A journey like no other


The Communist Party of China will celebrate its 100th anniversary in July. From an organization with barely a few dozen members in 1921, when it held its first congress, it has now grown to over 90 million members. That is larger than the population of most countries. Its membership has changed as China itself has changed over the last seven decades since the Party came to power. 

From an early era in which its key leaders were from a largely rural background, and with military leaders taking the key positions, today it has hundreds of Party schools teaching executive education in order to continue to professionalize its officials. The cultural and educational background of the average Party member today is very different from that of those in the 1950s and 1960s.

For the outside world, the CPC is hard to understand well. First, of course, there is the very big impediment caused by the different political systems and models of the West and China. The word might be the same, but “party” in the Western political systems carries a wholly different set of meanings, and works in a different context, to that which prevails in China. 

As I argued in my book The China Dream, in many ways the CPC is not just a political movement but a cultural one. It has a set of practices, a language, a narrative of its own history with which it creates meaning, that take it far beyond the more limited field of operations of political parties in the United States or the United Kingdom.

History certainly matters to the CPC. This is not just about the events in history and what interpretation is given to these, but also about the philosophical view underpinning all of this. For the Party, history is a purposeful, forward moving and progressive. 

The celebration of the Party’s anniversary, therefore, is in some senses also the preparation for the next stage of its development — the path to 2049 and the centenary of the foundation of the country itself.

The Party has been in power during an era in which China has undergone an epic process of modernization. There have been significant challenges along the way. The simple reality is, however, that today, the Chinese people are vastly better off than they were when the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. 

They live more than twice as long, for a start. They enjoy immeasurably better material levels of living. They are vastly more educated and healthier. 

Political differences between the West and China mean that this aspect of the country’s development is often overlooked, or at least set in a context in which it is assumed that these things would have happened anyway. One cannot prove counterfactuals. A different path might have led to different outcomes for China today, for sure. But there is no way of knowing if they would have been better or worse. 

All we can say is that it would be fatuous to deny that the lives of Chinese people in 2021 are better than they have been at any time in modern history. 

Economic and development data from the World Bank and the Chinese government testify to this. That in itself is an important fact to ponder: The well-being of 1.4 billion people is of massive importance to the rest of humanity. That a huge number of these are better off and that absolute poverty has been eradicated in the country, are major achievements not just for China, but for the world as a whole.

I first visited China in 1991. Thirty years later, I can say even in my own small way I have been able to witness some of these changes.

One thing this sort of personal experience has made me aware of is the crucial importance of understanding at least some of the history of where China, and the Party, had come from, and how they have developed. For the Party, its historical roots, its struggles before 1949 as it came to power, and its experiences under the various leaders in power since then, are important. 

There are plenty of scholars in the West who do look closely at many different aspects of the Party’s development, ideology and practice. There are also, however, quite a few who take an almost a historical view, and speak about the Party today as though it just appeared, as if from nowhere, and has no story of where it came from, and why it is the way it is.

In 2021, there will be plenty of commentary about the Party outside of China. It will be interesting to pay attention to how much of this does show awareness of the importance of history to this organization, and how impossible it is to understand it without knowing something of this history. 

Remembering how arduous the Party’s struggle was to come to power, and the enormity of the challenges it has faced since, helps to appreciate why the achievements of China today matter so much to its story. They are things the world needs to consider more and have a broader view of. That would at least restore a little more balance to views about China in the outside world today.

The author is a professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.