Editor’s Note to the Special Issue on the Chinese Communist Party (June 2021)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 12

Editor’s Note:

This is a special theme issue of China Brief, taking the opportunity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s upcoming centennial celebrations (on July 1) to focus analysis on the CCP’s  past, present and future. Over its 100 years of history, the CCP has proven itself to be a resilient, adaptable organization that has retained authoritarian control over the Chinese state for the past 72 years. Since Xi Jinping took power as CCP General Secretary in 2012, he has elevated the party’s role in almost all aspects (with himself as the party’s core), tying its successful leadership of the People’s Republic of China since 1949 to an increasing promotion of the legitimacy and power of the so-called “China model” and updating its Maoist-Leninist ideological roots for new foreign and domestic challenges. In this issue, China Brief Editor Elizabeth Chen takes a look at this year’s party history study campaign, which kicked off in February and bears interesting observations about the party’s internal narratives on struggle and sacrifice. 

Next, Jamestown Foundation Senior Fellow Willy Wo-Lap Lam takes a retrospective look at the CCP’s contentious history with liberalization. Although the “crypto-Maoist” Xi has revitalized much of Mao Zedong’s ideological, economic and political work, the path from Mao to Xi was by no means pre-determined. Instead, relative liberals and intellectuals throughout the CCP’s history have, and continue to, advise the PRC leadership to embrace greater political reforms. 

Maryanne Kivlehan-Wise summarizes the history of military political work in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has gained especially renewed importance under Xi. PLA thinkers have conceptualized their political and ideological work as a competitive advantage as the military undergoes historic reforms and seeks to update itself as a modern-day, professionalized and technologically-advanced force capable of fighting tomorrow’s wars in an era of renewed great power competition. 

Daniel Koss has closely followed ongoing trends in overseas party-building, and argues that the CCP has made effective use of “institutional bricolage” to update old Leninist models using new technologies for a party that is deepening and expanding control over its members in new spaces (i.e., the private sector) both at home and abroad. 

Finally, Harry He reviews post-reform trends in local governance and draws on fieldwork conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic to argue that after state administrative organs withered amid China’s rapid economic growth and transformation, the party’s focus on building grassroots control in rural villages and urban neighborhoods has filled the gap in local governance, with deeper party penetration being masked as a genuine expansion of civil society. 

It is the Jamestown Foundation’s modest hope that this special issue will contribute towards a greater and more nuanced understanding of the Chinese Communist Party, particularly as it ramps up triumphalist messaging and tightens control over the Chinese state, society and military in anticipation of its centennial anniversary.