As the Communist Party of China celebrates its 90th anniversary, David Bartram explains how it has navigated political and economic twists and turns to reach its dominant position today.   

Ninety years after its formation in a small building in Shanghai’s French concession, the Communist Party of China (CPC) presides over the world’s second largest economy and a country that will arguably have a greater impact on the 21st century than any other.

Only 13 delegates attended the first congress in Shanghai in July 1921; today the CPC is the world’s largest political party with around 80 million members. It is a transformation that few foresaw, only made possible by the CPC’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

The early days of the CPC were a world away from its current status. Chinese reformers were forced to turn to the Soviet Union for support in founding a communist party. The Lenin-led USSR was happy to oblige, as it was then keen on spreading the communist ideal worldwide.

“The sponsorship of the Comintern in Moscow helped establish the CPC but did not ultimately prove successful,” says Kent Deng, doctor of economic history at the London School of Economics (LSE). “The communist movement was initially defeated, leading to the Long March (a strategic retreat from Kuomintang troops). Although the Party moved to Jiangxi, it was forced to withdraw from most of China. It looked like the revolution was dead.”

The Party struggled on, often in exile, through civil war and Japanese occupation. It was not until the end of World War II that Mao Zedong and the CPC saw their opportunity.

“After 1946, the Party became very proactive,” says Deng. “They saw a very much injured Kuomintang side, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and threw everything in to win the war.”

The significance of this victory, and the subsequent formation of the People’s Republic of China, cannot be underplayed, even in terms of the development of China’s transformation into a global economic superpower in more recent times.

“You can’t consider 1978 and Deng Xiaoping’s reforms as the beginning,” says Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. “The pre-conditions for what happened after 1978 were set in 1949. What China depended on above anything else historically was the restoration of its national sovereignty, the booting out of the various colonial powers and the restoration of the unity of the country which had been seriously eroded after 1911.

“This was Mao Zedong’s achievement. This is why Mao is considered a more important figure than Deng Xiaoping in China, and they are right in that sense. Mao, for all his weaknesses, was a colossal figure historically.”

But even with the issue of national sovereignty resolved, the CPC was to face a series of stark choices by the mid-1970s, as the country emerged from the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), which had left China isolated from the rest of the world and struggling to provide for its population. It was the choices made in these years that redefined the Party, the country, and the world as a whole.

“Coming out of the ‘cultural revolution’, China faced a choice: Do we want the Gang of Four (the faction which controlled the nation during the ‘cultural revolution’) to control society and continue down the same path, or do we try something different?” says Deng of the LSE.

“The key issue for the leadership was how to feed the nation again. At the end of the ‘cultural revolution’, China had become a net food importer. Something had to change, but it was really just common sense.”

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were simple. Open China to international trade, decollectivize agriculture and begin to denationalize the urban sector. His often cited phrase, “search for the next stepping stone to cross the river”, was indicative of his idea that there was no longer the need for such rigid central planning in the Chinese economy.

“They were actually just following common sense and relaxing the rules a bit,” says Deng. “This soul-searching initiated by Deng Xiaoping offered a choice between dogmatism and pragmatism, and they chose pragmatism.”

Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997, was never to witness the truly remarkable changes his “stepping stone” reforms have led to in the last 15 years. One of the greater leaps in this period was China’s eventual admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.

“Deng Xiaoping started this whole process when he said: ‘We want peace’,” says Kent Deng. “Looking back now, this is an incredibly farsighted view, as it means China would be a friend of the capitalist West. We were no longer a threat. Perhaps only Deng could do this, as he spent five years in France. For him, capitalism wouldn’t have been so bad.

“The CPC is now controlled by technocrats, who are really very practical people. They are well educated, often bilingual. They have this extra, external dimension, a different outlook on the world and outlook for China. They are more flexible and more practical.”

This flexibility has been crucial as the CPC has transformed from a domestic political party, to an organization with a genuine impact on global affairs. Today reform within the CPC makes international news, and has far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world.

“Whatever happens in China has global implications now – often instantly,” says Richard McGregor, author of The Party, a study of the inner workings of the CPC. “Any country the size of China is going to have an impact that the world has to accommodate.

“There is a lot of debate in China as to what will come next: How China invests around the world, how the country will continue to reform.”

How the Party has changed in the 21st century, and how it will continue to adapt to the demands of governing a modern market economy is central to any debate on the future of China. Martin Schulz, chairman of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, has seen the CPC gradually move toward other global models of reform, while maintaining a distinctly Chinese approach.

“My impression is that the CPC is becoming more open,” says Schulz. “Of course, there are some differences between European social democracies and the CPC. The CPC is trying to develop a very specific Chinese model under very specific circumstances.

“The Party has been adapting its role at the beginning of the 21st century to the needs of the modernized society of China of today. I think there are very interesting and encouraging developments in the CPC.”

Reforms, particularly those overseen by Deng Xiaoping and then Jiang Zemin, have gone a long way to turning the CPC into a party as interested in overseeing the development of private industry in China, as one managing State enterprise.

A large proportion of State-run monopolies were sold off during the late 1990s and early 2000s to private investors. Other sectors such as banking were dramatically reformed. By 2005, the domestic private sector contributed more than 50 percent of GDP for the first time ever.

“The main reason that China’s economy has been developing at such a high speed is that in the 1970s and later, the CPC and the government agreed on the need for small and big private businesses. The CPC understood that without private businesses, there would be no economic growth,” says Justas Pankauskas, vice-chairman of the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party.

Adds Karl Duffek, member of Social Democratic Party of Austria and director of Austrian Renner-Institute: “The most important change engineered by the CPC is the change of economic system; there is a huge difference between how the economy was managed decades ago and how it is managed today. This is part of the huge success of the country.

“There is the growing awareness of problems that go hand in hand with this process. For example, the environmental problems and also the social problems are connected with the move of many, many people from the countryside into the towns and the growth of the towns. There is the awareness and the willingness to tackle these problems. This is the most impressive change that I encountered.”

It is clear the CPC is forging ahead with its own ideas, as it has throughout its 90-year history. “You must remember that all reform in China is basically within the Party,” says McGregor. “It is a pipedream (to think of) to transplant Western models onto China.”

Kent Deng at the LSE agrees: “For some time now we have seen a convergent trend politically, economically and ideologically to the rest of the world. Ending China’s ideological isolation is a major factor that has driven this change.”

With a new leadership set to assume control of the Party next year, there is little doubt that the CPC will continue to evolve as China itself changes – both domestically and within the global community.

Meng Jing in Beijing contributed to this story.

– David Bartram