao’s obsession with having China catch up rapidly with the West), deserves the lion’s share of the blame for this disaster.
Success story: The CCP oversaw China’s transformation into an international economic superpower.
China’s economic rise, which has lifted millions out of poverty, is one of the most important stories of our time. A country that was a poster child for starvation in the last century now finds itself able to export food to foreign lands hit by natural disasters.
The party can also boast of overseeing China’s return to international prominence. It has hosted global mega-events such as the 2008 Olympics and last year’s World’s Fair, enjoys increasing influence in Africa and Latin America, and has built trains and airports that are the envy of the developing world. China is once again the dominant regional power in Asia, earning the respect of its neighbors while also inspiring justifiable wariness.
But don’t forget: The party has allowed new forms of corruption to flourish.
The Communist Party has also earned scorn for its leaders’ tendency to line their own pockets. The CCP’s corruption and nepotism have an especially delegitimizing effect because they so directly mirror the aspects of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party that Mao and his followers railed against in the 1940s. The upheaval of 1989, for example, began with posters that focused not on “democracy” but on nepotism and immorality within the CCP’s top echelons.
The party claims to be determined to stamp out corruption within its ranks, and it periodically punishes high-profile figures for bribe-taking and other related crimes. However, there is widespread skepticism on this front. High-level officials who are widely believed to be corrupt remain immune from prosecution, and popular anger has also been heightened by persistent reports that officials have squirreled away billions of dollars in overseas accounts.
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Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. His reviews and commentaries have appeared in newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and a wide range of magazines and journals of opinion, including New Left Review, the TLS, the Nation, the Huffington Post, Time and Newsweek. He is the Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies and co-founder of the UCI-based China Beat blog/electronic magazine.