The Chinese Communist party’s origin story, like so many of its official lines, appears to be an apocryphal tale. But a month-long patriotic extravaganza leading up to its centennial celebration has featured military parades, skyscrapers emblazoned with hammer-and-sickle decor and propaganda blitzes on TV.
None of the agitprop raised eyebrows as much as the main speech delivered by the Chinese president and general secretary of the party, Xi Jinping, in which he marked the milestone and praised China’s ‘tremendous transformation’ and the historical inevitability of its ‘national rejuvenation’.
Of course, the party has often neglected to point out that the abject state from which the nation has had to ‘rejuvenate’ was largely self-imposed by People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong. During the post-World War Two economic boom, Mao prioritized emulating other countries’ economic growth by commanding China’s agrarian economy into an industrialized one. Food production plunged as farmers left their fields and crops to work in steel production, resulting in a great famine that caused untold death. Some experts estimate the death toll to be as high as 45 million. To date there has been no moral reckoning of Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ by the CCP, which continues to primarily blame natural disasters for the famine in official party history. It wasn’t until the party gave up on its central planning and collectivist fantasies that the Chinese people were able to lift themselves out of the poverty for which the CCP was responsible in the first place.
And then came the laughable claim in Xi’s speech that China does not ‘carry aggressive or hegemonic traits in its genes’ and has never ‘bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country’. Vietnam’s history is littered with bouts of Chinese invasion, occupation and retaliation since ancient times, culminating in the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. Ask just about any local Vietnamese about war and they think China, not the US. The bad blood continues between the two countries at odds with Chinese expansionism and militarization of the South China Sea. Certainly the Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers and those on the China-India border in Ladakh would also have something to say about Xi’s denial of ‘bullying’ and ‘oppression’.
For Hong Kong, today also marks the grim one year anniversary of the implementation of the National Security Law. Since then, 117 people have been arrested under the law, popular newspaper Apple Daily was forced to close as its founder and senior executives were imprisoned, and for the first time ever, pro-democracy protests on July 1 were entirely smothered. Almost nothing has been left of the autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kong by the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework that was set to expire in 2047.
Speaking forcefully to a 70,000-strong crowd in Tiananmen Square, Xi delivered a message for China’s rivals: anyone who attempts to bully China will ‘surely break their heads on the Great Wall built with the blood and flesh of 1.4 billion Chinese people’. These comments were later edited to soften its aggressive tone in the CCP’s own English-language translation of the speech.
It was hard to miss the obvious subtext when Xi said that no one should ‘underestimate China’s resolve, will and the strong ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity’, matching rhetoric by Xi’s repeated commitment to unity with Taiwan as ‘unshakable’ and ‘promised resolute action to utterly defeat any attempt toward Taiwan’s independence’, drawing a loud roar from the crowd.
After 100 years, what does the CCP, with more than 91 million members, have to show for it? To its credit, the party has reinvented itself several times, including abandoning old Soviet models, embracing economic reforms and the ‘open-door policy’ that ushered in foreign investment and encouraged the development of the private sector. Still, its Marxist-Leninist foundation inculcated a totalitarian impulse that has never changed — and that today under Xi has only become more visible.
Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms and China ascended to the WTO in 2001 after the West had spent decades trying to get the CCP to play by the rules of the international world order. The opposite happened — the CCP eroded the world order from inside. China could have taken advantage of Western gullibility for longer, coasting for a few more decades as it played the long and quiet game, enriching itself at the expense of the West while keeping its ambitions for global domination shrouded in secrecy.
But the party’s increasing insecurity about its grip on power led China to turn inward and ultimately, with the rise of Xi Jinping who purged corruption in the politburo to preserve loyalists and removed presidential term limits, it fell back to a personality cult not seen since Mao. Steadily in the last few years and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, China has turned the world against it by proving itself to be an irresponsible world actor. For starters, after mismanaging the pandemic in its early days and shutting down domestic travel while broadcasting how banning international travel was racist, China continued to hamper independent investigations into the origins of the virus. It retaliated strongly against countries like Australia who demanded a full inquiry by slapping huge tariffs on Australian imports and then absurdly claiming that the virus came from frozen Australian meat. Aggressive vaccine diplomacy involving the questionable efficacy of Sinovac, military excursions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits and belligerent wolf-diplomacy all signal China’s deep insecurities and fragility.
Few nations have so thoroughly indoctrinated sentiments of historical grievances into the public consciousness than the Chinese about the decline and turmoil brought upon by the Opium Wars beginning in the 1840s, in what has been dubbed the ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of the West. With a party too suspicious of foreign entities and influence, too flushed in ethnocentric and national pride, too proud to reverse course and too paranoid to reciprocate on the global scene, the CCP is only hastening the demise of its global reputation.
After a century of existence, the CCP has made a strategic mistake and played its hand too early, revealing the game and the true nature of the party. How should we respond in the next century?