There is a famous story, familiar to anyone who has studied modern Chinese history, about the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Originally held at a girls’ school in Shanghai’s French Concession (current site of the reliably cringeworthy Xintiandi), the gathering had to relocate, as a result of official pressures, to a boat on a lake in Jiaxing, Zhejiang. Cunningly concealing the meeting from spying eyes by setting up mahjong tables and pretending to be gambling whenever another boat approached, the Party’s charter, unable to be completed and passed in Shanghai, was finally certified on Jiaxing’s South Lake.
I recall the countless times I have seen the story written in official histories, or heard it narrated in classrooms or museums. Each time there is this curiously giddy sense of excitement about the details, with the story providing all of the elements necessary to make communism seem cool again: meeting in secret, official pressures and police raids, fleeing repression, cunningly disguising the meeting, seeming genuinely “revolutionary” and “subversive,” and eventually emerging victorious against all odds.
No one, however, has stopped to ask: could a boat on a lake provide enough security for a group of activists to establish a party of their own in China today, a century later? Or would every participant already have been rounded up and sent for years of re-education before they even reached the dock?
This story is just one example of the myths that circulate nowadays to reimagine the drab, oppressive, and outright sadistic Chinese Communist Party as exciting, dynamic, and heroic. This is, in my reading, what the Chinese Communist Party does best: rhetorically reconstructing an oppressive dictatorship that has lived well past its expiration date as the secret to prosperity and happiness in China.
So, to mark the Chinese Communist Party’s one-hundredth birthday on July 1st, 2021, I would like to use this week’s column (recently relocated from the now disappeared Apple Daily) to deconstruct ten key myths (one for each decade) through which the Party presents its model as anything other than an outmoded totalitarianism that completely fails to meet the needs of China’s increasingly dynamic and complex society.
1. “The Chinese Communist Party has lifted [mind-bogglingly large number of] people out of poverty.”
This is one of the most commonly cited myths about the Chinese Communist Party, popular not only in China but also abroad, where the formula “China= big numbers= excitement” always has an eager, gullible audience.
It is also one of the most easily deconstructed myths, so I will move through it quickly. For the first thirty years of its rule, the Chinese Communist Party literally forced people into poverty in the name of a political fantasy: communism. In the forty years since the Chinese Communist Party gave up on this fantasy, it has not so much lifted people out of poverty as it has stopped proactively forcing people into it, setting aside all types of unnatural restrictions on economic activity, thereby allowing the Chinese people to finally lift themselves out of poverty.
As the Chinese people have lifted themselves out of the poverty that the Party produced and reinforced, the Party has taken credit for this prosperity, attempting to enhance its sagging legitimacy. It would be very nice if the Chinese Communist Party could, rather than obscuring this reality, actually learn a lesson from it: step aside and allow the Chinese people to lift themselves out of dictatorship.
2. “The Chinese Communist Party is an anti-imperialist and anti-feudal political organization.”
I can understand that after the Chinese Communist Party gave up on the inevitably failed idea of communism, there was a need to continue to stand for something, or rather against something. However, in the attempt to oppose something (e.g. feudalism or imperialism), it is greatly helpful if one is not also practicing that particular something. I can see how the Party could became confused on this point, on account of the whole practicing capitalism in the name of communism thing: such hypocrisy does not, however, work for everything.
The Chinese Communist Party’s imperialism stretches back to its initial exercise of dictatorial power over the vast expanses of the Qing empire, and extends to this day in its colonization of Tibet, East Turkestan, Mongolia, Macau, Hong Kong, and its increasingly shrill imperialist threats against Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party’s feudalism, basically Party-speak for out-of-date traditions, can be seen in its continuing practice of Qin-Han totalitarianism under the illusory pretext of a radical break with tradition. Mao was a new emperor, and all of these years and all of these reforms later, Xi very obviously has the same aspirations: the eternal return of the emperor figure.
A century after its founding, anyone who cares about China at all would naturally hope that the Chinese Communist Party could have evolved beyond elevating the leader of the day to the status of a deity, treating his every word as some sort of absolute truth, and viewing any disagreement as apostasy. That is, however, where we find ourselves today, again.
3. “The Chinese Communist Party leadership is composed of technocrats with engineering degrees who have grand plans, thinking in terms not just of years, but decades.”
Hmm, yeah, it’s so cool how so many leaders of the Chinese Communist Party have advanced degrees in engineering. Might I kindly suggest that these leaders consider retiring from matters of governance, focusing instead on engineering? Society, after all, cannot be engineered, no matter what people with engineering degrees or communist party memberships might say to the contrary.
In fact, in matters of governance, having a fancy degree in an irrelevant topic would seem to primarily result in false confidence in one’s decision making.
I will openly admit that I do not have an advanced degree in demographics. I did not even take a college-level class on the topic. But even with my complete and utter lack of expertise, even I know that forcing a few generations of families to have only one child could have devastating demographic consequences. How this only became apparent to the master thinkers of Zhongnanhai in recent years is truly beyond comprehension.
4. “The Chinese Communist Party has developed its own form of consultative democracy that accords with Chinese tradition.”
This talking point was really popular about a decade ago. In retrospect, it is actually quite funny to think that in the twenty-first century the Chinese Communist Party and its boosters thought that the existence of discussion between less than a dozen well-connected men in their seventies behind closed doors in Zhongnanhai was somehow a symbol of democracy.
This talking point has, however, faded away in recent years as Xi Jinping has gradually become a Kim Jong-un emulator. We no longer hear about the thrills of consultative democracy with Chinese characteristics, and have now redirected our energies to memorizing the latest teachings of wise Chairman Xi.
5. “The Chinese Communist Party is a meritocracy that picks the best of the best to lead.”
Sounds nice, but that’s not how it works.
Xi Jinping’s dad was veteran “revolutionary” Xi Zhongxun. I hate to break it to you, but that is really why he runs China: not because he did a good job in Xiamen in the 1980s or whatever.
The other prime candidate for leadership a few years back was Bo Xilai, whose dad was veteran “revolutionary” Bo Yibo.
It would indeed be really cool and counter-intuitive and thus exciting if the closed CCP system actually picked the most skilled people, regardless of their background and connections, to run the country. But that is totally not the case. The CCP is the classic ole boys’ club, with one generation of leaders producing the next generation of leaders: North Korea with slightly better advertising.
6. “The Chinese Communist Party leadership has achieved the stable, orderly, and institutionalized transfer of power between generations of leaders.”
This talking point was also really popular about a decade ago. I am not sure that Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, or Ling Jihua would agree that the latest transition was really all that stable, orderly, or institutionalized. Yet this is definitely a moot point now that Xi Zhongxun’s son shows no interest in the transfer of power: not to even mention the stable, orderly, and institutionalized transfer of power.
On the issue of institutionalization, if one guy with a worker-peasant-soldier engineering degree can wreck your institutions, I would say that this transfer of power practice was perhaps not all that institutionalized in the first place.
7. “The Chinese Communist Party enjoys genuine support from the Chinese people.”
There are international polling organizations that attempt to do public opinion surveys in China. It’s a nice idea, and some of the findings are potentially interesting, depending upon how they are read.
Far too many people, however, love to read these polls in the most naïve way possible, and then talk up the stated support that the CCP enjoys therein: approval ratings are, to put it gently, through the roof! If one worked at CGTN or was extremely naïve, one could use this data to say that the CCP has the bases of legitimacy: just that it is a different sort of legitimacy from what we haughty Westerners expect.
In response to such a horribly banal line of argument masquerading as learned, I would like to propose a thought experiment: a public opinion polling organization that does surveys of hostages in the middle of bank robberies. What do you think of your captors? Are they great guys? Do you fully support their efforts to take the money out of the bank vault?
Approval ratings would again likely be through the roof!
Yet there remains the possibility that this stated support grows not solely out of fear, as seen in the example above, but is in fact a genuine belief. Yet even if this support is genuine, it does not mean that it is natural. After all, from the educational system to the media system, every social system in China today is dedicated to forcefully promoting the idea that the rule of the Chinese Communist Party is great and that everyone should be extremely thankful to them.
It also does not mean that the Chinese Communist Party is a legitimate or even morally acceptable government: a matter that is, after all, not determined by opinion polls. If there had been public opinion polling in Nazi Germany, for example, I am afraid that approval ratings would have been quite high: this does not change the nature of that era, nor of the crimes committed by that regime.
8. “The Chinese Communist Party handled the coronavirus pandemic extremely well compared to other countries.”
This myth, which has picked up a lot of steam over the past year, is based in the type of historical amnesia upon which the Chinese Communist Party thrives. It is obvious that there was a massive cover-up of the spread of COVID in 2019 and 2020: weeks before the Party acknowledged human-to-human transmission, I knew without a doubt, simply from reading social media, that there was widespread human transmission. Beyond January 2020, the initial cover-up extends back into December, November, or even earlier in 2019.
The Chinese Communist Party has furthermore gone to unprecedented lengths to delay and block any remotely independent investigation into the origins of this virus. The fact that the world sits on its hands and shrugs while the Party refuses to even be honest about a pandemic that has killed millions globally simply shows how much the world compromises with the CCP’s misbehavior.
So, if you think that covering up a disease that then spread around the world and killed millions before blocking any independent and honest inquiry into its origins is “handling the pandemic well,” then I can only say that we have very different definitions of “handling well.”
9. “We need to continue to engage with the Chinese Communist Party to encourage forward-thinking democratically-minded reformist officials inside the Party.”
Unless you have a time machine that allows us to travel back the 1980s, this is not a realistic plan.
There was a time when it was possible to place some type of hope in figures like Hu Yaobang or Zhao Ziyang. I would hesitate to say that they were genuinely democratically minded, but they were certainly much better than other officials that have followed them. Since the massacre of 1989 and the hard-line turn in politics that resulted, reform-minded officials in China have been reliably sidelined.
There is always plenty of talk about factions within the Party, but whatever one makes of these factions, all have a common interest in the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2021, as Hong Kong’s freedoms are stripped away, millions of Uyghurs are held indefinitely in concentration camps, and Taiwan faces daily threats of invasion, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that there is some liberal faction in the Party that we can somehow “empower” with our “engagement.” Such optimism is the opium of the analysts.
10. “The Chinese Communist Party is essential to China’s rise.”
The greatest trick that the Chinese Communist Party has achieved in its century of existence is linking its continued rule to China’s rise to great power status in the minds of its subjects. This is an absolutely essential ideological operation, insofar as the Party is imagined as indispensable to China’s “rise,” a goal which is imagined to be linked to the dignity and prosperity of each individual therein.
As a result of this ideological construction, one thus has an active stake in the strength of the Party that is at the same time one’s oppressor. Criticizing the Chinese Communist Party and its misrule comes to be viewed not as honest discussion of the shortcomings of the system, but is rather seen as an attempt to hinder China’s rise, which is in turn imagined to be a direct threat against oneself that must be opposed.
This myth is extremely damaging, insidious, and self-reproducing: it helps to block reflection on the Party’s many failures, quarantining any discussion of these failings as a conspiratorial attempt to undermine the regime, the country, and the self.
The only path forward is recognizing that the key to unleashing China’s potential is a thorough, unforgiving, and unrelenting critique of the Chinese Communist Party and its stranglehold on politics and society.
100 years is, after all, far too long.