A Letter from a Faculty of Peking University

The 100th Anniversary of China’s Communist Party

It is time to enhance our research on China’s Communist Party

As one of the oldest parties in the world, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates its 100th anniversary of its founding today.  This century-old political party celebrated its founding with pride, and rightly so, due to its unique political history.  The official beginning of the CCP was marked by the 1st Congress held in Shanghai on 1 July 1921. However, the beginnings of the CCP was tremulous, its development shaped by the Chinese Civil War (1922-27, 1927-37, 1946-49) and the Sino-Japanese war (1937-45). The history of the CCP is also bloody, marred by political conflict with the Kuomintang (KMT or Chinese Nationalist Party) under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi). As Chiang consolidated his power, the members of CCP faced persecution. Of the 13 founding members who attended the party-founding congress in Shanghai, 6 reneged the party, and 5 were mercilessly slaughtered by the incumbent government controlled by the KMT. Only 2 members survived, one of whom was Mao Zedong. At the height of the Second Civil Revolution, under the assault of the KMT, the CCP had to abandon its bases and began the historic Long March (1934-35). It was during the Long March where the leadership of the party was re-examined and Mao emerged as the leader of the CCP and led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on 1 October 1949.

Despite its bloody and violent beginnings, the CCP was not born for violence nor driven by it. Rather, its goal since its founding has been for China to seek freedom, scientific progress, democracy, and prosperity. A goal that attracted millions of Chinese people to join, support, and trust it, with the hope of changing China for the better. This can be seen in the vast number of Chinese people wanting to join the CCP before 1949 despite the threat of being persecuted and killed by the incumbent Chinese government at that time.  At the very beginning, in the years 1921-27, the CCP adopted an open and collaborative approach to work with the Chinese government up till the point when the KMT, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek, gained control of the Chinese government and used it to persecute and massacre CCP members nationwide on 12 April 1927, a day marked in history as the Shanghai Massacre.  In the response to the widespread arrests and mindless slaughter, the CCP was forced to reassess and adapt its strategy from one of collaboration with the government for the formation of a new China to one that seeks to use military power to overthrow a government that is persecuting them. 

Furthermore, at the end of the Sino-Japanese war, China had an opportunity to embrace a democratic governance as the CCP at that time was prepared to consider joining the government led by KMT in creating a new democratic China.  This was evidenced in XinHua Daily dated 27 Sept 1945, where Mao Zedong stated on record his vision of a new China - a free and democratic country with ordinary people to elect its central and local governments that shall be responsible for people who elect them.  Unfortunately, this democratic opportunity for China voiced by the leader of the Communist Party was rebuffed by the KMT who took advantage of its military might during the negotiations, and put forth terms that were unacceptable by the CCP.  As the post war negotiations failed, the civil war between these two political parties resumed in on 20 July 1946 when the KMT sent its superior troops to mount a large-scale attack on territories controlled by the CCP, thus resulting in what is now known historically as the War of Liberation. As a response to the attack, the CCP withdrew from the negotiations in Chongqing City and concentrated their efforts in defending their territories and the war against the KMT. Eventually, this led to the CCP liberating all of China except Taiwan in 1949.  

The same responsive approach was also taken by the CCP in response to the Korean war initiated by Northern Korean Government in 1950. The new Chinese government, an ally of North Korea, initially warned the US not to cross the 38th parallel in Korea, but this warning was ignored by the US government. US General Douglas MacArthur did not believe that the CCP’s army, equipped with light weapons without tanks and any fighting planes, would have the military might to fight against the most powerful, and best equipped army in the world just after winning the second world war. In response to the US army in marching to the border of China, the CCP sent its soldiers to fight the United Nation troops led by the US. After the war, the West imposed a trade embargo on China that resulted in China’s isolation from the world for almost 25 years until end of the 1970s. The international isolation set China’s economic development backwards, a dire situation further worsened by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution initiated by the leader of the CCP Mao Zedong between 1966 to 1976.  

In response to the external challenges and internal chaos that destroyed the economy, the second generation of the leaders of the CCP removed the party’s political constraints on economic reforms and started market reforms in 1978. The party as Deng Xiaoping famously said, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”  The economic reforms were carried out in two stages, firstly with the de-collectivization of agriculture, opening up the country to foreign investment, and the encouragement of entrepreneurship. The second stage involved the privatization of large number of state-owned enterprises. For over 40 years, the success of China’s economic reforms, the under the leadership of the CCP, China steadily rose not only to become the 2nd largest economy in the world, but also to have millions of capitalists.     

The brief history outlined in this article aims to highlight the trials and tribulations of the CCP and the various challenges faced by the party; it survived blood and violence - government persecution, slaughter, civil wars, a world war, and it survived economic devastation - an international embargo, isolation from the world, and the chaos of a cultural revolution.  Each hostile challenge rallied the Party to act for each challenge is deadly serious as lives and livelihoods were at stake. For every successful response to the challenges, the CCP was rewarded with an increased confidence of its leadership role in China.  From a historical viewpoint, it seems that the CCP has strengthened time over time by successfully responding to challenges.

As China progresses in economic prowess and global standing, it is necessary to question whether this responsive approach adopted by the CCP throughout history in response to the challenges is the only explanation for the successful growth of the party? From a mere 13 members in 1921 to more than 90 million members today, the CCP is the largest political party in the world. So for this largest political party, how much do we understand it?  Does it always rely on its responsive approach to grow? Does it utilize the responsive approach as the basis of a corrective mechanism for correcting its own mistakes work as China progresses into the future? These questions call for more research, which will be meaningful given China’s increasing influence across the global stage and its increasing presence in global engagements.

100 years ago, 2 professors of Peking University, Mr Chen Duxiu and Mr Li Dachao, were the first to spread Marxist ideology and they were the pioneers of the CCP. 100 years later, the University shall endeavour to continue its role in leading open research in collaboration with international scholars to understand more about the CCP’s insight of governance, its responsive capability and mechanism, its challenges and developments from its past to the present and the future, particularly, in terms of how it will evolve to the future.

The former US Secretary of Defence Mr Donald Rumsfeld once famously said ‘we know there some things we do not know’. To borrow Mr Rumsfeld, ‘there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we know’. In that view, more research would help us know more and live better.  
Professor Guy S. Liu
Peking University