There is little question that the Chinese Communist Party has come a long way since it was founded 90 years ago by 12 delegates representing roughly 50 members.
Yet however insignificant it may have seemed back then, there was no question about its ideology, identity and mission. Inspired by utopian Marxism, the party represented China’s idealist leftists, nationalists and the downtrodden. Its mission was to end social injustice and Western colonialism.
Today the party is a political behemoth, with 80 million members and control of the world’s second-largest economy. At home its grip on power faces no organized challenge; abroad its leaders are accorded a respect Mao and Zhou Enlai could not have dreamed of.
Indeed, we should give the party its due for having abandoned the Maoist madness of its first three decades in power — the mass terror, famine, brutal political campaigns and vicious power struggles — and for radically improving the material lives of China’s 1.3 billion people.
Yet if asked, “What does the Communist Party stand for,” few Chinese leaders today could give a coherent or honest answer.
This much we know: It no longer stands for a utopian ideology. If there is one ideology that the party represents, it is the ideology of power. The sole justification for the party’s rule is the imperative to stay in power.
Nor does the party stand for China’s masses. Despite efforts to broaden its social base and make it more connected with China’s dynamic and diverse society, the party today has evolved into a self-serving, bureaucratized political patronage machine. It is undeniably an elitist party, with more than 70 percent of its members recruited from government officials, the military, college graduates, businessmen and professionals.
So for all its apparent power, the party is in fact facing an existential crisis and an uncertain future. Apart from staying in power, it has no public purpose. The crisis is not only ideological, but also political; it explains much of the cynicism, corruption and insecurity of the party and its elites.
As the party has firmly rejected democratization, its only strategy for survival is to maintain the course it has embarked on since the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989: drawing political legitimacy from economic growth but relying on repression to crush challenges to its monopoly of power. Although this strategy has worked well since Tiananmen, its effectiveness and sustainability are increasingly in doubt.
On the economic front, growth is about to slow down. Demographic aging, resource constraints, stalled economic reforms and environmental degradation are almost certain to depress China’s growth potential. An optimistic World Bank forecast predicts a growth rate from 2016-2020 of about 7 percent annually — a respectable number, but a 30 percent drop from today’s rate.
China’s economic revolution is also unleashing powerful social forces that will make maintaining a one-party state more tenuous. The party’s governing philosophy and organizational structure make it difficult to incorporate China’s growing middle-class politically. The convergence of an economic slowdown and rising political activism will challenge the party’s rule from several directions.
Now that the Chinese Communist Party has been in power for 62 years, its leaders might also want to note that the record for one-party rule is 74 years, held by the Soviet party, followed by the 71-year rein of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party.
So when Chinese leaders toast their party’s 90th birthday, they should harbor no illusions that the party can beat history’s odds forever.
Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California.