From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping: How the Chinese Communist Party has grown and its role in nation building


The ruling Communist Party of China (CCP) made big headlines this week when it adopted a "landmark resolution" of the party's major achievements in the last 100 years besides paving the way for a record third term for President Xi Jinping next year.

The document, a summary of the party's 100-year history, addresses its key achievements and future directions.

It is only the third of its kind since the founding of the party - the first was passed by Mao Zedong in 1945 and the second by Deng Xiaoping in 1981.

As the CCP marks this milestone, we try to explain what the CCP is and what role has it played in Chinese politics.

From birth to now

The CCP came into being on 23 July 1921 and was founded as both a political party and a revolutionary movement in 1921 by revolutionaries such as Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu.

The CCP finds its origin in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, during which radical Western ideologies like Marxism and anarchism gained traction among Chinese intellectuals.

In the beginning, there were only 50 members and held its first Congress in Shanghai, with the help of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Mao and the CCP

During the Long March (1934-1935), Mao Zedong achieved the leadership position in the CCP and held on to it till his death in 1976.

Between 1945 and 1949, China witnessed civil war and years of fighting finally came to an end with the victory of the Communists and Mao Zedong on 1 October 1949 declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China.

In the next several years the life of the CCP was taken up with serious disagreements over the course of the country’s development.

At first, the CCP had adopted the Soviet model for development, but as the 1950s ended, the CCP broke up with the Soviets, so as to say and undertook the most disastrous Great Leap Forward Program.

Great Leap Forward Program

For those who don't remember, the Great Leap Forward was a push by Mao Zedong to change China from a predominantly agrarian society to a modern, industrial society — in just five years.

Mao moved millions of Chinese citizens into communes aiming to improve agricultural and industrial production.

However, Mao relied on nonsensical Soviet farming ideas, such as planting crops very close together so that the stems could support one another and plowing up to six feet deep to encourage root growth. These farming strategies damaged countless acres of farmland and dropped crop yields, rather than producing more food with fewer farmers.

He also encouraged people to set up backyard steel furnaces, where citizens could turn scrap metal into usable steel in an effort to reduce steel imports. Families had to meet quotas for steel production, so in desperation, they often melted down useful items such as their own pots, pans, and farm implements.

While it was envisaged to be a mega economic thrust, it turned out to be a nightmare, with an estimated 20 to 48 million people dying in China due to famine. Others died due to exposure, overwork, and execution. It broke families apart, sending men, women, and children to different locations, and destroyed traditional communities and ways of life.

The Great Leap Forward was officially halted in January 1961 after three brutal years of death and destruction.

1959 Tibetan uprising

If the Great Leap Forward wasn’t enough of a nightmare, the CCP under Mao’s rule also had to face the Tibetan revolt in March of 1959.

Tibetans gathered in the streets of their capital Lhasa and surrounded the Potala Palace to protect the Dalai Lama, who they feared was in danger of assassination.

The protests were followed by a brutal crackdown, both in the city and across Tibet, claiming tens of thousands of lives. The Dalai Lama was also forced to flee into exile at Dharamsala in India, where he has remained ever since.

Indo-Sino war of 1962

In October-November of 1962, India and China went to war and ended on 21 November.

While the main reason behind the war was the disputed border, the decision of India to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama only exacerbated the situation.

Cultural Revolution of 1966

After years of turmoil and the criticism he received for the Great Leap Forward, the CCP leaders launched the Cultural Revolution.

Its stated goal was to preserve Chinese communism by purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society. Gangs of students and Red Guards attacked people wearing “bourgeois clothes” on the street, “imperialist” signs were torn down and intellectuals and party officials were murdered or driven to suicide.

After violence had run its bloody course, the country’s rulers conceded it had been a catastrophe that had brought nothing but “grave disorder, damage and retrogression”.

Nixon’s visit to China

China finally came out of diplomatic isolation when United States President Richard Nixon visited the People's Republic of China in February of 1972, during which he met with CCP leader Mao Zedong.

The result of Nixon's visit to China was that Beijing agreed to a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question.

While in Shanghai, Nixon spoke about what this meant for the two countries in the future: "This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that Communique is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past. And what we have said today is that we shall build that bridge."

Deng Xiaoping becomes CCP head

After Mao Zedong's death in 1976, Deng gradually rose to supreme power and led China through a series of far-reaching market-economy reforms earning him the reputation as the "Architect of Modern China". Reforms undertaken by Deng led China away from a planned economy and opened it up to foreign investment and technology and introduced its vast labour force to the global market.

As time passed, Deng passed away and in 2012 Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the CCP and of China and carried out massive changes. At this year's plenary, Xi was also handed over a third term in office, securing his position as the most powerful leader since Mao.

Party structure

With more than 85 million members, the CCP is one of the largest political parties in the world. It is the major policy-making body in China, and it oversees that the central, provincial, and local organs of government carry out those policies.

The CCP’s structure is as follows.

Once every five years or so, a National Party Congress of some 2,000 delegates (the number varies) meets in plenary session to elect a Central Committee of about 200 full members, which in turn meets at least once annually.

Next is the Central Committee, made up of 205 members and 171 alternate members, who can participate in policy plenums but can’t vote.

The Central Committee elects a Political Bureau (Politburo) of about 20–25 full members; that body is the ruling leadership of the CCP.

The Political Bureau’s Standing Committee of about six to nine of its most-authoritative members is the highest echelon of leadership in the CCP and in the country as a whole. In practice, power flows from the top down in the CCP.

How does one join the party?

Membership is open only to Chinese nationals aged 18 and over and the application process is quite tedious. Aspirants have to submit in writing why they should be considered.

If your application is accepted, the Party will conduct background checks on their parents, family and social connections. Once vetted, they move on to an initial three-day course on ideology which covers the theories of three major leaders — Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping.

If you get through all this you are finally considered a member of the Party.

Role of CCP in China

The Communist Party of China is in complete control of the country, from the government to police to the military.

According to a BBC report, loyal membership is essential for anyone who wants to climb the ladder — be it politics, business or even entertainment. That even goes for people like e-commerce giant Alibaba's Jack Ma.

The CCP also does not welcome dissent in any form and those who speak out against authorities risk persecution.

The CCP can also be credited for China's economic growth. Since the late 1970s, the CCP has overseen the most remarkable growth economically.

What happens after Xi?

According to McGregor and Jude Blanchette from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there are four possibilities: an orderly transition in 2022; a succession plan to retire at the 21st Party Congress in 2027; a leadership challenge or unexpected death or incapacitation.

While we don’t know what is to happen in the future, one thing we do know is that Xi Jinping will stop at nothing to ensure that China emerges as the world’s most powerful nation — ahead of the United States as a fully developed modern nation.

With inputs from agencies

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From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping: How the Chinese Communist Party has grown and its role in nation building
From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping: How the Chinese Communist Party has grown and its role in nation building
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