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Last month marked the centennial of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC). In the 100 years since its establishment — and 72 years in power — China has transformed from an impoverished, fragmented, and semi-colonized nation into a unified global economic powerhouse. In less than a decade to come, China will become the biggest economy in the world in GDP nominal terms.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, political commentators and western policymakers have been predicting the fall of China. Some even believed that China would transform into a liberal democracy as it developed and globalized. But China has not fallen and it has not turned into a democracy. The communist party retains its complete monopoly over state power in the absence of multiparty democracy. Moreover, despite being in power for so long, there appears to be little palpable anger against the government. Instead, under Xi Jinping, the Chinese state and communist party is only looking more resolute. Internally, whatever muted criticism there is regards efficiency and social justice within the system, rather than for regime change.
Around the world, there is enormous curiosity regarding the ability of the party to maintain a monopoly over the state for such an extended period of time. A simplistic answer would be censorship and the threat of violence, but a more complex and nuanced analysis requires assessing the social contract between the party, the government, and the people.
A social contract, as first discussed by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is the hypothetical (or actual) compact between the ruler and the ruled that entails the latter giving up certain freedoms and rights and submitting to the authority of the former in exchange for protection and the maintenance of the social order.
To maintain its hold over the Chinese state and society, the communist party has presented various social contracts before the Chinese people over the course of its 70 plus years in power. The terms of these social contracts are crucial to understanding the foundational basis for the stability and legitimacy of one-party rule in China.
The foundational promise of territorial integrity, or first contract on unity
Nearly two centuries ago, China was on the cusp of being formally colonized. It faced a shameful defeat to the British in the Opium Wars (1840), resulting in its resources being pillaged and its people exploited. To liberate the nation from this humiliation, various political experiments were tried — the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom Movement, the Reform Movement of 1898, the Yihetuan Movement, and the Revolution of 1911 to overthrow the Manchu dynasty. Yet none succeeded.
At around the same time, in Tsarist Russia, the erstwhile ruling elite was decapitated, establishing the rule of the proletariat that became a source of inspiration for many around the world. Among them was Mao Zedong, who envisioned transforming China’s feudal agriculturalist society into an industrial powerhouse that would win back the glory of China’s past. In 1921, the political ideas that would transform the Chinese nation through a communist revolution were formalized with the establishment of the communist party.
Over three decades, Mao led an armed communist struggle in the Chinese civil war against the Chiang Kai-shek republican army, and an anti-colonial movement against the Japanese. He was finally able to capture the state in 1949. Who contributed more to the anti-Japan struggle is contentious, but nonetheless, the Chinese people’s trust in the ideals espoused by the communist leader became the genesis for the communist victory in the civil war.
With the victory of the communists and the end of the civil war, the party's promise of creating an independent sovereign united China became tenable. In the 50s and 60s, the party leadership embarked on territorial consolidation, establishing direct central control over ‘autonomous regions’ — areas with significant minority populations like Tibet and Xinjiang. Moreover, when it felt that the fall of Korea would be disastrous to China’s territorial integrity, it did not hesitate to go to war against the powerful United States, cementing the communist commitment to defend the national interest in the eyes of the people.
Never again will there be death by hunger, or second contract on poverty
With territorial consolidation, another equally, or even more, difficult task before the communist party was to transform China economically. Initially taking inspiration from the Soviets and their economic success, China adopted a centralized economic policy. Additionally, technology transfers, along with financial and skilled labor assistance from the Soviets, a centrally planned system became fundamental to the Chinese economy.
However, by 1958, China was starting to realize the limitations of central planning. Given its vast territory and massive rural population, the central government made an administrative change, giving more autonomy to the provinces but still maintaining a degree of direct control from Beijing.
Yet, the economic situation remained the same. Then, China under Mao embarked on the Great Leap Forward in order to transform agriculture through collective farming. People were sent to work on farms but production didn’t improve, instead, millions died of hunger. With the failure of the Great Leap Forward, other leaders began to doubt Mao’s ability to lead the party, sidelining him from governance. Disgruntled, Mao, with the help of radical young people, launched the Cultural Revolution.
The Cultural Revolution is among the most devastating episodes in Chinese history and a blemish on CPC rule. Millions died, senior leaders were purged, many historical artifacts destroyed. The process lasted until the death of Mao in 1976.
Deng Xiaoping emerged victorious in the leadership role and Deng, unlike Mao, was more pragmatic than idealistic. He understood the need for the party to change its approach to development, especially amidst China’s widespread poverty, hunger, and low productivity.
Learning from the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Deng and the Chinese leadership made a promise to the people that another similar disaster resulting in the deaths of millions would not happen again under the CPC. This led Deng and the CPC to the third contract with the Chinese people.
Economic autonomy, or the third contract on economic freedom
With Deng firmly at the helm by 1978, immediate attention was placed on economic reform, as there was an urgent need to salvage China’s revolutionary legacy from the legacy of the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Based on the two broad principles of incentivization and decentralization of authority, various reforms were undertaken over the next three decades to transform China into a prosperous nation.
The process began with the reform of the agriculture sector. In 1978, more than 80 percent (almost 800 million) of the Chinese population lived in rural areas and more than 70 percent of the Chinese workforce was employed in agriculture. The crippling collective farming policy was put to an end and a household responsibility system was introduced, which granted usage rights to farmers. Under this policy, farmers were given autonomy over their land with incentives for greater production; yet, the land was/is still publicly owned. This simple yet significant step became an important driving force in poverty reduction in the first decade of reform.
Similarly, gauging the experience of the Asian Tigers, Beijing relaxed its central command, giving more autonomy to the provinces and city levels to experiment with economic policy. Consequently, competition among various provinces attracted and expanded industries. Officials from better-performing state enterprises and provinces were given lucrative promotions in both the state apparatus and the party hierarchy.
However, these reforms were not enough to encompass a broad spectrum of the population who felt left out of the state enterprise-driven growth structure. Furthermore, the wealth gap, corruption, lack of freedoms, and a global wave against communism led to massive protests across China, culminating in the protests at Tiananmen square in 1989. Feeling a threat to their power, the communist leadership suppressed the protests ruthlessly, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths.
Yet, after crushing the protest and reevaluating the overall condition of the nation, the party presented another contract before the people, where citizens could have full economic autonomy, allowing them to own and operate private businesses. Politics, however, would continue to be the sole prerogative of the communist party.
While the reforms in the 80s focused on competition among state enterprises, the new reforms post-Tiananmen encouraged private entrepreneurship, with the introduction of company laws and the concept of limited liability. But official legal protection of private business was only guaranteed after an amendment to the Chinese constitution under Article 13 in 2004. Nonetheless, the scale and success of market reform were such that private companies, which accounted for approx zero percent of the GDP in 1990, contributed almost 60 percent by 2020.
Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, or fourth contract on dignity
Today, China under the CPC is far stronger and its territory more secure than ever. China has eradicated absolute poverty and is becoming a more modern and prosperous nation. After achieving many of its promises and centennial goals, China as a nation is looking forward to new goals in the decades ahead.
During the CPC’s centenary celebrations, Chinese President and party General Secretary Xi Jinping presented another contract before the people — a promise of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. In his speech, Xi claimed to be “marching in confident strides toward the second centenary goal of building China into a great modern socialist country”. This new proposal is in essence a commitment from Xi on behalf of the party and the state to reclaim China’s rightful place in the world as its leading power. As usual, in return for stability and absolute acceptance of the one-party rule, the leadership promised to turn China into a great, prosperous, and powerful modern socialist nation.
Xi’s flagship projects — the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with 103 members representing 79 percent of the global population and 65 percent of global GDP, and the recently concluded Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) encompassing 30 percent of the world’s population and around a third of global GDP countering US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — are some of the steps already taken by the Chinese government to fulfill its global ambitions.
Faring with the global communist movement
The CPC, however, is not the only communist party that has floated such social contracts. From the erstwhile Soviet Union to Nepal’s own leftists, communist parties across the globe have presented similar contracts before the people. Not all of them have been as successful as the Chinese. For instance, in Nepal, communists have been among the major political forces since 1990, but they have always failed to deliver on their commitments, despite getting repeated mandates from the people.
The Nepali Maoists, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, took up arms to bring about a proletariat revolution. The movement had a fair amount of support in remote rural hill areas. Initially, when they decided to give up their armed rebellion and join peaceful politics, their support grew across society. The Maoists, who had demonstrated their commitment to uplift the people by taking up arms to fulfill their agenda, received a massive electoral mandate the first time they contested the polls. However, instead of focusing on economic development, the priority for the Maoists was state capture. An example of this agenda was Dahal’s attempts to remove the Nepal Army chief, their arch-rival during the civil war. Their misplaced priority and failure to meet the people's expectations ultimately cost the Maoists their credibility, and since then, the party has been in a constant state of decline.
The CPN-UML, another major Nepali communist party, is no different. After the de facto blockade by India post-enactment of the 2015 constitution, the hardline nationalist stance taken up by UML party chair KP Sharma Oli won him much support from the beleaguered Nepali populace. Similarly, when the UML forged an electoral alliance with the Maoists with a commitment to stability and development, the voting public gave a thumping majority to the communist alliance in the 2017 polls. Interestingly, the CPC was one of the biggest supporters of the communist alliance in Nepal.
Naturally, during the communist government, Nepal and the ruling parties’ engagement with the Chinese increased drastically. Moreover, the CPC even took to training Nepali communists in Xi Jinping Thought ahead of Xi’s visit to Nepal in 2019. Moreover, as an intra-party rift began to emerge in the ruling alliance, Hou Yanqi, China’s ambassador to Nepal, played a proactive role in preserving the unity of the communist alliance. Nevertheless, Nepal’s communist leaders failed to resolve their differences, ultimately leading to the dissolution of the largest and most powerful communist force that Nepal had ever seen. With the leadership focused on internal squabbling, the promises made to people were placed on the backburner, only exacerbating disillusionment with the entire communist movement.
Compared to other communist movements around the world, the demise of the Nepal Communist Party was of its own making.
The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) imploded due to a structural failure rather than a leadership crisis. Under the communist party, the Soviet Union transformed from a poverty-stricken European backwater to a major global power. This was the utmost legitimizing factor in the eyes of its people. However, by the mid-70s, the Soviets were facing an economic downturn and growth stagnation. To address the simmering frustration in society, the CPSU promised to carry out a massive overhaul of the system. This ultimately resulted in the implementation of two broad reforms: glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring). However, the economic reform couldn’t deliver tangible prosperity and at the same time, political openness allowed the dissent to foment, providing a perfect atmosphere for revolt.
In India too, the communist movement has almost faded and is confined only to Kerala. In West Bengal, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led a Left-Front alliance government in 1977 on the promise of agricultural reform and industrial labor rights. As the party demonstrated its commitment by implementing its stated policies, it reaped dividends from the people in the elections for more than three decades. However, due to this policy, Bengal, once the heartland of the Indian industry, lost its position to western and southern states. Facing the crisis, the party presented a new social contract around 2006-7 focusing on industrial development to prevent a massive migration of Bengalis to other provinces in search of jobs. However, the communist party was unable to deliver on its new commitment, causing a lack of faith in the party.
The farmer protest against land acquisition for industrial projects led to the infamous exit of the Tata Nano car project from Bengal. In the process, the party alienated its core support base — the farmers and workers — but failed to gain a new base in the emerging middle class. Mamata Banerjee, matriarch of the Trinamool Congress, capitalized on the breakdown of the communist social contract and presented her own plans before the people, bringing on board the former communist supporters to end 34 years of Communist rule in West Bengal.
CPC, a party with differences
As the diverse experiences of communist parties around the world show, there is no fixed solution for success. But from the experience of the CPC, it appears that the ability of leaders and the party to understand the overarching sentiments and aspirations of society can allow parties to continue to garner faith in their ability to govern. In China too, the CPC has faced many challenges that threatened its absolute rule. Even today, China continues to deal with corruption, growing income disparities, and a wealth gap among provinces and regions, which could become potential irritants to party rule.
But despite being in power for long, it is remarkable that the CPC remains vigilant and sensitive towards public sentiment. In recent years, the party under Xi Jinping has embarked on an ambitious anti-corruption campaign after taking stock of growing public anger towards corruption within the system. Yet, his heavy-handed approach has not only tightened his grip on the party but also evoked fear. For instance, the recent crackdown on large technology companies like Alibaba and Didi over access to enormous personal data of over a billion citizens is of critical importance to the party. But such actions will serve as a major hindrance in China’s ambition to become globally dominant in the digital arena.
Only time will tell if the Chinese people will continue to accept the new pact proffered by the CPC. As long as a significant majority of Chinese citizens continue to trust the party and have faith in its party leadership to achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation — and as long as the party itself continues to adapt and learn from both its mistakes and success — it appears that the CPC will continue to reign over China.
Robin Sharma Robin Sharma is a graduate of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad and holds an LLM from Tel Aviv University, Israel. He is a Kathmandu-based lawyer.
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