Issue 2, June 2008
|The Chinese Communist Party (The CCP)|
The Communist Chinese Party (CCP) was founded in 1921 by Mao Zedong, who adapted the principles of Karl Marx and the experience in Russia to conditions particular to China. Mao had come of age during the “first revolution” in China in 1912, an era in which the Nationalist (KMT) party unseated the 3,000 year rule of the Qing Dynasty and formed the Republic of China under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen. Mao quickly became disillusioned with the weakness and corruption of the KMT as well as the pervasive power of feudal war lords throughout the country. In 1927, he began his famous travels through rural areas where he witnessed the abysmal plight of the large peasant population, and began to formulate a uniquely Chinese brand of Communism that became characterized by an emphasis on the power of the peasants and the need for continuous revolution to achieve a just society.
By the 1930s, the CCP was engaged in civil war with Sun Yat-sen’s successor Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists for control of the ever-weakening country. After a defeat by KMT forces in 1934, Mao and his army embarked on what became known as The Long March, regrouping to the interior mountains and consolidating their strength. When the Japanese invaded and occupied Nationalist-led China in 1937, the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao was again in full-swing. The civil war simmered throughout World War II as both sides fought each other and the Japanese. When the US ended World War II in the Pacific in 1945, fighting between the CCP and KMT intensified until Mao’s forces defeated Chiang’s Nationalist army, sending them into exile in Taiwan. The Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) was formally established in 1949 with Mao as Chairman of the CCP and leader of the nation.
Communist Party Structure
Ever since its founding, all aspects of life in the PRC have been directed, in some way, by the Communist Party. The CCP controls all government functions on the local and national level through its vast network of 73 million carefully selected Party Members and local Party organizations. It is an authoritarian, hierarchical system with power consolidated in the selected Leader (currently Hu Jintao who was preceded by Jiang Zemin, Deng Xiaoping, and Mao) who serves as President of China, Secretary General of the CCP, and Chair of the Central Military Committee. The Leader is selected by and rules along with the Politburo, in particular the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo (PBSC). There is a People’s Party Congress comprised of nearly 3000 members, although their power is largely symbolic and they meet only once every five years. The military wing of the party is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). All government officials are subject to fixed terms, term limits, and age ceilings.
The CCP controls all aspects of the government in China. There are no other political parties outside the CCP; all government officials must be members of the CCP and all officials of the Provincial and Central wings of the Party are appointed. There is no voting by the people, with the exception of recently introduced village-level elections where selected Party Members compete for low positions. There is no independent Judiciary; all judges are chosen by and accountable to Party members. The Party apparatus makes all local, national, and foreign policy, and few external checks and balances exist.
CCP members are formally groomed, selected, and trained from childhood. The Party controls all education, including what and how students study. Officials in the schools scout for talent, aptitude, and high levels of indoctrination into Party ideology. People are chosen and sent to Party Schools throughout China for further education to continue the sorting process. On the whole, the system generally functions as a meritocracy. Confucian traditions about hierarchy and the belief that a society as large and complex as China must be ruled scientifically combine to produce what has been described by David Shaumbaugh and others as a “meritocratic technocracy.” Most high-level Party officials come from a science or engineering background. The average citizen can neither join the Party, nor expect to rise within it.
The reality of the CCP on the ground often looks significantly different than the CCP on paper and in official statements. In this one-party state where decision-making is secret and no civil society watchdogs exist, not surprisingly, corruption is rampant. Party members often acquire and secure their jobs through connections. Local officials are viewed as especially vulnerable to corruption by local interests, largely as a result of the central government’s inability to keep tabs on everything in such a vast country. Individuals opposed to or harmed by Party policies have little recourse because Party control reaches into the courts and the press.
In her book, Fragile Superpower, Sinologist Susan Shirk examines how the Party exerts control over its citizenry, and has coined the term the “control cartel” to describe the most powerful departments of the government under the central leadership of the CCP. This includes the Organization Department which directs appointments, and the Propaganda Department (also called the Publicity Department) which controls all media and culture through monitoring and censorship. Other key bodies include the Ministries of State Security and Public Security, including the police who have the power to detain, imprison, and sentence individuals without formally charging them in the courts. The People’s Liberation Army is the standing army of China and the military wing of the Party; members are chosen based on their talents and aptitudes as observed by Party scouts. The People’s Armed Police is a paramilitary organization designed for use in anti-protest, anti-riot matters. Laws and policies liberally defining “State Secrets” are used with wide discretion to justify many of the actions of the CCP in regulating the activities of Chinese citizens.
As in domestic matters, the Party tightly controls all aspects of foreign relations. A former US diplomat to China, Shirk reports first hand how foreign policy is handled by the Party’s Foreign Ministry, except with respect to matters involving the United States, Japan, or Taiwan. These matters are considered highly sensitive and are routed to the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The Propaganda (Publicity) Department is also on high alert around information concerning these three countries, and all media is brought into line with Party policies and positions.
The most significant reform undertaken by the CCP since the Mao era has been in the advance towards a free market economy. The CCP has essentially abandoned the true idea of Communism, while retaining the hierarchical structure of the CCP and totalitarian rule. Whereas state ministries used to control all steps of production – sourcing, labor, pricing, distribution – now the free market does most of that through private enterprise, much of which is foreign-owned. The only exceptions are those commodities the government considers essential to social stability – oil, electricity, water. These essentials are still heavily regulated and their prices subsidized by the government to prevent social unrest caused by price fluctuations. In taking steps to liberalize the economy, the CCP, beginning with Deng Xiaoping, has created a unique hybrid with no precedent in history: a modern, totalitarian, flourishing, liberal economic giant. The result is a successful world power that allows many economic, but few social and no political freedoms for its population.
Many feel that the CCP has made a bargain with the people of China to keep the economic development machine humming to produce prosperity for the country, in return for the people’s absence from politics. Social freedoms have been granted as they have been deemed necessary to contribute to prosperity. As Ian Bremer points out, the “iron triangle” of residence permits, secret personnel files, and work units has been loosened somewhat to allow for the critical mobility of industrial labor. However, the state still does maintain control over many aspects of people’s daily lives, and this control is seen as a lack of personal freedoms by the West and thus as violations of human rights.
One of the most universally accepted and core documents delineating human rights in the world today is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR, in “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [that] is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, consists of 30 articles that illustrate a number of rights that should be guaranteed to all human beings. Subsequent UN documents further categorize these rights as civil and political rights, and social, cultural, and economic rights. Specifically, these human rights include the ability to write, speak, consume the opinions of others, criticize the government, gather and associate, practice religion freely, and pursue family life without interference from the state, among others.
Observing and extracting information on human rights in China is an industry in and of itself, and detailed accounts can be gleaned from multiple resources on the topic. Here is a summary of some of the general freedoms that Chinese citizens do not enjoy:
With the exception of the family planning laws, all of these restrictions aim primarily to curb any criticism of the government that might interfere with social stability, economic growth, and/or the mandate of the CCP to govern. The position of the CCP on these matters in the face of considerable international criticism is best summed up by East Asian specialist James Seymour: "The Chinese government’s attitude on human rights is based on at least two premises. First, it insists that because nation states are sovereign entities, outside interference in domestic issues such as human rights is generally impermissible. Second, although token homage is paid to the idea of transcendent human rights principles, paramount are economic (subsistence) rights to which political rights are secondary."
Add to this the enormous value placed on stability, and the CCP’s position is that the means justify the ends. With much of the country’s millions still living below the poverty line, and considering the violent and chaotic nature of Chinese history up to the 1970s, many believe the majority of the population agrees with the CCP on this. The bargain generally holds: lower classes of peasants and migrant laborers are isolated and immersed in subsistence activities, and the middle class has been largely co-opted by the prosperity such stability makes possible.
The Crossroads: Tiananmen Square and the Fall of the Soviet Union
This bargain between the CCP and the people looked seriously untenable in the wake of student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and during the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. An examination of what led to the Tiananmen Square riots, and how the government dealt with the protest and with the discrediting of other Communist Totalitarian states, is instructive in understanding why this bargain continues to hold today.
In the spring of 1989, several factors combined to unleash a wave of anger and protest against the CCP. Inflation and other economic pressures created by market failures had quietly begun to erode the faith of university students in the government. In addition, the supply of jobs for highly educated citizens had not kept pace with demand and, under the police state, there had been no avenue for discontent to be expressed. Corruption was becoming more rampant, and the rising tide was not lifting all boats. When ousted CCP reform leader Hu Yaobong died suddenly, hope for reforms seemed diminished, and the spark in the tinder box was lit.
Beginning in April of 1989, millions of students poured into Beijing and 132 other Chinese cities to mourn Yaobong, and to protest the CCP governing mandate. Mass riots turned to hunger strikes. A high-level official and long-serving Premier named Zhao Ziyang who had a reputation as an economic reformer split with Deng Xioaping and others in the Party as to what should be done. Zhao went to Tiananmen Square to try to negotiate with the students, and was summarily fired and arrested. As the Party elite remained dangerously divided, Deng and other hardliners like Jiang Zemin called in PLA troops to quell the demonstration. Martial law was declared. Ordinary people from all walks of life poured out onto the streets and attempted to block the movement of the army tanks. Not wanting to fire on civilians, PLA leadership balked and a letter of protest was sent to Deng and the PBSC.
The Party ranks were eventually closed and the hardliners prevailed. On June 4, 1989 tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in Beijing and into other cities. Some estimate that thousands of innocent civilians were killed that day; thousands more were arrested, although accurate numbers are still unknown. Recently declassified documents quoted by Susan Shirk reveal Deng saying on that day, “Of all China’s problems, the one that trumps everything is the need for stability. We have to jump on anything that might bring instability…and we can’t care what foreigners say.” See Key Foundation Documents for more government speeches given at this time.
One month later, the Berlin Wall fell, followed by the Soviet Union and the Communist republics of Eastern Europe. The world watched and waited to see if Tiananmen Square was the beginning of a similar end for Communist rule in China. This point was not lost on the CCP elite, who are assiduous students of world history and political science. The Chinese government undertook an extensive evaluation of what had gone wrong for their Communist counterparts as well as an intensive self-study of how they had gotten to the breaking point of Tiananmen Square. Numerous Sinologists and Sovietologists in China and in the West have written about what the CCP found in this elaborate audit, and the measures they put in place to shore up their mandate. Below is a compilation of main ideas taken from various experts on how the CCP resolved to prevent future large-scale demonstrations of social unrest:
Many experts believe that the events of 1989 provided the opportunity for a productive “catharsis” within the Party as its official control of the PRC reached the age of 40 years. Like the technocrats they are, CCP elites studied the portents for their own demise and took the lessons to heart. Far from opening up a closed society, the Party managed to vent some accumulated tension and set upon a course that has lasted them another 18 years and looks likely to continue.
As for the protestors involved in the riots and the people who supported them, their fates have been mixed. Some are still jailed, others have been released and considered rehabilitated by the CCP. Many live in limbo, under surveillance by the CCP and occasionally re-arrested. Many dissidents fled the country and can now be found writing and leading Chinese democracy activism efforts from think tanks, universities, and NGOs in the West.