MERICS Press releases, China Flash header

 

“The Communist Party is readying China for battles ahead“

In recent weeks, China has been commemorating the founding of the People's Republic 70 years ago. The highlight of the celebrations will be a military parade and a speech by President and Party Chairman Xi Jinping on 1 October. China’s leaders want to use the festivities to demonstrate their claim to absolute power, the state’s military strength, and the country’s determination to help shape the international order. For Beijing, the festivities will nevertheless be overshadowed by the continuing protests in Hong Kong. Questions to Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Director of the politics, society and media research area at MERICS.

Will China’s Communist Party still exist when the People's Republic turns a hundred?

Yes, very likely – if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) succeeds in overcoming two major challenges. The party leadership must make the People's Republic’s development more sustainable – the country has to become more productive, greener, and more social. Secondly, the communist elite must put new life into its relationship with the USA, which means neither conceding a lot nor provoking - or even losing - a war. Let’s be honest, there is no other relevant political force apparent in China. That means the Communist Party will have gone through a deep crisis, but likely will still set the tone in 30 years, albeit with a different program and in a different guise. Even if there were elections, it would probably still be one of the strongest forces, as it has the most experience and connections.

Ahead of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, China has stepped up propaganda and censorship - and policing. Last week, Beijing moved 150.000 police officers to the border with Hong Kong. What is the CCP so nervous about?

Whenever the Chinese party leadership sees threats to its claim to absolute power, it always can only retreat to its own particular logic by opting for surveillance and oppression. These instruments often work alarmingly well these days due to new digital technologies like face recognition and big data analysis. But oppression drives people underground. Dissatisfaction is suppressed, like in some psychoanalytic defense, and it can pop up again at any moment much more forcefully.

Beijing has yet to present its people a truly inviting, colorful, diverse vision of China. The "China Dream" of the Communist Party is one involving collective strength and pride, but also personal struggle. Xi has recently emphasized this latter point time and again by reminding his fellow Chinese “happiness is something that must be fought for". But young people in Hong Kong, for example, don’t want to be forced to do everything. They want to have a say and a vote about issues concerning their future, their earnings, and their data. Those are the things for which they have been taking to the streets for the past months.

What message does Xi Jinping want to convey through the anniversary festivities?

The most important message is one borrowed from Mao Zedong. Loosely translated, it says that "without the Communist Party, there would be no new China” - and without the new era taking shape under Xi, there would also be no glorious future. The official motto of the People’s Daily, the party-state newspaper, is: ’A glorious 70 years, struggle of the new era.’ One important practice is to quantify past achievements and to underpin them with figures that sometimes strike us as absurd: Gross domestic product is now 170 times higher than it was in 1949, government revenue has even risen by a factor of 3,000. But the message is also about the CPC's willingness to fight under Xi, hence the military parade. And it is about the expectation of ideological discipline at home. Form Beijing's point of view, China needs absolutely loyal and devoted party members who, firstly, will follow the leader's line and, secondly, can and want to survive the struggles of the 21st century, including economic slowdown and challenges from "hostile forces".

How convincing is this narrative for the Chinese population and the international community?

The message about Chinese achievements under the Communist Party and the resulting rise of China over the last 70 years goes down well with large parts of the population - and in principle also with observers abroad. But there are many different views about whether Xi is the most important figure in this narrative, or better Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping. Xi is neither the charismatic battle-tested ruthless visionary, nor the pragmatist and mediator that Deng Xiaoping once was.

Self-proclaimed followers of Mao have recently visibly positioned themselves as challengers. These are young students who are committed to more social justice and support workers in the struggle for their rights. Among intellectuals, there is less overt criticism, but complaints about Xi Jinping's accumulation of power and aggressive posture are also present with the wider political elite. His goal of technological self-sufficiency is also seen by some as counterproductive and draws criticism. Liberal political opinions – the ones that go with demands for a free press and elections - had already been stigmatized successfully by the previous government. Xi won’t tolerate any criticism, not even from within his own ranks.

Can foreign actors influence the future course of the People's Republic in any way?

Heavy pressure on the Chinese leadership, the kind US President Donald Trump is currently exerting, certainly has an effect on the behavior of the leaders in Beijing. But this is really only possible in areas in which China is dependent on others. We should as a result attach stronger conditions to cooperation projects with Beijing, especially with an eye on the People’s Republic’s weaknesses.

Positive incentives will prove more difficult – as difficult, yet important as saying: "We are not per se against the rise of China or Chinese companies. But we do expect an ambitious world power to act not only in the name of self-interest, but to abide by values and a vision that point beyond its own interests".

We should definitely engage in such conversations with people in and from the People's Republic. We probably won’t change China’s course very quickly, but we may be able to create positive personal memories and contacts. Those small seeming things can turn out to be crucial. China’s future elite, its millennial generation, is comparatively open-minded and interested in ideas, values and of life plans discussed in liberal democracies. However, its members do not want to be equated with their government. They want to communicate on an equal footing – and we should make that happen.

Media contact