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Unpacking The 100-Year History Of The Chinese Communist Party


One hundred years ago this month, a small group of revolutionaries founded the Chinese Communist Party in secret on a boat floating in a river near French-controlled Shanghai. So fireworks are lighting up the skies of Shanghai, Beijing and other major cities this month in celebration of the CCP's centennial. Now, 100 years is a long time. And to mark this moment, we wanted to have a conversation about the party's role in the past century of Chinese history. No small feat to assess this, and we'll do the best we can. And here to help us is Andy B. Liu, a historian of China at Villanova University. Welcome.

ANDY B LIU: Thanks. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So I want you to take us back to China a hundred years ago when the Chinese Communist Party was founded. What would you say were the main challenges that China was struggling with back then? And how did the CCP propose it would address those problems?

LIU: Yeah. So I think the first thing to talk about is China at the time was kind of carved up into what is known as the warlord era. A lot of independent provinces were kind of under the rule of independent military leaders. So the question of who could unify the country was a big concern for a lot of people.

The flipside of that would be fears of imperialism. European and then especially Japanese powers were seen as colonizing large territories, but especially large chunks of the economy of China dating back to treaties from the 19th century. But really with the Versailles Treaty and what becomes known as the May Fourth Movement, there's a sense of disillusionment with, let's say, like, Western European liberalism. And that's kind of that opening, that kind of opportunity that sparks interest in communism for a lot of intellectuals in China.

So I think, you know, the Communist Party was dedicated to revolution and class equality and end of exploitation and all those things we would expect. But in the context of China, it was also very much - they were aligned with broader concerns about national reunification and with anti-imperialism.

CHANG: Well, I want to talk about the figure who is seen as the founding father of the People's Republic of China, and that, of course, is Mao Zedong. He led the communists to victory against the Japanese army and the Chinese nationalists. But he also has a mixed legacy, right? Like, he presided over the worst famine in China's modern history. He also presided over the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. Can you compare the way his mixed legacy is remembered inside China by Chinese state media versus the way he's remembered outside China?

LIU: We can start with outside China. I think for much of the rest of the world, their entry point into understanding the Communist Party is the legacy of the Mao years, roughly from - in terms of being in power from 1949 to 1976 when he passes away. And so, yeah, it's seen as this time of major catastrophe. Lots - there's famine, there's sort of this unjust persecution of intellectuals and so on.

I think for those inside China, there was a strong move starting in the 1980s to really redirect the party away from a lot of the political ideals, especially of the Cultural Revolution. Now, this does not mean that they denounced Mao and his legacy. The legacy of Mao is always kind of kept intact. They always remember him fondly as the person who successfully unified the country, liberated China from imperialism and so on.

There's a recent documentary on Chinese television with a brief kind of history of the party. And they basically skip from 1950 something to, like, 1978 - right? - to the middle of the Mao years, on the eve of the Great Leap forward into the Deng Xiaoping era of the 1980s. And I think that's a pretty good reflection of the state of discourse, which is to say that officially in public discourse, there isn't a lot of discussion about the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.

Now, I think a lot of people in China are aware of those events. Obviously, there are family members who survive them. There are stories that are passed down. Within China, I think people are less fixated on those events. In China, they think of themselves as very modern, moving on from that in a way that is a little discordant with the rest of the world.

CHANG: Well, you talked about the anti-imperialist roots of the Chinese Communist Party when it was founded. And when historians like yourself look back at the party's founding goals, I'm curious where historians believe the CCP has seen the most success over the past century and where they've seen the least success.

LIU: From the beginning of the establishment of the PRC, the party had this kind of contradiction, right? It was this underground revolutionary Communist Party, but then it had to become a nation state to do all the things that all governments have to do, like fight wars, deal with international relations and build the economy. You could say the country has been successful again in national strengthening, kind of establishing sovereignty over its land - you know, some would say over land that does not belong to China - having a strong military, having a booming economy and so on.

They, for the most part, I think, have abandoned a lot of the early goals, let's say the Mao years of reducing social inequality. Especially starting in the 1980s and 1990s under Deng Xiaoping, the party kind of put forth this idea that they would become much more of a technocratic party - right? - less invested in politics and much more invested in practical solutions to improving quality of life and growing the economy. Deng Xiaoping famously talks about how some people in China will have to get rich before the rest of the country gets rich. And inequality in China has consistently risen since the 1980s. So I think there's been very much a sort of abandonment of those earlier collectivist ideals of everyone working together in a very egalitarian manner.

CHANG: Well, finally, I want to turn to Hong Kong because while we are talking about the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, people in Hong Kong are marking two other anniversaries - the 24th anniversary of the city's handover to China and the first anniversary of the controversial national security law. How do you think people in Hong Kong are reflecting on those two anniversaries against this broader backdrop of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party?

LIU: Yeah. I think there's typically every year been a sort of demonstration or protest on July 1, similar to - there typically has been one on June 4 to commemorate the Tiananmen Square incident in Hong Kong until the last two years, where, under the cover of COVID safety laws protection, the government has kind of stopped or banned or kind of precluded any sort of public demonstration. I think the average Hong Kong person knows that it's in their best interest not to go against these public orders, that this is kind of a dark time in Hong Kong history. But as with the national security laws, there's a sense of insecurity and fear about what could happen if they publicly criticize the laws.

If anything, the public critics will, you know, sort of self reflexive way call upon the Beijing government to honor its promises. So this isn't to say that we need to import foreign democracy, it is to say when the Beijing government promised the sort of one country, two systems program, you know, starting in the 1980s, they have to continue to honor that. So it's a criticism of the government that is kind of veiled underneath this sort of - staying within the boundaries of what the government has said in the past.

CHANG: Andy B. Liu is a historian of China at Villanova University, valiantly summing up the last 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party. Thank you so much for joining us today.

LIU: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MT. WOLF'S "TUCANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.