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The Chinese Communist Party at 100: Hopes and Disappointments

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, waves above a large portrait of the late leader Mao Zedong during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing Thursday, July 1, 2021.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, waves above a large portrait of the late leader Mao Zedong during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing Thursday, July 1, 2021.

On July 1, the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centennial, marking its dramatic rise from a small group of idealists to a party of 92 million members that now oversees the world’s second largest economy and the world’s biggest surveillance state.

Internally, its policies color every sector of a nation with the world’s largest population, or 1.4 billion people. Externally, its model is having an impact and influence on distant economies and leaders worldwide not to mention the everyday shopper looking for a new pair of shoes.

One hundred years ago, the party began with meetings in Shanghai of a dozen or so people, who represented, at most, five times their number.

At the time, Shanghai was known for its cosmopolitan drive in an impoverished, divided country struggling to emerge from a string of humiliations by foreign powers that had controlled chunks of its territory for nearly a century.

It wasn’t until October 1949, after years of political turmoil and civil war, that Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China, setting in motion more than 70 years of change.

Getting to that moment in Beijing took the party decades of battles. In its early days, the party allied with the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, in an effort to reunify and modernize China so it could ward off further encroachment by Japan.

The two parties also collaborated to “rid the nation of warlords that prevented the formation of a strong central government,” according to a U.S. State Department history.

In 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the Nationalist’s leader and a revered CCP figure, died of cancer on March 12. On May 30, a series of strikes and protests throughout China left 11 demonstrators dead as British police responded to the anti-foreign eruption on May 30. Anti-imperialist outrage benefited the CCP which grew from a few hundred members to more than 20,000.

Sun’s successor, Chiang Kai-shek, instigated a slaughter of communists in 1927, and despite Moscow’s efforts to engineer cooperation, the two parties fell into a civil war.

By 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria, the CCP had established itself in rural central China in part by expropriating land from wealthy owners and redistributing it to peasants.

Chiang pursued the CCP and its army, pushing them onto the Long March and off to the caves of Yan’an in China’s central province of Shaanxi giving the party its foundational myth.

In Yan’an from 1935-47, Mao Zedong rose to power, building rural support for the party and expanding it from an initial force of less than 10,000 to nearly 2.8 million members as the CCP adopted a constitution that enshrined Marxist-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. The party’s rapid expansion led to more political and ideological education for newcomers, an indoctrination process that came to include even Long March veterans. Known as the Yan’an Rectification, the effort allowed the party, and Mao, to purge thousands of people suspected of disloyalty.

That was only the beginning of decades of political turmoil and internal strife.

After World War II, what had been the two parties’ united front against Japan dissolved as the full-scale civil war returned. “Eventual Communist victory seemed more and more likely,” according to the U.S. State Department.

On Oct. 1, 1949, Mao Zedong announced “The Chinese people have stood up” in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, ending the civil war and dispatching the Nationalists “backed by U.S. imperialism” to Taiwan.

For some, the moment seemed like a new hopeful beginning. Chinese then living in the West, many of them intellectuals, professionals and scholars, returned to China to participate in its rebirth. According to an official CCP document from 1956, A Report on Job Assignments of Students Returning from Capitalist Countries, as many as 1,538 Chinese returned to China from August 1949 to November 1955.

Of those, 1,041 returned from the United States.

Mao next launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign, which encouraged people to engage in ideological debate, including constructive criticism of the Communist Party. But hundreds of thousands of people who spoke up later lost their jobs. Many were sent to labor camps as the Anti-Rightist Movement evolved. Later, repressive tactics used against the rightists evolved as part of campaigns to consolidate CCP power under Mao, including the Great Leap Forward.

Starting in 1958, Mao carried out a massive economic and social campaign that tried to remake the country’s agrarian economy into a communist ideal, but instead lead to the deaths of at least 20 million people.

The CCP and Mao again sought to consolidate power with the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which some critics believe killed as many as another 20 million people.

In 1970, amid the social chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Mao signaled a willingness to speak with Beijing’s declared enemy, the United States. U.S. President Richard Nixon traveled to China from Feb. 21-28, 1972, visiting Shanghai, Hangzhou and Beijing, where he met Mao. The countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1979.

Mao’s death on Sept. 9, 1976, effectively ended the Cultural Revolution, which was followed by the transformative reforms crafted by then-CCP Chairman Deng Xiaoping.

By opening China to foreign investment, Deng’s era led to the rapid growth of China’s economy and the first steps toward the realization of major infrastructure projects such as the Yangtze Three Gorges Dam.

But by the spring of 1989, protests and demonstrations calling for political reform to match the economic changes percolated throughout a China increasingly marked by inequality. The government quashed the biggest protest, a gathering of thousands in Tiananmen Square by ordering the troops to open fire on June 4.

Reporters and diplomats who witnessed the massacre estimated hundreds if not thousands were killed in what Chinese refer to as the June 4 Incident, or 6/4.

It is this swing between openness and crackdown that has marked CCP policies since its founding and continues to this day. The most recent clampdown has been on massive and cash-strapped Chinese multinationals like Alibaba or the implementation of advanced surveillance methods deployed to control minorities such as the Muslim Uyghurs, dissidents and people in cities facing a sudden outbreak of COVID-19.

Today, the CCP is preparing for its chairman, President Xi Jinping, to assume an unprecedented third term, even as the Party faces daunting problems such as an aging population, a declining birthrate, and environmental challenges, Xi is urging party members to remain loyal and serve the people.

To mark the CCP’s centennial, VOA Mandarin spoke with people with deep roots inside the party and China, as they reflected on their lives under CCP rule and their changing perceptions of the party. The interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

The forever purge

One of the tactics that CCP leaders have employed throughout its history is purging political enemies. From Mao’s Cultural Revolution to President Xi Jinping’s current anti-corruption campaign, there have been countless attempts to solidify power by destroying enemies to purify the party ranks.

Li Rui (1917—2019) held senior positions in China’s government and was once the personal secretary of former Chairman Mao Zedong. An early and enthusiastic member of the CCP, he joined the party in 1937 but soon endured his first revolutionary reeducation during the Yan'an Rectification Movement. He became one of Mao Zedong’s personal secretaries in 1958 due to his insights on the Yangtze Three Gorges Dam Project but he was purged again because of his criticism of the Great Leap Forward a five-year plan to collectivize farms and spur rural industrialization that began in 1958 and abandoned in 1961. During the decade-long Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976, he was purged again for voicing opinions contrary to the movement. He was denounced as an “anti-party element” and spent seven years in prison before he returned in 1979 to hold senior positions in government. After retiring from his political career, Li became an advocate for democratic reform in China.

Few understood this better than Li Rui, a longtime CCP member and once the personal secretary of Mao Zedong. He evolved from a loyal believer to one of the party’s most outspoken critics, advocating before he died in 2019 at the age of 102 for liberal reform in China.

VOA talked to his daughter Li Nanyang, a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution, where she manages a special project on historical materials relating to her father.

“My father joined the Party when he was 20 years old, when the CCP was a small party with less than 50,000 members. At that time, he absolutely admired the old Red Army soldiers for the kind of hardship they embraced during the Long March.”

Yet just five years later, the party purged Li for criticizing its policies during the Yan'an Rectification Movement in 1942, a campaign aimed at identifying and removing party members opposed to Mao’s leadership and policies.

“My father told me that he has suffered the least torture. He was not allowed to sleep for five days and nights. He survived, but he said that there were others that weren’t allowed to sleep for 15 days and nights,” said Li Nanyang.

According to Li Rui, this was to “rectify those intellectuals who had not yet joined the party or become a tool for spreading their ideology.”

For the party and its leader Mao, the Yan'an Rectification Movement was a success. “Party members as well as the general public were ‘reformed’ in their thinking,” Li Rui said in “Li Rui’s Oral Account of Past Events” published in 2013 in Hong Kong.

Li was purged during the Great Leap Forward and during the Cultural Revolution for criticizing Mao’s policies.

“When asked about when he changed his perception of the party, he told me it was actually not because of his prosecutions. It was in 1979, when he first came to the United States. He had only been to the Soviet Union before and didn’t realize that the West was already so rich. He told me when he set foot on the American soil, he realized that socialism might not be working,” Li Nanyang said.

“And the last straw was when the party removed the term limits on the presidency in 2018, effectively allowing Xi Jinping to remain in power for life. I think my father completely lost hope for the party at that point.”

A party society

Guo Yuhua, a well-known sociologist in China famous for her criticism of the central government, was born to an elite military family in 1956. Because of her family’s army ties, Guo joined the military in 1971 at the age of 14. Enrollment at a young age was considered a privilege at the time.

Four years later, she joined the Party.

Guo Yuhua (1956--) is one of the best-known sociologists in China and an outspoken critic of the CCP. As a professor at Tsinghua University, she focuses her research on vulnerable populations such as people living in rural China and migrant workers. Guo’s parents, both military officers, remained in senior posts in the central government until the Cultural Revolution, during which her father was persecuted and denied medical care for cirrhosis of the liver. Guo was 12 years old when he died.

“I didn’t really understand why. I guess if you are in the military and not a party member, it’s just weird. People would think you were either not hard-working, or you have some problem that needed to be fixed,” Guo told VOA Mandarin.

At the time, Guo loved China and the CCP. “I was Red inside and out.”

Over time, Guo’s view of the party changed, an evolution that began in 1980, when she was admitted to Beijing Normal University. She spent the next decade studying until she obtained a doctorate degree in 1990.

“It was completely different back then. When we first entered university, we saw seniors running to be people's representatives. There were university students and young teachers, delivering campaign speeches on campus. At that time, debates and discussions were active and welcomed, Western books were allowed, and we were hopeful,” she said.

“But that all ended on June 4, 1989,” she said referring to the massacre of protestors in Tiananmen Square by the government. “After that day, I realized that it was an illusion that the CCP would push for democratic reform. Now 30 years have passed, we still don’t see the government even admit its mistake. Then the only way to rule is through lies.”

Guo officially quit the party in 2014. “In fact, I have never participated in any Party activities since I joined Tsinghua University in 2000. When they asked me to pay party dues, I gave them the receipt I got from donating to poor children in the countryside,” she told VOA.

“Before we said China was a party state, now I think it is a party society,” Guo said in reference to how CCP control has gone beyond oversight of the government and seeped into every aspect of life. “China was once a party society during the Mao era, but are things better now? I don’t think it has changed fundamentally at all.”

“We have a so-called market economy today, but who does this system work for? Take a look at the farmers and migrant workers. Take a look at the entrepreneurs whose assets have been taken away. The fundamental question is who has taken all the benefits?” she said. Answering her own question, Guo said the ruling elite of the CCP has benefited the most from the opening of China’s economy.

I Thought China Was Happy

“I remember when I was young, the school would organize us to watch parades punishing those liberal individuals, and we would sit in the public trial for them. Looking back, if you understand the concept of universal rights, China had an insane amount of human rights violations in all walks of life during the Cultural Revolution. But at that time, it was just daily life,” Akio Yaita told VOA Mandarin.

AkioYaita (1972 --- ) is a Japanese journalist and current affairs commentator. From 2007 to 2017, he was a reporter for the conservative Japanese newspaper, Sankei Shimbun, in Beijing. He now heads the newspaper’s Taipei branch. Yaita was born in 1972 during the Cultural Revolution in China’s coastal city of Tianjin where his family had business ties. Yaita received the same kind of “red education” as many Chinese at that time. It wasn’t until he returned to Japan during his teens that he realized most of what he had learned was CCP propaganda. In his book 'I Thought China was Happy,' released in 2020 by Taiwan Gusa Publishing, he recorded personal observations on how the CCP has ruled China by distorting facts and defaming Western countries.

Yet after the Cultural Revolution, from the time he went to elementary school up until the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, China was a country full of hope, according to Yaita.

“Honestly, everything was slowly getting better. The country’s economy was opening up, people were encouraged to speak up, it was probably the best time in China in the past 100 years,” he said.

He returned to Japan with his family at the age of 15 and was shocked by how different the two societies and political systems were.

“I thought Japan was a utopia at that time. People were friendly and the government's policy was geared to help those less fortunate. Most importantly, the media was completely different. All the news outlets served as watchdogs, they criticized politicians and held them accountable. Yet in China, all we heard was how great the leadership were, how heroic Chairman Mao was. It was very, very different,” he said.

With a keen interest in international relations, Yaita embraced journalism and has spent most of his career covering China.

In his eyes, the mission of a journalist is to expose unfairness in the system, dig out of the truth, and speak for those at the bottom of the society.

“I feel so fulfilled in my career covering China, because unfairness is everywhere,” he told VOA Mandarin.

“I have a friend, Xu Chongyang, a successful businessman who later lost all his assets from working with a few high-ranking CCP officials who defrauded him. So he begins to file petitions,” Yaita said.

“When I first met him, he was full of energy and was convinced that he could bring justice back. He was then targeted by the authorities, he was beaten, he was locked up. ... Every time I saw him, he became weaker. And every time he petitioned, he got a few more crimes (linked to) his name. He once told me, ‘In this country, you can’t really sleep easily no matter how rich you are. You just don’t know when the nightmare will come.’”

Xu was just an example, said Yaita, who told VOA Mandarin that he has witnessed hundreds of stories. He believes these personal tragedies are caused by a system where no one has an incentive to speak for the weak.

“The rights of the weak should be protected,” he said. “Any of us could possibly experience unfortunate incidents in life, so a strong social support system is essential. But in China, this is the group that suffers the most, so no, I don’t think China is a happy country at all.”

New Chinese nationalism

Meanwhile, a growing number of Chinese patriotic youth have taken defending the Chinese government and the CCP as their duty.

These so-called “little pinks,” or xiao fenhong in Chinese, emerged on Chinese social media and became a popular term after the 2016 Taiwan election, when pro-independence leader Tsai Ing-wen won the race.

Beijing views Taiwan as a wayward province belonging to “one and the same China," and Chinese internet users flooded Taiwanese social media with nationalistic rhetoric. Today, they defend China’ position in the South China Sea, cheer for China’s so-called wolf warrior diplomacy, and support Beijing’s tough policies on Hong Kong.

Chinese media outlet Sohu quoted literacy scholar Wang Xiaoyu as saying little pinks can be considered part of the "China’s rise" generation, who argue the global community is “demonizing” China and that China should take on a tougher attitude to defend itself.

Gao Mei is a little pink. Born in 1992 in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province, she finished her bachelor’s degree in Hong Kong and obtained a master in international relations in New York. She asked that VOA not use her real name because she feared online retaliation.

During her time in Hong Kong and New York, she has access to information routinely censored in China. She has watched historical videos about Tiananmen Square, and discussed the incident with family and friends. Yet she thinks that while the Beijing government has made some mistakes, it has also brought China out of poverty and led the country to become the world’s second largest economy after the United States.

"Yes, we have a one-party system. While we might have sacrificed democracy, it has improved efficiency,” she told VOA Mandarin. “The Western countries enjoy democracy, but they are slow, they are unable to move forward. I think the response to COVID-19 pandemic is a great example.”

Gao and other Chinese who support the CCP say Beijing’s lockdowns in response to the pandemic limited its spread inside China, showcasing the Party’s highly effective governance. Critics counter that Beijing’s continuing tight control over information during the pandemic’s early days has been an obstacle to international efforts to find out how it began.

Gao said she considers herself “a mild little pink. I think the term refers to those who like Chinese culture and support the current leadership. I think this way of thinking is pretty common among young people."

Compared to Gao, 23-year-old Li Liang is taking active actions to defend the CCP online. He told VOA that he has used VPN to leave negative comments on Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s Facebook. He asked that VOA not use his real name for fear of retaliation.

This is his way of showing his patriotism, he said.

As an electric engineer in a hi-tech company in China’s eastern Shandong Province, Li said he will sometimes use a VPN to access blocked content online, but he sees China’s state-owned CCTV and Xinhua News Agency as the most reliable. He supports wolf warrior diplomacy and hopes his favored Chinese news outlets take an even tougher stance to “spread out our own voice and regain our status on the world stage.”

“I consider myself a little pink. Previously, the term had a negative connotation, referring to those who support the government without critical thinking. But now I think it just refers to those who are patriotic,” he said. “As a Chinese citizen, I love my country, it’s a must.”