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100 Years of Chinese Communist Party: Pride and Prejudice

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As China marks the centenary of its ruling party, we examine key episodes in its tempestuous history, including the Long March, Mao’s purges and Xi Jinping’s rise to the top of an emerging superpower.

The Chinese Communist Party boasts 92 million members from all walks of life, drawn by ideology, ambition, and the pragmatic knowledge of how to get ahead in the world’s second-largest economy.

But little is known about the inner workings of the secretive organisation, where open criticism is still taboo.

 
  • 1921: The first meeting

Anyone visiting First Meeting Hall in Shanghai, the museum recreating the site of the first conclave of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) in 1921, will also find themselves in one of the city’s fanciest districts.

The precise time of the meeting is murky, and 1 July was chosen by Mao Zedong years later for commemoration when he couldn’t remember the exact date on which the dozen or so comrades had held their conclave.

In addition to the Chinese at the meeting in the city’s French Concession, including Mao, there was one representative of the Comintern, or the Communist International. For a period, some attendees were airbrushed out of official accounts, as they were later accused of collaborating with the Imperial army in the treacherous civil war and Japanese occupation in the 1930s.

In 21st-century China, such apparently glaring incongruities – allowing one of the party’s “sacred sites” to sit amid a yuppie wonderland of upmarket shops and restaurants – barely generates a resigned sigh these days, let alone criticism.

“People can see the progress of the party,” Xia Jianming, the Shanghai party school’s director general, told me when I visited some years back. “This [setting] is a kind of harmony. In our society, people of different levels may have different ways of meeting their requirements.”

1934: The Long March

As origin stories go, the Long March is hard to beat. With Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists gaining the upper hand in their struggle for power, the Communist armies embarked on a series of lengthy retreats into the hinterland.

Mao Zedong on the Long March in Shaanxi province in 1934 or 1935.
Mao Zedong on the Long March in Shaanxi province in 1934 or 1935. Photograph: Fototeca Storica Nazionale./Getty Images

As the historian Jonathan Spence wrote, for all the mythology and embellishments later added to the tale, the Long March “was an astonishing saga of danger and survival against terrible odds”.

The end point was Yan’an in Shaanxi province, in north-central China, the Communist base camp from 1935-47, in readiness for the revolution to come. Mao took over as leader in 1935 and instigated a series of purges that would come to typify his leadership of the CCP until his death in 1976. Being holed up far from the invading Japanese had its advantages. Although the CCP doesn’t highlight it, the burden of the fighting against Imperial Japan was borne by Chiang and his armies, who also suffered the bulk of the casualties.

1949: Revolution

After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the leadership of China was in play again. The Communist armies’ relative isolation had allowed them to maintain their strength, with the ability not just to conduct guerrilla campaigns but to wage all-out war against a tottering Chiang.

Communist troops on the march during the assault on Shanghai at the end of the Chinese Civil War, 21 May 1949.
Communist troops on the march during the assault on Shanghai at the end of the Chinese Civil War, 21 May 1949. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

The Nationalists had more modern equipment, but the Communists had better generals. By 1949, Beijing, or Peking as it was known then, fell almost without a fight into the Communist hands. Mao’s portrait replaced that of Chiang above the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the entrance to the Forbidden City.

The CCP took over a country that had been ravaged by decades of conflict. They had to send armies to quell Xinjiang and Tibet to plant the flag of the new republic. Mao’s first trip was to the Soviet Union, with which he formed an uncomfortable partnership to offset US sanctions.

Chiang, meanwhile, relocated his government in exile to the former Japanese colony of Taiwan, an island that Beijing covets to this day.

1958/1965: Calamity

The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution can be lumped together – two humanitarian disasters wreaked on the country by Mao. To this day, their legacy scars the body politic in China.

The first was a man-made famine, triggered by Mao’s attempt to rapidly industrialise China. Farmers were forced to build backyard furnaces. Grain output collapsed, and between 35 million and 40 million people starved to death, a figure confirmed by Chinese historians. (No, this was not a CIA plot.)

The Cultural Revolution was set off in 1965 when Mao, fearing rivals, turned young Red Guards on the political system. “Bombard the headquarters,” went the slogan, a tactic successfully mimicked decades later by Donald Trump.

Red Guards brandishing copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, as they parade in Beijing’s streets during the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966.
Red Guards brandishing copies of Mao’s Little Red Book, as they parade in Beijing’s streets during the Cultural Revolution, launched in 1966. Photograph: Jean Vincent/AFP/Getty Images

In the words of one Sinologist, it was a “revolution on a revolution that wasn’t revolutionary enough”. Millions were killed, families were broken up and the economy was driven into the ground.

The CCP doesn’t like to talk about either event and still limits criticism of Mao, even more so under Xi Jinping. As Justin Trudeau remarked last week, China doesn’t do truth and reconciliation commissions.

The violence, destruction and chaos has since been leveraged by the CCP to support its own often harsh rule. The alternative, Chinese officials say, is a return to the chaos that took hold then.

1976: The arrest of the Gang of Four

There are moments in time which can genuinely change a country, and the direction of world history. The death of Mao in September 1976 was one such turning point.

The atmosphere in Beijing was already febrile. Zhou Enlai, his foreign minister, had died earlier in the year, unleashing an outpouring of grief on the streets of the Chinese capital. The protests channelled a swell of public anger about the depredations of dictatorship.

Mao’s death unleashed a power struggle between the Gang of Four, the ultra-leftists led by Jiang Qing, or Madame Mao; and reformers including Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng, Mao’s designated successor.

Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, on trial in Beijing in November 1980.
Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, on trial in Beijing in November 1980. Photograph: AFP

The Gang of Four were masters of manipulation, of the media and the Red Guards, and expert in the political invective that was the very stuff of China’s radical politics.

But the reformers managed to win the loyalty of the Central Security Bureau, also known as the Central Bodyguard Bureau. About a month after Mao’s death, the army unit – the equivalent of the US Secret Service – arrested Jiang Qing and her comrades in the dead of night in Beijing. The four were imprisoned and later tried in 1980-81, a trial staged in public at the moment China was finally opening up.

1978: Reform and opening

CCP insiders know it by its bland official name, as the third plenum of the 11th Central Committee. Held in December 1978 in the Jingxi hotel in west Beijing, the meeting built on the reforming energy unleashed by the arrest of the Gang of Four three years earlier. The plenum decisively repudiated Mao’s political style and economic legacy, kickstarting the process of reform that has made China the superpower-in-waiting that it is today.

A host of leaders who had been banished in the Cultural Revolution – collectively, they were known as the “fell off the stage” group – were rehabilitated. Mass class struggle ended. Market reforms that had started in the countryside were built on.

The next year, China approved its first special economic zones, small pockets of the country like Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong, where the market was given freer rein. Deng Xiaoping, in the conventional telling of the story, gets the credit for these reforms and several “Man of the Year” covers on Time magazine. More recent research says credit should also go to his much-maligned predecessor, Hua Guofeng. Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was also instrumental in setting up the first special economic zones in southern China.

Still, Deng’s instincts were right. As one of his advisers said: “Deng didn’t know much about the economy. He just knew he wanted fast development.”

1989: Tiananmen Square

The mass protests which culminated in what is often called the Tiananmen Square massacre – it is more accurate to call it the Beijing massacre, as the protesters had been removed from the square before the shooting started – were about many things. They came at the end of Chinese communism’s most freewheeling decade, when private businesses were allowed to prosper for the first time and when political reform was openly discussed. By the end of the decade, however, students and workers were getting angry about corruption, inflation and floods of imports, Japanese electronics and the like which only the newly wealthy could afford, and a lack of democracy.

A man blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Blvd in Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989.
A man blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Cangan Blvd in Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989. Photograph: Jeff Widener/Associated Press

The death of Hu Yaobang, the popular former party secretary who had been toppled in 1987, sent them into the streets. Months later, the capital paralyzed by the protests, they were blasted out by the People’s Liberation Army. The impact of the military crackdown was profound, as evidenced by the fact that the CCP has tried to erase it from popular Chinese memory. The reputation of the military took years to recover. China’s standing in the world suffered immensely. Most importantly, the leadership decided that while economic reform could go on, party rule had to be tightened.

2001: The private sector

The irony, at least for westerners, is that Chinese communism has survived and prospered because of the very thing that Marxism was meant to wipe out – a profit-hungry private sector.

Jiang Zemin, the party chief from 1989 until 2002, was smart enough to recognize the value of entrepreneurs, who had begun to flourish in the 1980s. In 2001, Jiang pushed through a policy change to welcome them into the party as members in good standing.

Polo teams from Oxford and Cornell universities at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin in 2016.
Polo teams from Oxford and Cornell universities at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in Tianjin in 2016. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

There had always been “red capitalists” in the CCP who had survived by handing over their assets after the revolution and helped manage state businesses and foreign exchange. But this was different – a reform that would literally change the face of the party.

Around the same time, Jiang’s tough-talking premier, Zhu Rongji, negotiated China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, another reform that would, in this case, transform the global economy.

Jiang was attacked as “unmarxist” for letting entrepreneurs into the party. Zhu was assailed for putting the economy at the mercy of predatory foreigners. The strength of the party and the Chinese economy today has more than vindicated both reforms.

2008: The west in crisis

If you are looking for moments when Beijing made threshold decisions to compete head-to-head with the west, and US military power in particular, two confrontations come to mind.

In 1996, Beijing shelled the waters near Taiwan to demonstrate its fury at the island’s first democratic presidential election (and its eventual winner) but was humiliated by its powerlessness to influence the process. It swore this would never happen again.

In 2013, China built islands in disputed waters in the South China Sea and then turned them into military bases without the US seriously responding, demonstrating how far the country had come.

But 2008, and the global financial crisis, was the event that psychologically ties these revanchist sentiments together. While the west plunged into a prolonged crisis, Beijing launched a massive stimulus and quickly returned its economy to grow. For the country’s leaders, this was a pivotal moment.

Their system had proved its worth. America, by contrast, which has been tutoring China for years about how to run a financial system and manage risk, turned out to have feet of clay.

2018: Leader for life

The conventional view of many in democracies is that China does economic, but not political, reform. From a Chinese perspective, however, that’s wrong.

Within the CCP, there has been substantial reform since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping introduced measures to ensure the country was never lumbered with another dictator like Mao.

The cornerstone was de facto terms limits on the top position in the country, of party secretary of the Communist Party, effectively giving him (and it has always been him) two five-year terms and no more.

The CCP, in effect, solved the big problem faced by most authoritarian states, of how to ensure a peaceful transfer of power. No one benefited from this reform more than Xi himself when he took power in 2012.

Images of Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China.
Images of Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

In 2018, by abolishing term limits on the presidency, Xi threw that reform out, effectively making himself a leader in perpetuity. Xi has lots of disparate enemies, but nothing has united them in fury like this measure, which harks back to the bad old days of dictatorship.

Xi completes his second five-year term towards the end of next year. No one expects him to step down, and it is not clear whether he will start to groom a successor.

Xi may keep China stable. Equally, he may be setting the party up for its greatest fear, a full-blown succession crisis, and an ugly split at the top.

As Xi Jinping consolidates power, softening of stance at LAC unlikely: Indian Perspective

China will mark the 100th anniversary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on 1 July. Xi Jinping, party’s general secretary and the country’s president, is treating the centenary of the outfit’s establishment in July 1921 as an epochal event — both to showcase China’s rise as a model for the world to follow and to cement his place in the CCP pantheon as next only to founder Mao Zedong.

Xi is aware that China is locked in an ideological struggle with democracies — a battle that US president Joe Biden has termed as ‘existential’ — and needs myth-making to keep party cadres ready for ‘sacrifice’. This is a continuous process, but the centenary celebrations provide a useful reference point.

To promote Communist rule and establish it as intrinsic to national rejuvenation, as well as reinforce (or implant) the ‘red gene’ in generations old and new, Xi is busy revising the history of the Communist Party to disseminate the “correct” narrative and mass-educating Chinese people through a national propaganda campaign of enormous scale. The idea is to help citizens identify with the CCP so that the party’s mission becomes an individual’s mission and a collective mission of the society.

Wall Street Journal reports on the proliferation of Communist Party and pro-Xi propaganda that education ministry is inserting questions on party’s history in college-entrance exams, “to guide students to inherit red genes,” history classes for employees on the party’s achievements are being organized by “private businesses, law firms and even a Shanghai temple dedicated to the Chinese god of wealth… Airlines (are staging) in-flight singalongs and poetry recitals to teach passengers about the party’s past.”

Alongside, Xi is publicly administering loyalty pledges to senior party leaders while cadres of the 90 million strong party are simultaneously being put through an ideological training regimen that includes undertaking tours of ‘red sites’ (party’s most important historical locations)  to foster fidelity.

Xi is also working hard towards firming up his position as CCP’s “core leader” and deifying his stature within the party. Sinicizing religion in favour of “socialist core values” is Xi’s old project. That is being built upon. There are reports that the CCP will mark the occasion by publishing a major document that will focus on Xi’s ‘historical status’ and glorify his position as a “deity”.

The Chinese president’s purported aim is to help CCP rule gradually replace the role of religion in society and establish himself as the sole leader worthy of worship to the extent that his leadership resembles a religious experience. If loyalty to the party and its supreme leader can be shifted to the realm of unquestioned faith, Xi’s ‘purges’ to keep the party “pure”) becomes that much easier.

Xi has taken a series of steps to stifle even a whiff of dissent or grumble against the party from anywhere — be it the power corridors of CCP, lower-level cadres, police, military, intellectuals or the civil society.

As Jamestown Foundation senior fellow and veteran journalist from Hong Kong Willy Wo-Lap Lam writes, “Xi has redoubled efforts to clamp down on dissent among intellectuals and even former top cadres while also reining in leading private entrepreneurs whose wealth and influence may detract from the all-embracing powers of the party. Finally, Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) that oversees the People’s Liberation Army, has masterminded a housecleaning of the nation’s military and police forces.”

In the run-up to CCP’s centenary celebrations, Xi’s most urgent project has been engineering history and whitewashing the crimes of Mao, whose social engineering project Great Leap Forward in 1957 caused tens of millions of deaths through famine and poverty. Mao is also responsible for the killing of another two to three million people through his 10-year purge (from 1966-76) of “counterrevolutionaries”, a pogrom against imagined political adversaries including elites whom Mao considered to be a threat to his position.

As Ian Johnson writes in Chinafile, “Mao was responsible for about 1.5 million deaths during the Cultural Revolution, another million for the other campaigns, and between 35 million and 45 million for the Great Leap Famine. Taking a middle number for the famine, 40 million, that’s about 42.5 million deaths.”

Mao’s atrocities during his tyrannical rule and the excesses of Cultural Revolution have been documented in chronicle of party events. Not anymore. In February, Xi issued an updated version of An Abbreviated History of the Chinese Communist Party (Zhongguo Gongchangdang jianshi) that airbrushed all atrocities committed by Mao. He was instead credited for “setting the foundation of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ and providing ideological enrichment of the nation with “valuable experience, theoretical preparation and material foundation” during the 1949-1976 period,” points out Willy Wo-Lap Lam.

As expected, the new ‘history’, part of a series of books, documents and articles that sanitizes Mao and glorifies his role, also lionizes Xi and confirms his status as the party’s “core”. This is essential to address issues of corruption, factionalism and disloyalty within the party because insubordination against the “core leader” is to go against the party. This is also a natural progression of Xi’s hyper-centralisation of power which he has done by rendering the office of prime minister almost powerless.

As Jude Blanchette and Evan S. Medeiros write in their paper for The Washington Quarterly, former presidents “Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had strong partnerships with their respective premiers (Zhu Rongji and Wen Jiabao), thus giving the State Council significant authority over setting economic policy. Xi, on the other hand, has sidelined premier Li Keqiang and positioned himself at the center of nearly all key policy discussions. Relatedly, he pushed through one of the biggest political restructurings in China’s modern history at the 2018 National People’s Congress, with the CCP subsuming many of the governing and administrative functions that had previously been the domain of the State Council.”

Xi’s move to confer post-facto sainthood on Mao requires a deeper look because it gives us a glimpse into the paranoic world of China’s paramount leader. Among many victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a state-sponsored hunting down of political adversaries, was Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun.

As Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Drexel write in Wall Street Journal, “Xi’s father, who had previously been demoted from vice premier to deputy manager of a tractor factory, was jailed and beaten. The teenage Xi suffered as well, and his half-sister, Xi Heping, died after persecution by the revolution’s Red Guards.”

It is interesting to note that Xi, who has been personally affected by the crimes committed by Mao, is photoshopping history to confer sainthood on Mao and erasing criticisms of Mao era from party’s history and chronicles. The answer to this conundrum lies in the way Xi perceives history and has sought to internalize the mistakes committed by the Communist leaders in USSR.

In Xi’s mind, Nikita Khrushchev, who in a “secret speech” in 1956 exposed the crimes of the Stalin era, is the architect of Soviet demise, because party’s success in establishing primacy over society and maintaining internal unity and organizational integrity is incumbent on making its paramount leaders appear infallible. Xi is determined not to repeat USSR’s mistakes, and therefore Mao must be deified.

Xi has therefore initiated a program with the help of technology to address “historical nihilism”. If any statements are made or any posts are put up criticizing Communist Party leaders or their policies, cyberspace regulators will ensure these are “cleaned”. There is also a hotline and an online platform “for the public to denounce instances of historical nihilism,” backed by a 2018 law protecting the reputations of heroes and martyrs, reports Wall Street Journal.

The crux of Xi’s consolidation of power and establishment of his writ is ‘infallibility’. The paramount leader must not only be infallible but must be seen to be infallible. China’s great power status cannot be affirmed by a leader who is weak or represents a party that has question marks over its past. This linear projection of Chinese power and infallibility of its supreme leader is an essential project of Xi, and along with great power competition with the US, it naturally has implications for India as well.

Among other things, China’s aggressive rise and triumphalist narrative at home are closely linked to its policy of territorial aggrandizement that has resulted in prolonged bilateral tension with India over the 2,100-mile-long line of actual control. More than a year since the Galwan carnage where 20 Indian soldiers and at least four PLA troops were killed, China remains entrenched at the border in Ladakh with massive mobilization and force posture in violation of all written and verbal agreements. Some defence analysts claim China “remains in firm control of an estimated 600-800 square kilometres of Indian territory.”

In a recent interview with Bloomberg in Qatar on Sino-Indian tension, external affairs minister S Jaishankar said, “there are two big issues there right now. One of course is that the close up deployments still continue, especially in Ladakh. The issue there is whether China will live up to the written commitments which are made about both countries not deploying a large armed force at the border. And the larger issue really, whether we can build this relationship on the basis of mutual sensitivity, mutual respect and mutual interest.”

Given the high-stakes poker that Xi is playing at home, any climbdown with India will be seen as a ‘resounding defeat’ by an increasingly nationalist generation of Chinese who have been fed a steady diet of ideological jingoism. At least until October when Xi may try to cement his position as general secretary for life and secure more terms as president, any softening of Chinese position vis-à-vis the border with India appears unlikely.

How each generation justifies its rule?

Looks at the past, present and future of the country’s political system. Here, Jun Mai looks at the foundations on which each generation of the party leadership has sought to build its legitimacy. One can take the kingdom by force but should never govern it by force, Emperor Gaozu of Han was told by his aide Lu Jia some 2,200 years ago.

Gaozu of Han, a commoner upstart who eventually built the first centralized dynasty of China, is often compared with Mao Zedong. The great helmsman himself was well versed in the success story of Han Gaozu and liked to lecture it to others.

Mao famously said that political power grew out of the barrel of a gun. But like the Han emperor, he also understood the best way of hanging on to it was by gaining popular support. The use of force should only be kept as the last resort.

Emperor Gaozu of Han. Photo: Wikipedia
Emperor Gaozu of Han. Photo: Wikipedia

This week, as the

Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary

 with great fanfare, it stands as one of the longest surviving one-party governments in the world.

Under the one-party dictatorship, Chinese people are not given the chance to vote for an alternative government. But the party, still priding itself that it “serves the people”, has tried to deliver its mandate by other means.

Every generation of the party’s leadership must define what constitutes “good governance” and come up with a matrix to measure it.

Mao, whose portrait still hangs in Tiananmen Square, built his mandate as a founding father of a truly independent China that aspired to represent the lower class and thus the absolute majority of Chinese in the late 1940s. Beijing became a nuclear power under Mao, as well as the sole representative of China in the United Nations.

Deng Xiaoping put an end to the endless ideological struggle that came under Mao, resulting in one of the most spectacular wealth creation stories in history.

These mandates, coupled with a merciless control of political expression, have helped the party‘s rulers survive major crises such as the Cultural Revolution, a decade of nationwide turmoil ordered by Mao in 1966, and the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown ordered by Deng.

The party has prided itself on defying the predictions of naysayers. It has managed to hold on to power and thrive despite disasters, internal strife, incessant power struggles, the allure of foreign culture and lifestyle and pressure from Western countries.

Quite the opposite, the party has publicly laid down ever more ambitious goals that would have seemed distant just years ago, such as being self-reliant on high technology, fighting income inequality and reunification with Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.

“China is obviously not another Communist Party of the Soviet Union,” deputy minister of foreign affairs Xie Feng proudly told dozens of diplomats in Beijing, just two weeks before the party’s centenary.

While the sources of the party’s legitimacy have changed over time, they have remained “tangible” for most Chinese, according to Deng Yuwen, a former deputy editor of Study Times , a Communist Party publication.

“The source of legitimacy under Mao was the ongoing revolution, and sometimes Mao himself,” he said. “In the reform and opening-up era [1978 until now], it shifts to economic development and letting the people get rich … there is always something tangible for the Chinese people.”

A survey by the Harvard Kennedy School published in July last year suggested that the party’s legitimacy based on economic development continued to pay off well into Xi’s presidency, concluding that the attitudes of Chinese citizens towards the government appear to respond, both positively and negatively, to real changes in their material well-being.

It concluded that support for the government had grown between 2003 and 2016 but could be undermined by the twin challenges of declining economic growth and a deteriorating natural environment.

On top of economic performance, the party under Xi had also sought legitimacy in areas such as its response to the Covid-19 pandemic and ideological factors, said Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford’s China Centre.

“There are several sources of legitimacy. Economic performance and dealing with Covid have been part of the mixture, but ideological factors are also key,” he said.

“Key factors are drawing on modern history, including China’s history as a victim during the opium wars and as a victor during World War II, appealing to aspects of premodern Chinese philosophy and ethics, and a revival of Marxist-Leninist norms.”

As public opinion towards China plunged elsewhere, especially in developed countries, after the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Chinese officials capitalised on Beijing’s swift and forceful response to the crisis.

They played up “the orderly governance of China and the chaos in the West”, as China emerged as the first major economy to achieve positive growth after the coronavirus outbreak.

In June, state-backed propaganda argued loudly that “China has not disappointed socialism”. The party’s ideology gurus have argued since 2017 that Xi’s political thoughts are “Marxism in the 21st century”.

But Deng Yuwen, the former state media editor, said Xi and the party were still undergoing a process to refine a new mix for legitimacy.

“The party feels it needs new sources of legitimacy as economic growth slows down, and they call it the rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation,” Deng said.

The term “rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation” has gone through ups and downs in the party’s propaganda but no past leader has used it as often as Xi. Only months after he assumed the party’s top job in 2012, Xi set a deadline for hitting the finish line of rejuvenation in 2049, the centenary of the People’s Republic of China.

So far, Xi has offered few clues to what that goal means, except for the conquest of Taiwan, more than 70 years after Kuomintang forces retreated to the island during the civil war.

“[Rejuvenation] is not something easy to measure, if we are talking about raising the living standards of the Chinese people, that’s something both Mao and Deng could claim,” he said. “But the reunification of Taiwan is something tangible.”

Xi himself called the reunification with Taiwan a “must” for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation as he delivered the 19th party congress report in 2017.

 

In an open letter addressed to compatriots in Taiwan in 2019, he referred to the ongoing 70-year-old stand-off between Beijing and Taipei as result of the civil war, as well as “foreign interference”.

“[The party] sees the separation of Taiwan from 1895 to the present day, with the exception of 1945-9, as being the product of imperialist pressures, which is why it associates reunification with the end of its humiliation by other powers,” Mitter said.

“In more recent years, the desire for reunification has been driven by a growing realisation in Beijing that fewer people in Taiwan share their vision of reunification, combined with a growing top-down version of nationalism that is unsympathetic to diverse identities on China’s borders.”

Ties between Beijing and Taipei have plunged to their lowest point in decades. On top of the island’s souring feelings towards Beijing’s authoritarian turn, the tensions were further complicated by US-China rivalry, which saw US allies in the region, such as Japan and South Korea, voicing rare concern over cross-strait peace.

Military signalling from all sides was at levels not seen since the missile crisis in the 1990s. In June, three US senators landed in Taiwan on a US Air Force freighter carrying

The gesture was met with fury from Beijing, which a week later dispatched 28 fighter jets to the island’s air defence identification zone, in what Taipei called the largest air approach in history.

Paramilitary police march past the portrait of late communist leader Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square, as it undergoes renovations in Beijing. Photo: AFP
Paramilitary police march past the portrait of late communist leader Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square, as it undergoes renovations in Beijing. Photo: AFP

The unification of Taiwan was especially important not only for the legitimacy of the party but for Xi personally, said Zhang Musheng, a well-connected economist and former official.

“Deng [Xiaoping] put an end to the life tenure of state leaders and pushed for separation of party and state,” Zhang said. “But once Xi is in power, he changed all those and the country is becoming more authoritarian.”

In 2018, China’s legislature passed an amendment to the constitution, lifting the two-term presidential limit that has been in place since 1982.

That term limit was imposed amid a consensus among the top party leaders, including Deng, to avoid the recurrence of tragedy under Mao, which they diagnosed as the result of an overconcentration of personal power.

“If he bases his legitimacy on solving the issue of unification, and the concentration of power as a necessary tool for that goal, it’s not a big deal if he stays in power for a few more years,” said Zhang, who is known for his outspokenness and his connection with the party’s ruling elite.

When Zhang, son of a communist revolutionary leader himself, published a book in 2011 on Chinese history, Liu Yuan, then political commissar of the logistic department of People’s Liberation Army, wrote its preamble. Liu’s father, Liu Shaoqi, was president of the People’s Republic and the party’s second most powerful man after Mao before he was purged in the 1960s.

Confident of China’s growing military naval capacity and Washington’s lack of willingness for overseas warfare, Zhang argued that a financial crisis in the United States would provide a good opportunity for Beijing to retake Taiwan.

“If there’s a financial crisis in the United States, then our apologies, we might need to do our stuff,” he said. “The US can’t even deal with Cuba under its nose. Trillions of dollars were spent in Afghanistan and the Taliban is taking over the suburbs and key ports once the US pulls out.”

But Deng Yuwen pointed out that Beijing still needed to weigh the potential risks if it went down the path of taking Taiwan by force.

“Once achieved, it would bring a huge boost to the party’s domestic legitimacy in the short term, something that can be compared with the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.

“But if it takes a war, then it could take resources rebuilding Taiwan,” he said. “The domestic excitement of unification will feel much different after a few years if Western sanctions sink in and affect the daily life of ordinary Chinese.”

 






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