Chinese Communist Party’s 100-year history from the viewpoint of GDP: Rule supported by economic growth
The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversary in July. Formed by 13 people in 1921, the organization has expanded exponentially and now vies with the U.S. for global hegemony. The party's rule has survived numerous turbulent periods and events, such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square crackdown, supported in recent decades by the growth of the country's economy, now the world's second-largest. Here is a look back on the light and shadow of the history of the party, which has changed in many ways through the generations and is now barreling toward authoritarian rule.
Thirteen people, including Mao Zedong, held the Chinese Communist Party’s first national congress at a residence in Shanghai in July 1921, establishing the party. The congress, which was “illegal,” came to the Shanghai French Concession police’s knowledge and its venue was moved to a ship floating on South Lake in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province on its final day. Four of the founding members had experience of studying in Japan. The Chinese Communist Party was born as the Chinese branch of the Communist International, or Comintern. The international organization received guidance from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was aiming for world revolution at the time.
The Chinese Communist Party was driven out of its stronghold in Ruijin, Jiangxi Province during the civil war with the Nationalist Party. Its army spent about two years moving approximately 12,000 kilometers on foot to Yan'an in Shaanxi Province. During the Long March, the Communist Party held the “Zunyi conference” in Guizhou Province in January 1935, ending Comintern’s leadership and establishing Mao Zedong’s leadership. The number of communist troops declined dramatically -- to a little more than 30,000, according to official party documents -- from 86,000 when the Long March started.
“Dear comrades! Today, I hereby declare the formal establishment of the People's Republic of China and its Central People's Government,” Mao Zedong declared in front of a microphone from the Tiananmen rostrum in Beijing on Oct. 1, 1949. About 300,000 people who had gathered at Tiananmen Square reacted with cheers. Beside Mao were Premier Zhou Enlai, Liu Shaoqi and others. Liu was later persecuted during the Cultural Revolution that erupted in 1966. Shortly after its foundation, the People's Republic of China established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, Eastern European countries, North Korea, Mongolia and others one after another.
In 1958, Mao Zedong set a target of overtaking the U.K. -- which was the world’s second-largest economy at the time -- and ordered a radical campaign to boost agricultural and industrial production, kicking off the Great Leap Forward. Toward the expansion of steel production, backyard furnaces were constructed in the backyards of people’s communes across the country. As a result of iron tools for agricultural work being thrown into such furnaces, farm production declined dramatically. It is said that a serious famine broke out across the country, resulting in the deaths of more than 40 million people.
Mao Zedong’s power base within the party weakened due to the Great Leap Forward’s failure. He launched the Cultural Revolution in May 1966 and instigated students and other young people using his personality cult. Young people who were whipped into a frenzy wore armbands showing they were “Red Guards” and chanted the slogan “zaofan youli (rebellion is justified)”. Cultural assets were vandalized across the country. Intellectuals were also persecuted. It is said that 3 million people were incarcerated, with 500,000 people executed, during the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution. Liu Shaoqi, who was Chinese president, was also incarcerated and died.
Henry Kissinger, U.S. President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, made a secret visit to China in July 1971, marking the beginning of the move to re-establish official diplomatic relations between the two countries. Nixon made a surprise visit to China in February 1972 at the invitation of Premier Zhou Enlai. In a U.S.-China joint statement issued then, Nixon declared the U.S. would not dispute China’s claim that Taiwan is part of it. The joint statement also called for the development of bilateral trade and economic relations. The two countries formally normalized diplomatic ties in January 1979 and the U.S. severed ties with Taiwan.
Premier Zhou Enlai died in January 1976 and Mao Zedong also passed away in September 1976. In October 1976, Premier Hua Guofeng assumed the post of Communist Party chairman as Mao’s successor after arresting the Gang of Four that promoted the Cultural Revolution and included Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife. The party held a plenary session of its Central Committee in June 1981 and summarized Mao’s activities by saying, “His merits are primary and his errors secondary.”
Deng Xiaoping, who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution, returned to power and visited Japan in October 1978. While in Japan, he inspected three Japanese companies, including an automaker and a steelmaker, and boarded a Shinkansen bullet train. At an important meeting of the Communist Party in December 1978, China embarked on a policy of “reform and opening-up” that partially incorporates capitalism. China designated four places, including Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, as “special economic zones” between 1979 and 1980 and actively attracted companies from Western industrialized nations.
In April 1989, Hu Yaobang, a reformist leader and former general secretary of the Communist Party, died suddenly and students gathered at Tiananmen Square to pay tribute to him. But they started protest activities. The protests later developed into a massive pro-democracy movement involving intellectuals and workers as well. As a result, the party leadership, including Deng Xiaoping, sent troops from the People’s Liberation Army in the early hours of June 4 to suppress the protests by force. Although the Chinese government has put the number of dead at 319, the actual figure is widely believed to be higher.
Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang was removed from his post over the Tiananmen Incident. Supreme leader Deng Xiaoping tapped Jiang Zemin, who was a Politburo member, as general secretary in June 1989. Jiang assumed the posts of Central Military Commission chairman in November 1989 and then Chinese president in March 1993. As a result, the system of one person concurrently serving as the top official of the party, the People’s Liberation Army and the state apparatus was established. Amid China’s deepening diplomatic isolation, Jiang made efforts to improve relations with the U.S. and other Western nations. Jiang also promoted anti-Japanese education in the name of “patriotism.”
The impact of the Tiananmen Incident also spilled over into economic policies. Highly alarmed by the stagnation of the reform and opening-up policy, Deng Xiaoping made a “southern tour” between January and February in 1992, inspecting Shenzhen, Shanghai and elsewhere and prodding senior local officials to embark on reform and opening-up. As Beijing, China’s capital located in the northern part of the country, was under the strong influence of conservatives, Deng needed to stress the need for reform from the southern part of the country. At its national congress in the autumn of 1992, the Communist Party adopted building “a socialist market economy,” setting in stone the aim of introducing a market economy while maintaining socialism.
Hu Jintao, who assumed the post of the Communist Party’s general secretary in November 2002, came up with the concept of “scientific outlook on development” in 2003. He aimed for a society changing the way of thinking that pursues only economic growth and giving consideration to negative aspects as well. Lying behind his move were an expanding income gap between urban and rural areas, increasingly serious environmental pollution and corruption issues. As the Jiang Zemin faction retained some influence, Hu had no choice but to devote his energy to a power struggle within the party as well.
Xi Jinping, who assumed the post of party general secretary in November 2012, launched an “anti-corruption” campaign, vowing to crack down on both “tigers” and “flies” -- powerful leaders and low-level officials. The campaign also had the aspect of a political strife as many party cadres distancing themselves from Xi were targeted. The country revised its constitution in March 2018, scrapping two five-year term limits on a Chinese president. China has become more authoritarian under Xi, including through the establishment of the Hong Kong national security law. He has also expressed a strong willingness to pursue a “strong country” policy, causing a confrontation with the U.S.