The Evolution of China’s Communist Party, 90 Years in the Making

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Jul. 1 – The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the political ruling party of the People’s Republic of China, is celebrating its 90th birthday today. Founded in 1921, the CCP has come a long way, experiencing various conflicts domestically and internationally, to finally establish and consolidate its ruling position in China. In the following article, we will present you an overview of the CCP’s history of development and evolution, as well as expound the current and future challenges that may push the CCP to a new era of reforms.

The First Republic and May Fourth Movement
The early decades of the 20th Century in China were tinted with a constant state of turmoil. After enduring a string of military defeats brought on by dissidents and foreign countries, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown in 1912, ending almost 6,000 years of imperial rule in China. In its place was a new national republic, headed by the revolutionist, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.

While many saw the new government as a herald for a new age of nationalism and self-determination in China, the new republic was still in a fragile state. In truth, power was decentralized and fought over between regional warlords and militias, who claimed independence from the national government, and sought to serve their own needs.

On May 4, 1919, thousands of students rallied in Beijing for a demonstration against the national government. In what is now called the May Fourth Movement, the crowds protested the government’s inability to unify the nation, as well as its failure to properly represent the country’s interests overseas. As the protests subsided, they had laid the groundwork for social change in China. A populist movement overcame the people, while nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiments spread all over the nation.

Communist Ideology Takes Shape
It was during this time that Communism found its way into China’s political ideology. Young intellectuals were intrigued by the revolutions that toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia, and sought to learn more about the Marxist ideals of socialism and egalitarianism. The party thus began as an informal network of students and intellectuals, which spread throughout the provinces of China during the late 1910s.

The Chinese Communist Party was formally named and established in the French Concession of Shanghai on July 1, 1921. While the party was officially founded by the Chinese scholars Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, it was also formed under the supervision of agents sent by Russia’s Communist International (Comintern). Later that month, a national congregation was hosted in Shanghai, where party members and delegates from across the country were invited to attend the first meeting of the CCP. Mao Zedong was one of the delegates at the congregation. At the time, he represented members from Hunan Province.

As membership grew, the CCP began to draw the attention of the Kuomintang (KMT), the party co-founded by Sun Yat-Sen, and also the dominant political force at the time. Although the CCP’s socialist views differed greatly from the KMT’s nationalist focus, some members of the CCP advocated joining with the KMT. By doing this, these members had hoped to build on the KMT’s recent successes in unifying the state, and gradually change the party from within. While this idea was rejected by most of the CCP’s leadership, it was overruled by the Comintern authority, whose priority at the time was to unify China under any circumstance. In 1926, The CCP was forced into a fragile alliance with the KMT, who drew plans for the Northern Expedition, a joint effort to regain control of major territories that were held by warlords to the north.

The Northern Expedition initially proved successful as the CCP-KMT alliance was able to overthrow several major warlords within the first year of the campaign. However, tensions between the two parties grew as their different ideologies clashed. This was compounded by the fact that, after Sun Yat-Sen’s death in 1925, each party saw itself as the legitimate successor to the national government.

Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the KMT at this time, especially mistrusted the Communists. While the expedition was in Shanghai on April 12, 1927, Chiang ended the alliance by ordering a purge of the CCP leadership. Many CCP leaders were assassinated or imprisoned during the purge, but some managed to escape to the west and established “Soviet Sectors” – Communist strongholds that were founded in rural, remote areas. The largest of these sectors were controlled by leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhu De. And although Chiang Kai-Shek was able to consolidate the KMT’s power during this time, they had made bitter enemies out of the CCP.

The Long March
As the CCP spent the next few years regaining its strength, the KMT saw an opportunity to crush its competitors. Still led by Chiang Kai-Shek, KMT forces attacked CCP strongholds in Jiangxi and Fujian provinces in 1933. The KMT armies eventually surrounded the CCP bases, and were able to cut off most of their supply lines. The blockade was successful, and within one year, the Communists lost 50 percent of their territory and almost 60,000 soldiers. With few options available, the CCP decided to relocate its base west to Communist-held territories in Hunan Province. The CCP initiated a full retreat in October 1934, thus beginning the Long March.

At the time, the CCP army was led by a German Comintern by the name of Otto Braun. After enduring several devastating losses to the pursuing KMT forces, Braun’s leadership was eventually questioned by Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders. In January 1935, the Zunyi Conference was held to determine the future leadership of the CCP army. Mao managed to convince the party with his strategy, and was able to take control of the military from Braun. By this time, the CCP had shaken off all forms of foreign influence, and had come to follow their own “native” leadership. Unlike Braun’s head-to-head battle plans, Mao advocated strategic guerrilla attacks against KMT forces, and under his direction, the CCP forces split into smaller groups. In order to surprise the enemy, the armies were told to march much further north to the Communist territories in Shaanxi Province.

The journey was not an easy one. The march took nearly one year and ended on October 1935. The CCP forces had marched through 9,000 kilometers of mountainous terrain, thick marshes and hostile regions still under control of local warlords. The army started the journey with around 87,000 soldiers, and less than 10,000 men remained at the end. In spite of these heavy losses, the journey took the CCP through most of China, and its surviving members learned much about the country and its people. In light of their efforts, Mao Zedong and the party received admiration and popular support from many of China’s rural communities. In the end, the CCP army was able to regroup with the other forces in Shaanxi and regained most of their strength.

Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII
While the war between the CCP and KMT raged on, more trouble brewed as the Empire of Japan increased its military presence in China. China long had tensions with Japan, as both countries had a string of minor skirmishes since the latter took control of Manchuria in 1931. By 1937 however, fighting escalated into outright war when Japan issued a full-scale invasion of China’s major cities. While the KMT had initially declared the destruction of the CCP as its first priority, it began to see the Japanese as an impending threat to both parties. A second, shaky alliance was thus formed between the CCP and KMT to fight against the Japanese invasion.

Although united against a common threat, both parties fought differently. While fighting a guerrilla war against the Japanese, the CCP simultaneously gathered support from many rural villages and local militias around the country. The CCP was able to increase their membership to about 1 million people, and amassed a fighting force that was equally as large. The better trained and equipped KMT fought the brunt of the Japanese forces while trying to limit the growth of the CCP at the same time. In the end, the KMT endured heavy losses, and it did not receive as much support as the Communist party.

By the early 1940s, conflicts had escalated with both China and Japan becoming a part of the Second World War. Eventually, the CCP and KMT were able to fight off the Japanese invasion with the help of the Allied Powers. When the war ended with Japan’s surrender in 1945, CCP and KMT representatives attempted to broker a peace between each other. However, the differences between the two parties were deeply rooted, and after failing to make any compromises, they resumed a full-scale civil war in 1946.

Founding of the People’s Republic
The civil war lasted for three years, and while the Communist forces grew in size and support, the already weakened KMT saw their influence fall dramatically. Eventually, the KMT forces were beaten and retreated with around 2 million KMT members, along with their supporters, to the island of Taiwan at the end of 1949. With the CCP victorious, Mao formed the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and established the national capital at Beijing.

Once in power, Mao began a host of economic policies and reforms that rebuilt war-torn China. Among the most important were the Communist land reforms, which took land from wealthy owners and redistributed them to landless peasants. As a part of his first Five-Year Plan that covered the years 1953 to 1957, Mao abolished private ownership, and persecuted any land owners and merchants who refused to cooperate.

The Great Leap Forward
Once the land reforms were well underway, Mao sought to transform China from an agrarian economy to a fully developed Communist society. In 1958, Mao initiated the Great Leap Forward, a movement which sought to rapidly industrialize the country. Agricultural collectivization was introduced to the rural communes. Under this system, outputs from connected farms were gathered and distributed evenly among the local community, with any surpluses going to the state. A very ambitious steel manufacturing program was also spearheaded. In an effort to maximize the production of steel, crude steel burners were outfitted in each commune and urban area, and every citizen was encouraged to find and donate scrap metal to feed the burners.

In spite of this momentous effort, the Great Leap Forward ended in disaster. By 1961, there was a widespread famine and food shortage due to lowered agricultural production. And because the communal steel burners were underdeveloped, most of the manufactured steel was of poor quality. Many people lost their lives as a result of the famine, and as a result, Mao lost political clout within the CCP.

The Cultural Revolution
Beginning in the late 1950s, China started to see its relations with the Soviet Union deteriorate. Supposedly their strongest ally, the USSR was more focused on its Cold War with the United States, and reneged on many of its political promises made to China. Upon seeing Nikita Khrushchev’s fall from power in 1964, Mao saw this as the Russians having failed to live up to their original socialist ideologies. In order to reinforce his belief in the Communist system and to reaffirm his power, Mao declared the beginning of a social revolution in China. He warned the public that capitalist elements were threatening the development of the country, and urged citizens to eliminate anything and punish anyone they saw as being bourgeois or related to capital culture. The Cultural Revolution thus began in 1966.

In response to Mao’s admonishments, the Red Guard Movement was formed. The Red Guards were a large paramilitary group which was largely made up of the country’s youth. While they sought to reinforce the Maoist standards of Communism, they were largely undisciplined and caused violence among those they saw as capitalists. Many civilian authority figures from the older generation were accused of being capitalists, and were either jailed or publicly humiliated. Furthermore, urban populations were displaced. Under Mao’s revolution, much of the urban youth was forced to work in the countryside in order to learn from China’s rural workers.

The Cultural Revolution lasted for at least 10 years up until Mao’s death in 1976. While it elevated Mao’s status as a celebrated figure in the CCP, it greatly harmed China’s society and economy. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping and his supporters took power, and eventually denounced Mao’s actions in the coming years.

Post-Mao Period, Rise of Deng Xiaoping
Following the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party changed direction under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping at the 11th Party Congress, convened in August 1997. This period is often referenced as the “Period of Reform and Opening Up.” The previous era had seen the party largely defined by Mao and a cult-like worship of a man who seemed larger than life. Deng Xiaoping had found himself on the outs with the highest party leadership during the Cultural Revolution, but the ending of that tumultuous period in Chinese history paved the way for Deng to rise to the top, shaping a more modest and less individual-focused CCP.

Deng introduced a more gradual “Second Revolution” and, during this time, China began to lay the foundation for its dynamic entry into the global economy. Even more fundamentally, the party re-established its mandate to carry out “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” This perspective speaks in part as to why the CCP has been so enduring, because the party created a vision for a socialist state as it wanted it to be. Deng famously said that “poverty is not socialism” and “to be rich is glorious,” and so the beginnings of capitalism were introduced to the Chinese masses, which soothed the pain of backlash from the Cultural Revolution.

Part of the party’s more moderate approach to managing the country included adapting economic reform, which decentralized decision making in that area and created incentives for a market-like economy. Legal reforms followed at the National People’s Congress in June, 1979. These were the beginnings of a wave of reforms which certainly improved the lives of millions of Chinese, particularly those living in urban areas where the rate of change was most rapid.

Inspired by Zhou Enlai, Deng proclaimed that the country would focus on the Four Modernizations: industry, agriculture, science and technology, and national defense. The communes of the previous decades were dismantled and laid quietly to rest, while the household responsibility system (a system where individual families could contract land and tools necessary for agricultural production to produce independently, remitting a portion to the government and retaining the surplus for profit) was introduced and incentives for entrepreneurship and private enterprise were backed by the CCP. At the same time, the leadership looked to the future and planned as to how to rebuild China to become an advanced industrial nation by the end of the millennium.

An important part of this long-term effort was Zhu Rongji, the former prime minister of Shanghai, who was tapped by Deng Xiaoping to manage the country’s economy from Beijing. Serving as Vice Minister of the State Economic Commission from 1983 to 1987, Governor of the People’s Bank of China from 1993 to 1995, and a member of the CCP Central Committee until 1997, Zhu certainly left behind a legacy. He has been credited with navigating the country successfully though Asia’s 1997 financial crisis, managing inflation during the period, and carving out a place for China in the World Trade Organization (WTO).

China triumphantly joined the WTO after 15 years of negotiations in 2001. This diplomatic move helped to further ease China’s entry into global trade circles, and perhaps more importantly drew outstanding levels of foreign direct investment into the world’s largest remaining communist country. This decade was one of general peace, as living standards continued to rise and the country’s economy grew. It certainly wasn’t entirely without conflict or controversy, perhaps best exemplified by the largely student-led Tiananmen Square Incident in 1989.

The economic reforms which had preceded the Tiananmen events on June 4 that year slowed and the party’s leadership was forced to deal with the consequences of what had transpired. When Deng Xiaoping regained some of his political weight nearly two years later, he continued to push for an increasingly liberal and market-oriented economy which was accepted by the 14th Party Congress and the Communist Party Politburo. This marked a passing of power in the party, as younger and more contemporary party members began to rise to leadership positions.

Another significant marker in this period was the return of Hong Kong to Mainland China as a Special Economic Region. More than a century earlier, Britain had invaded imperial China and overtaken Hong Kong. The treaties ending the First Opium War in 1839 officially ceded Hong Kong to Britain. Hong Kong grew and prospered as a key trading post in the east for the British and today is a metropolitan and global haven. More recently, numerous negotiations between the British and Chinese led to the signing of an agreement in September 1984 returning Hong Kong to China, provided that Hong Kong would retain its freedom and capitalist system. On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong smoothly returned to China despite peaceful protests by thousands of students. The relationship between Hong Kong and China is unique, but seemingly peaceful, and best recognized as “one country, two systems.”

Deng Xiaoping’s position in the party was eventually filled by Jiang Zemin in 1989 and this change of leadership represents the “third generation” of Chinese leadership. Tethered by his belief in social stability and sustainable economic growth, Jiang continued introducing economic reforms which facilitated the accelerated economic growth which has defined China for the last decade.

The CCP Today
Like any government in our increasingly globalized world, one of the CCP’s major challenges comes from the interconnectedness between the Chinese and the global economy. In 2008, the world was gripped in the frenzy of the Global Financial Crisis. China’s “fourth generation” leaders, headed by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, were able to steer the country in a direction which allowed economic growth and development to continue without faltering. In particular, the CCP responded with the launch of its 2008-2009 economic stimulus plan. The plan focused on increasing affordable housing, easing credit restrictions for mortgage and SMEs, lowering taxes on real estate sales and commodities, and pumping more public investment into infrastructure development, such as the rail network, roads and ports. Centralized planning and control allowed the country to ride through the financial crisis comfortably.

A strong regulatory foundation, begun in the early 1980s, has allowed China to recently acquire the title of the world’s second largest economy after the United States, with anticipation of becoming the biggest in the not too distant future. Last year, the country became the world’s top manufacturer and the largest creditor nation in the world, and owns approximately 20.8 percent of all foreign-owned U.S. Treasury securities. From a country that could barely feed its people not too long ago to an economic giant today, much credit has been given to Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up policy and gradual privatization. China’s economy is a testament to the success that a planned economy, gradually shifted towards a market economy, can experience. Gradual and government-backed reforms have kept the country’s economic growth consistent and steady.

China has also emerged as a major player in international politics and this is a testament to the legitimacy and respect the CCP has earned abroad. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics hosted a total of 11,028 athletes from 204 nations competing in 28 sports and 302 events. The CCP reported it had spent around US$15 billion on the Olympics, but some speculate actual spending is closer to US$40 billion. The party took this global event as a great opportunity to showcase a strong China to the rest of the world. The 2010 Shanghai World Exposition also caught the attention of the world – not only enhancing the city’s global status, but also bringing in abundant economic opportunities. Domestically, the Chinese people see the Expo as a demonstration of the improvement of the standard of living, economic growth and bright outlook of China. Today, Shanghai’s governmental authorities are celebrating the CCP’s 90th Anniversary at the Expo center.

However, despite the positive outlook for its economy, China faces a number of difficult challenges that, if not addressed by the country’s leaders, could undermine its future growth and stability. Consistent criticism from the international community towards China’s human rights record continues and is unlikely to diminish in the near future. The country’s crackdown on dissidents is common fare in Western media and is unfavorably associated with China.

Moreover, recent territorial issues in the South China Sea and East China Sea are straining diplomatic relations between the Chinese government and its neighbors. In the immediate future, this is considered to be one of the most contentious issues in Asia.

Domestically, housing issues continue to remain an issue for the central government. The boom of the housing market is causing resentment among working-class Chinese and widening a politically volatile gulf between China’s rich and poor. China’s leadership has periodically tried to rein in the economy, which has galloped along at around 10 percent growth for each of the past three years.

China now has come to a point where political as well as economic reforms are called for. The investment driven model of the Soviet Union, although a thing of the past, still remains deeply entrenched in the minds of the Chinese people. However, rapid growth based on the investment of resources with no improvement in efficiency will lead to a shortage of resources and damage to the environment. During a discussion of the 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010), the following structural obstacles were identified: too much power of the government over resources, GDP growth figures used as the standard for the government’s merit, flaws in taxation, and manipulation of factor pricing.

The Future of the CCP
Average Chinese citizens are hoping the CCP’s “fifth generation” of leadership will bring solutions to the country’s problems and challenges. The world’s major media outlets are confident that the future leadership will lie in the hands of current Vice President Xi Jinping, however most people are more interested in what changes the new generation of CCP leaders will bring to the country.

Trying to deal with enormous challenges in a changing world, the CCP realizes the key to further modernization lies in the government, and how much determination and courage it has to press for change into a modern market economy. As some commentators have predicted years ago, the CCP will face new challenges if it only relies on its economic reforms alone. A famous metaphor refers to China’s economic and political systems as the country’s feet and shoes. When feet grow larger, shoes have to be amended so that they are not worn out.

Such predictions are reasonable as it has become more obvious in recent years that GDP figures alone cannot tackle all the social problems, and sometimes social polarization can be even more dreadful than poverty. Now again, the CCP is arguably faced with challenges that are as huge and complicated as those faced in the past.

The internal differences among groups within the CCP has also increased people’s speculation that the next-generation of CCP leaders may bring about another round of major reforms. In fact, people are already seeing vague signs. While in the past, China’s public media only uttered one voice, the CCP-controlled People’s Daily published an editorial for the first time in April to encourage “different voices.”

It still remains unclear in which direction the “fifth generation” of CCP leaders will finally take China, but just as Premier Wen Jiabao pictured in his London speech recently, it is hoped that the new leaders will pay efforts to make China more democratic and free with justice everywhere.

5 thoughts on “The Evolution of China’s Communist Party, 90 Years in the Making

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    When I started Dezan Shira & Associates, Deng Xiaoping was still the de facto leader. It just shows what a long time ago that really was. Its been a priviledge to have been developing the firm and business in China since that time. – Chris

    Jim says:

    your history is a little messy. The break with the Soviets was 1960 not 64 like you fuzzily say. China exploded a nuclear bomb in 1964 long after becoming Soviet enemies. Zhu Rongji is placed before Tiananmen though he came to fame after this time. In fact your treatment of the 1989 era is extremely rough. 1997 is the year you list for of Deng Xiao Ping’s rise to power. But otherwise thanks for the article.

    Chris Devonshire-Ellis says:

    @Jim – thanks for your comments. It’s an overview, and not an academic treaty that we have tried to provide. The fuzziness I think you allude to is the exact precision of the dates and the style of writing as regards chronology. Concerning 1989, I was in Beijing at that time and saw what went on. However this is not the forum or place to discuss that, and much has been said on the subject of Tiananmen in the past. Instead, our view is that on a birthday celebration, bringing up past misdemeanors is inappropriate. As I said above, it has been a priviledge to have developed our business in China over the past 19 years, and we should be thankful the party hasn’t descended to the depths of a Tiananmen style conflict for the past 22 years. That says rather more about the evolution of the Communist Party than focusing on those long past, dark days. Thanks – Chris

    Editor says:


    Thanks for reading! We’ve edited the text a bit concerning the deterioration of China-Soviet relations to make it more clear and less “fuzzy”.

    As Chris said, this was meant more as an overview to look at how much the CCP has evolved over the last 90 years and how far it has come. There are many sites discussing and debating exactly what did or did not happen at Tiananmen in 1989. Given the scope of the article, there are many topics on which we could have expanded on a great deal, but we hope you enjoyed it nonetheless. Thanks again!

    DUDE says:

    hey man, can u give me some info so i can reference this on my paper?

Comments are closed.