The World Around Us
June 29, 2021
China’s Communist Party turns 100

ON JULY 1st, 2021, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will mark 100 years of existence. Of these 100 years, the CCP has been the sole governing party of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for nearly 75 years. Under CCP rule, China has emerged as somewhat of an enigma.

I associate the term enigma with China for a number of reasons. Today, China is the world’s most populous nation, the second largest economy, the largest trading nation and until recently, was able to sustain double digit economic growth for over three consecutive decades. China is also now an upper- middle-income country which has lifted over 800 million people out of poverty since it started to open up and modernise in 1978.

Furthermore, China is at the forefront of global advancements and innovations in science and technology. In areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, electronic commerce, manufacturing and global supply chains, China has either closed or is close to closing the gap with the major advanced Western economies.

Speaking of closing gaps, one area in which China has made inroads has been with respect to its military. America’s global military superiority was once taken as a foregone conclusion. However, in recent years, China has been steadily closing the gap and is now seen as a near-peer military rival of the United States (US).

China’s socio-economic, infrastructural, technological and military achievements are highly commendable. According to The Economist, as the CCP starts its second century, it has “good cause to brag” both because it has survived far longer than its many critics predicted; and it also appears to be on the up. Comparing China’s Communist regime to those of Lenin’s Soviet Union and the Workers’ Party in North Korea, The Economist writes that no other dictatorship has been able to transform itself from a famine-racked disaster, as China was under Mao Zedong, into the world’s second-largest economy, with cutting- edge technology and infrastructure. These factors, The Economist argues, make China’s Communists the world’s most successful authoritarians.

However, the other tale of China, essentially the other side of the enigma, is that China’s successes paper over some fundamental cracks in the CCP’s governance. Repression of dissent, lack of political participation, crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong and religious oppression, including of the largely Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority, are all blots on the CCP’s record.

Further afield, CCP rule also poses an ideological and practical challenge to liberal democracy around the world. Western liberal democracies have for many decades been seen as the benchmarks for political and economic organisation of societies because they guaranteed certain fundamental freedoms such as representative government, the rule of law, separation of powers, and a free press among other enticements. It became conventional wisdom that these rudiments of liberal democracy created pathways to prosperity in a way that authoritarianism could only dream of.

The economic success of an authoritarian China under the CCP lays bare many of the assumptions of liberal democracy. The CCP’s unique brand of “authoritarian capitalism”, as termed by Brookings, signals to other illiberal and illiberal leaning regimes that they need not go the way of Western liberal democracy to achieve economic prosperity. Brookings contends that China’s illiberalism means “that open societies around the world must prepare for the current era of democratic stagnation to continue, or even worsen.” This is a rather chilling assessment, especially for those who place a primacy on democracy.

For China, the real test of its model lies ahead.

Whether the CCP retains power for another 100 years is largely dependent on a number of factors.

First, would economic prosperity create an insatiable appetite among the people for political freedoms and are they likely to act on it? Second, can the CCP survive internal factions, especially when the current president goes? Third, would China succumb to any outside pressure to democratise?

Certainly, time will tell.