Looking Back on Short Flashes of Liberalization in the Chinese Communist Party’s 100 Years

Publication: China Brief Volume: 21 Issue: 12

Image: CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping points to a memorial wall displaying revolutionary figures (including Mao) at the Jingganshan Revolutionary Martyrs Memorial Hall during a visit on February 2, 2016. (Source: Xinhua).


After Mao Zedong (毛泽东, 1893-1976) became the undisputed leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1936, he began a thorough-going purge of the party’s earliest generation of free-thinking intellectuals in the temporary party headquarters at Yan’an, Shaanxi Province. Since then, the CCP has largely followed Mao’s dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of the gun” and that both party members and citizens should remain “cogs of the machine” in the party’s socialist revolution enterprise. Brainwashing and ruthless purges of those who opposed Mao’s dictums remained the order of the day until the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.

Before he became the supreme leader of the Chinese party-state in 1949, Mao had posed as an advocate of democracy in many interviews with Western media. In a 1944 press conference with European and American press members, the Great Helmsman said, “China has many shortcomings, the most serious of which is the lack of democracy,” adding, for his Western audiences, “The Chinese people need democracy… only then can a good country be constructed” (Oriental Daily News, May 9, 2019). But he was telling opportunistic lies.[1]

Early Liberals Purged and Punished During the Maoist Era

The CCP celebrates its centennial anniversary on July 1 this year. Over the past hundred years, there have been brave party members and intellectuals who thought that the CCP should pivot away from Stalinist totalitarianism and adopt at least some of the universal values of freedom of speech and rule of law that are enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The party’s liberal tradition—which unfortunately never became its mainstream opinion—began with its co-founder. Chen Duxiu (陈独秀, 1879-1942), who served as the CCP’s first General Secretary and was kicked out of the party in 1929, advocated freedom and democracy while being a confirmed Marxist and later a Trotskyite. Chen noted in 1940 that “proletariat democracy… like bourgeois democracy, requires that all citizens possess the freedom of assembly, [freedom of] formation of associations, freedom of speech, publication and strikes” (Chenduxiu.net, March 23, 2013).

During the period of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” that culminated in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), most independently minded intellectuals were labeled “rightists” and a majority of these early dissidents were exiled to the barren Northeastern frontier or impoverished Xinjiang. The few liberals, including the students Lin Zhao (林昭, 1932-1969) and Zhang Zhixin (张志新, 1930-1975), who dared challenge Mao, were executed (VOA Chinese, October 7, 2019; China Digital Times, April 29, 2014).

Well-known writers, including the novelist Lao She 老舍 aka Shu Qingchun (舒庆春, 1899-1966), Deng Tuo (邓拓, 1912-1966) and Wu Han (吴晗1909-1969) either committed suicide or died in prison (163.com, April 30, 2020; Eeo.com.cn, March 26, 2016). It was left to Deng Xiaoping (邓小平, 1904-1997)—and his first two designated successors, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦, 1915-1989) and Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳, 1919-2005)—to pick up the pieces after Mao’s death in 1976.

Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up

Deng, Hu and Zhao spearheaded the thought liberation movement, which can be summarized by the saying “practice is the sole criterion of truth.” It held that a policy can only be validated after successful experimentation (Guangming Daily, May 11, 1978). This ideological reform freed the nation from unthinkingly following the dictates of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought. Deng’s post-Mao political reforms included introducing village-level elections, the abolition of the personality cult, the establishment of a retirement and succession mechanism and the separation of party and government. The Great Architect of Reform further added that market mechanisms can be employed by both socialist and capitalist countries, thus opening the way for private and foreign-owned enterprises to play substantial roles in the economy (Finance.sina.com, May 6; People’s Daily, December 10, 2014). Deng’s successor Zhao, who served as Chinese Premier from 1980-1987 and CCP General Secretary from 1987-1989, was so impressed by the Western laissez-faire system that he frequently consulted with Western and overseas Chinese economists on capitalist economic practices (ChinaFile, August 18, 2016).

The Tiananmen Square incident marked the full-scale retrogression of Deng-style political liberalization, but even after he turned away from political reforms Deng was still keen to push through at least some market-oriented economic policies. These eventually facilitated China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, for which the top leaders at the time, then-president Jiang Zemin (江泽民,1926- ) and then-premier Zhu Rongji (朱镕基, 1928- ) could take some credit. Many intellectuals raised the perhaps excessively sanguine scenario that China’s “entry to the world” (入世, ru shi) would mean that the authoritarian country might pick up not just Western-style financial norms but also adopt global values in rule-based governance (Radio Free Asia, July 17, 2018; China News Service, December 11, 2006). According to Qin Benli (钦本立, 1918-1991), chief editor of the World Economic Herald (世界经济导报, shijie jingji daobao)—an avant-garde paper shut down in 1989—one of the key goals of China’s modernization was acquiring “membership in the world” (球籍, qiu ji): global recognition for abiding by international yardsticks. Relatively liberal cadres and academics were optimistic that following China’s ascension to the WTO, its adoption of global standards in governance would speed up economic and perhaps also political reforms (Commonwealth Magazine, June 28, 2012).

Under the administration of Hu Jintao (胡锦涛, 1942- ), who served as CCP General Secretary from 2002-2012, China in general became more liberal than under his predecessor, Jiang Zemin (江泽民, 1926- ). Hu largely followed the economic policy of opening up that had been laid down by economic tsar Zhu Rongji. In the political arena, Hu initiated so-called “intra-party democracy,” implementing reforms that allowed grassroots officials to be picked partly through public recommendation; introduced the direct election of the party secretaries of towns and rural townships; and cha’e elections (差额选举, cha’e xuanze) for the CCP Central Committee, which meant that the number of candidates for the top-ruling body would exceed the available positions (China Daily, October 17, 2007; China Brief, May 9, 2007). The Peking University political scientist Yu Keping (俞可平) expressed the wish that incremental liberalization measures within the CCP would gradually trickle down to non-party areas (Xinhua, September 15, 2009; Econstor.eu, December 2008; CCTV.com, December 29, 2007). Another liberalization pushed forward by Hu allowed the first generation of Chinese NGOs some liberty to operate without direct party supervision, benefiting civil society.[2]

Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝, 1942-), a reform-minded protégé of Zhu’s, even went so far as to give theoretical support to China’s adoption of the UN Charter on Human Rights. In a much-noted article run by the Xinhua news agency in 2007, Wen wrote that “science, democracy, legal system, freedom and human rights are…  common values pursued by mankind” (Xinhua, February 26, 2007). He later told Western media that “we need to build an independent and just judicial system” and that “it is necessary for the government to accept oversight by the news media and other parties” (CNN, September 28, 2008).

But the process of liberalization also suffered setbacks, as party leaders in the early 21st century continued to prioritize maintaining control and stability. The Hu-Wen administration was also responsible for crushing the Charter 08 movement, initiated by the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波, 1955-2017) and 300 or so other leading intellectuals. Modeled on the Charter 77 movement in Soviet-ruled Czechoslovakia, Charter 08 called on the party to allow the freedom of expression, assembly and religion and to establish an independent judiciary. It was eventually signed by more than 10,000 people both in China and overseas. Liu was arrested in 2009 on charges of subversion and given a jail term of 11 years. He eventually died in prison in 2017, mainly due to lack of treatment of his late-stage liver cancer (BBC Chinese, July 13, 2017; SCMP, July 13, 2017).

Xi Jinping’s Maoist Restoration

All reforms effectively ground to a halt under the crypto-Maoist Xi Jinping (习近平, 1953-), who became CCP General Secretary in 2012 and has subsequently harkened back to many of the Great Helmsman’s ideological, political and economic policies. Xi has repeated Hu’s mantra that: “What we possessed in the past doesn’t necessarily belong to us now; what we possess now may not be ours forever” (CCPS.Gov.cn, December 23, 2018)—emphasizing the CCP’s foremost need to hold on to the total monopoly of power.

Despite the tight control that Xi, nicknamed “Chairman of Everything,” exercises on the party-state-military apparatus, some political and intellectual leaders still support Deng-style economic and political liberalization. At least in the first few years of his premiership, Li Keqiang (李克强, 1955- ), who became head of the State Council in 2013, underscored the imperative of curtailing government intervention and giving broader leeway to market forces. “We must have the determination of a brave soldier [who is not afraid to] cut off his own arm,” said Li, in reference to curtailing bureaucratic interference in market forces. The premier added that government intervention must be minimized so as to “speed up the healthy development of the economy and society and lessen the burden of the government” (BBC Chinese, October 16, 2015; People’s Daily, April 5, 2013).

The retired international relations professor and Chinese expert on U.S. studies Zi Zhongyun (资中筠, 1930-) has argued that increased competition with the West might be a good thing, leading the government to “eventually restore its essence of serving the people, not maintaining a monopoly.” Zi, who once served as Mao’s interpreter, also noted that China had much to learn from the U.S., particularly in the fields of education, medical care and elderly care. “If American-style hospitals flourished in China, China’s blood-sucking medical model would be banished,” and “If American-style education took root in China, Chinese students need not go abroad to enjoy advanced pedagogical concepts.” She added that a quasi-capitalist economic system would mean lower interest rates, greater potential growth for the private sector and a flowering of a more developed consumer society (Human Rights in China, June 25, 2018).

Cai Xia (蔡霞,1952-), a Chinese dissident and former politics professor at the Central Party School (CPS), was even bolder in criticizing the backsliding of reforms. She called the CCP a “political zombie” and even suggested that Xi should be replaced as a first step to saving the party from itself. “If political reform does not go forward, economic reform cannot make any progress,” she said, echoing an earlier statement by ex-Premier Wen. Cai called for making progress in elections, expansion of the freedom of expression and enhancement of media supervision of the party-state apparatus. However, her criticisms raised enough ire that she was stripped of her party membership in August 2020. Cai currently lives in exile in the United States. (BBC Chinese, August 20, 2020; Global Times, August 20, 2020).


As the party prepares to celebrate its centenary, supreme leader Xi has announced that China has entered a “new phase of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The propaganda machinery has indicated that Xi Jinping Thought will be the guiding spirit on issues ranging from finance and social welfare to foreign and military policy. According to Xi, the “Chinese path” is more suitable than the “Western model” for the world’s future development, and he has also put forth an international vision of a “community of common destiny for mankind” led by greater Chinese leadership in the global community. While much has been written about the “China model,”[3] it basically consists of hard authoritarianism, a police-state apparatus, party-state control of the bulk of the economy, and overt nationalism bordering on jingoism. The Xi administration has in particular relied on the self-serving manipulation of history to bolster the party’s legitimacy. The centenary celebration is important for the CCP leadership because the media has emphasized how China has successfully defied old and new imperialists—including the Western powers led by the U.S. since World War II—and in the meantime realized “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation” (Xuexi.cn, May 17, 2021; Xinhua, September 4, 2020). Grave aberrations including Mao’s Three Years of Famine, Deng’s June 4, 1989 massacre, and Xi’s digitally-enabled national system surveillance and repression—which in Xinjiang led to what has been termed crimes against humanity and genocide by an increasing number of Western countries—are topics rarely touched upon by the heavily censored state media.

For the past several years, President Xi has harped on the imperative of political stability and national security so as to avoid “black swan” events (China Brief, February 20, 2019). The CCP’s tightening grip on civil society—reflected by its recent raising of jail terms even for Internet opinion leaders—betrays the party leadership’s intense fears that the world’s second largest economy and fast-rising global military power cannot rely on brute force alone to cow citizens into subservience. But it is also unlikely that Xi and his advisers will consider the well-meaning advice of liberal-leaning cadres and intellectuals since the CCP’s foundation that the way ahead should involve the embrace of true international values.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department, and the Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in July 2019.


[1] For a discussion of the pro-democracy promises made by the likes of Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai, see Xiao Shu, The harbingers of history: Solemn pledges made half a century ago, Shantou: Shantou University Press, 1999.

[2] For a discussion of Hu Jintao’s policy toward civil society groups and other NGOs, see Willy Lam, The Fight for China’s Future, London: Routledge, 2020, pp. 12-15.

[3] Two commonly cited definitions of the “China model” do not preclude at least a modicum of democracy. For example, Daniel Bell argues that the model was “a combination of economic freedom and political oppression.” Yet he added that the CCP authoritarianism was tempered with “democracy at the bottom, experimentation in the middle, and meritocracy at the top” (See Daniel Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015, pp.179-180). Similarly, Suizheng Zhao, who defines the China Model as striking a balance “between a market-oriented economy and an authoritarian state,” contended that the country’s economy performed best “when China became less brutal and allowed greater personal and economic freedoms” (see Suizheng Zhao, “The China Model: Can it replace the Western model of modernization?” Journal of Contemporary China, 2010, pp.19:65).