Ever since President Xi Jinping came into power in 2012 he has set about telling “a good story about China”, and what better story to tell than the rise and success of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?
Standing on the same balcony where Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China, Xi went into passionate details about the modest founding of the Party, its revolutionary fight against imperial forces, and its “correct” leadership in paving the way for China’s re-emergence as a global power. Such epic tales and grand celebrations would be commonplace for Independence Day, but this occasion commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding.
Centenaries serve to display glory, but it is unusual that a political party should celebrate its anniversary in such a spectacular way. Then again, the CCP is no ordinary party.
Despite all its grandeur, perhaps what was most revealing in the celebrations was the Party’s insecurity and need for validation.
Xi’s speech on July 1st described how intertwined China’s fate is with the CCP. “Without the Communist Party, there would be no New China,” Xi claimed, and it is true. In its founding in 1921, the CCP was born during struggles against imperialism and feudalism, when life in China was bleak with poverty and political misery. Embarking on the legendary Long March, the CCP won the hearts and minds of the rural poor, eventually leading them to victory in establishing the People’s Republic. Fast forward to today, few could have imagined China’s phenomenal growth in the past few decades, where absolute poverty is a thing of the past. Under the leadership of the CCP, China is now a powerful country. The same cannot be said about the Kuomintang’s leadership in Taiwan.
Today, the CCP embarks on a similar Long March against Western criticism and sanctions. In telling a good story, Beijing tries to make China loveable to both the Chinese people and the outside world. Lately, Beijing has zealously pursued vaccine diplomacy as a way to win the hearts and minds in countries struggling to gain access to Covid-19 vaccines. Despite its generosity, Beijing’s efforts may be still be received with more scepticism than warm feelings, especially if it continues to push the envelope on trade and territorial disputes.
Luckily for Beijing, what matters most is domestic opinion. After all, the Party serves the People’s republic, and the grand celebrations of last week serve a less-than-subtle reminder of how well the CCP has done so. Xi is expected to remain in power for an unprecedented third term, and under his leadership the Party’s grip will only grow stronger.
The past is only one part of the story. Key to the CCP’s continued success is its ability to achieve the Chinese Dream of National Rejuvenation and the status of a respected, acknowledged global superpower. Looking ahead, the Party will work towards the goals set for the 2049 centenary anniversary of the nation’s founding. As such, stronger territorial control will be key to Beijing’s foreign policy. With “unshakeable commitment”, Beijing will likely be more assertive on the “reunification” with Taiwan. Similarly, other claimant states in the South China Sea disputes should be prepared for increased pressure. This will likely pose a challenge for China’s international popularity.
Domestically, the Party faces no shortage of challenges. Before China can become a fully prosperous society by 2049, Beijing will need to tackle issues such as wealth inequality, low birth rates and controlling dissent, such as in Hong Kong. On grander ambitions, Beijing will face pressures to meet its target of carbon neutrality by 2060. In the face of tightening censorship, tapping into China’s full potential for technological innovation may also be a struggle. None of these challenges will prove easy for the CCP to overcome.
For decades, the Communist Party has relied on the rhetoric of victimhood, but not anymore. Today, Xi tells the story of China’s triumph. Throughout his speech, one thing is clear – the story of the CCP is the making of legends, and it is not finished yet.
This article also appeared in the Malay Mail on 9 July 2021.