Excerpt

The Chinese Communist Party Has Always Been Nationalist

China’s quest for rejuvenation dates back more than a century.

By , a former director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative.
Participants rehearse in Tiananmen Square before a parade marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, 2021 in Beijing, China.
Participants rehearse in Tiananmen Square before a parade marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, 2021 in Beijing, China. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

For a century, the Chinese Communist Party has been a nationalist party. This can be a controversial point today, particularly among those who see the party’s focus on nationalist themes mainly as an instrument to retain power after the tarnishing of Communist ideology. But the reality is much more complicated. The party’s nationalist orientation is embedded in a long, historical line that connects the party of today with the patriotic ferment of the late Qing decline.

In the 1790s, as President George Washington was settling into his first term of office in the United States, the Qing dynasty was at its height. But over the next few decades, repeated provincial unrest, foreign depredations, and a sclerotic government led some officials to sense that China was entering decline. Concerned by the Qing dynasty’s slide, officials like Wei Yuan began to urgently resurrect a tradition in Chinese intellectual history that focused on the state’s pursuit of “wealth and power” (富强) as opposed to the more typical Confucian tradition of “rule of the virtuous”(德治). When China’s ongoing domestic decay collided with European imperial ambition in the disastrous First Opium War, China’s “century of humiliation” began—launching a search among many to find the means to recapture past glory. As Orville Schell and John Delury note in their sweeping intellectual history, Wei Yuan’s resurrection of the 2000-year-old phrase “wealth and power” came at the right time, and it has “remained something of a North Star for Chinese intellectual and political leaders” ever since.

The century of humiliation saw China suffer a series of traumatic defeats that cracked the edifice of the Qing dynasty. But it also gave rise to generations of scholars and activists who built on Wei Yuan’s “wealth and power” foundations. Wei Yuan’s intellectual successor, Feng Guifen, watched some key events of the century of humiliation—the Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion that almost toppled the Qing—and launched the so-called self-strengthening movement to reverse China’s slide. He influenced a generation of scholars, including the general and statesman Li Hongzhang, but little improved. Only two decades after Feng Guifen’s death, Japan shocked China by defeating it in the first Sino-Japanese War, and his self-strengthening disciple Li was dispatched to Tokyo accept China’s defeat.

For a century, the Chinese Communist Party has been a nationalist party. This can be a controversial point today, particularly among those who see the party’s focus on nationalist themes mainly as an instrument to retain power after the tarnishing of Communist ideology. But the reality is much more complicated. The party’s nationalist orientation is embedded in a long, historical line that connects the party of today with the patriotic ferment of the late Qing decline.

In the 1790s, as President George Washington was settling into his first term of office in the United States, the Qing dynasty was at its height. But over the next few decades, repeated provincial unrest, foreign depredations, and a sclerotic government led some officials to sense that China was entering decline. Concerned by the Qing dynasty’s slide, officials like Wei Yuan began to urgently resurrect a tradition in Chinese intellectual history that focused on the state’s pursuit of “wealth and power” (富强) as opposed to the more typical Confucian tradition of “rule of the virtuous”(德治). When China’s ongoing domestic decay collided with European imperial ambition in the disastrous First Opium War, China’s “century of humiliation” began—launching a search among many to find the means to recapture past glory. As Orville Schell and John Delury note in their sweeping intellectual history, Wei Yuan’s resurrection of the 2000-year-old phrase “wealth and power” came at the right time, and it has “remained something of a North Star for Chinese intellectual and political leaders” ever since.

The following is an excerpt from The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order by former Brookings fellow Rush Doshi. This work was completed before his government service, is based entirely on open sources, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.

This article is adapted from The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order by Rush Doshi (Oxford University Press, 432 pp., $27.95, July 2021). 

The century of humiliation saw China suffer a series of traumatic defeats that cracked the edifice of the Qing dynasty. But it also gave rise to generations of scholars and activists who built on Wei Yuan’s “wealth and power” foundations. Wei Yuan’s intellectual successor, Feng Guifen, watched some key events of the century of humiliation—the Second Opium War and the Taiping Rebellion that almost toppled the Qing—and launched the so-called self-strengthening movement to reverse China’s slide. He influenced a generation of scholars, including the general and statesman Li Hongzhang, but little improved. Only two decades after Feng Guifen’s death, Japan shocked China by defeating it in the first Sino-Japanese War, and his self-strengthening disciple Li was dispatched to Tokyo accept China’s defeat.

That defeat proved traumatic for Chinese scholars like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, as well as nationalist revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen, who were each spurred on to offer their own paths for China to pursue, all with the ultimate aim of self-strengthening. These individuals and the broader nationalist discourse of which they were a part, were dedicated to rejuvenating China and catching up with the West, and their words and deeds formed the soil in which China’s Communist Party would grow. As a zealous young Sun Yat-sen put it in an unanswered 8,000-word letter to Li Hongzhang in 1894, “With China’s population and material strength, if we were to imitate the West and adopt reforms, we could catch up and surpass Europe within 20 years.”

Many of the Chinese Communist Party’s early leaders were patriotic youth drawn to this essentially restorative nationalist project. Some of the most prominent, like Chen Duxiu, Zhou Enlai, and Mao Zedong, found their way to nationalism through authors like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. Mao later recounted that he “worshipped Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao” and “read and re-read them” until he had memorized their works, and that when he was young, he put up posters advocating that Sun Yat-sen be made China’s president, Kang its premier, and Liang its foreign minister. Deng Xiaoping’s own father was reportedly a member of Liang Qichao’s political party, which undoubtedly shaped Deng’s early nationalist worldview. Deng supposedly participated in nationalist events like the May Fourth movement and was drawn to the mission to make China strong. Like many future communists, Deng went abroad to study, and he explained his reasoning with an answer right out of Wei Yuan’s focus on “wealth and power” as the priority. “China was weak and we wanted to make her stronger, and China was poor and we wanted to make her richer,” Deng recounted, “We went to the West in order to study and find a way to save China.”

Many future communists were drawn to Sun Yat-sen, who is still revered by the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, Sun Yat-sen’s nationalists had set up a government and military academy in Guangzhou which “attracted promising patriotic youth” to the city, including many who rose to prominence like Zhou Enlai, Ye Jianying, Lin Biao, and Mao Zedong.

Once those young communists rose to power, and even as they pursued policies in line with their own communist ideology, the party nonetheless remained motivated by an unmistakably nationalist mission, and closing the wealth and power gap with the West was at its center. Mao-era industrial modernization, the failed Great Leap Forward, the desire for “two bombs, one satellite,” and the extraordinarily dangerous move to step out from Soviet order and claim the mantle of ideological leadership from Moscow were all motivated by these nationalist impulses. Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening, and his emphasis on economic and technological advancement, explicitly emulated the language of an earlier generation of self-strengtheners. His successors, including Jiang, Hu, and President Xi Jinping have carried forward the nationalist project and focused on rejuvenating China and restoring it to its rightful place in regional and global order.

Today, “rejuvenation” is at the center of Xi’s political project, but it—like the party’s nationalist focus—is more than a century old. As the scholar Zhen Wang notes, the concept “goes at least as far back as Sun Yat-sen, and has been invoked by almost every modern Chinese leader from Chiang Kai-Shek to Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.” In 1894, as China and Japan went to war, Sun Yat-sen founded a nationalist group and named it the Xingzhonghui, which roughly translates as the Revive China Society. He declared its mission as rejuvenating China. That mission ties directly to the party today. “Sun Yat-sen,” Chinese leader Jiang Zemin once noted, “was the first man to put forward the ‘rejuvenate China’ slogan.” And it was indeed from Sun Yat-sen that the Chinese Communist Party took up the language of rejuvenation [振兴中华 or 复兴].

The party’s focus on the nationalist project of rejuvenation can be traced through party texts. Even amidst the Second Sino-Japanese War, Deng and other party members encouraged cadres to focus on the “road to rejuvenation,” and when the Communists were victorious, Mao declared that “only the CCP can save China.” When China began reform and opening in 1978, Deng and his deputies Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang repeatedly made clear that the purpose was to “rejuvenate China” [征信中华] and ensure it achieved “wealth and power.” In 1988—before the party’s pursuit of “patriotic education” in the aftermath of Tiananmen—Jiang Zemin stated that the party’s mission was to “realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

These sentiments appear in virtually every Party Congress address of the last forty years too, which are among the party’s most authoritative texts. Hu Yaobang’s 12th Party Congress address in 1982 bemoaned the “century or more between the Opium War and liberation” and pledged China would “never allow itself to be humiliated again.” Zhao Ziyang’s 13th Party Congress address in 1987 used the language of “wealth and power” and argued that “reform is the only way China can achieve rejuvenation.” Jiang Zemin’s addresses across the 14th, 15th, and 16th Party Congresses recounted the Opium Wars and century of humiliation, praised the Party for having “put an end to the Chinese nation’s tragic history,” and reminded audiences that “the Chinese Communist Party is deeply rooted in the Chinese nation” and has “shouldered the great and solemn mission of national rejuvenation since the day it was founded.” Hu’s 17th and 18th Party Congress addresses repeated these themes and added that the party was “striving for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation for which countless patriots and revolutionary martyrs yearned.” Most recently, Xi’s 2017 19th Party Congress put rejuvenation at the center of his “China Dream” and his “new era” for China. He referenced the tragedy of the Opium Wars and declared rejuvenation as “the original aspiration and mission of the Chinese Communists”—one only the party could achieve.

From its very founding, the party has wrapped itself in the exertions of the nationalists who came before it. Top leaders have declared for almost a century that “the Chinese Communist Party has inherited and developed the spirit of the May Fourth movement” and was striving to “learn from and carry forward” the legacy of Sun Yat-sen.” As Hu Jintao noted on the centennial of Mao’s birth, the party is in a relay race towards rejuvenation. “History is a long river,” he declared, “Today developed from yesterday, and tomorrow is a continuation of today […] The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation is the great ideal of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, their comrades, and millions of revolutionary martyrs …. Today, the baton of history has reached our hands.”

The “baton of history” must be carried by successive leaders until mid-century, or the centennial of the party’s assumption of power. For at least 40 years, China’s top leaders have all indicated that this is the target date for achieving rejuvenation, a goal which has generally involved closing the gap with the West, and in some cases, shaping the global system. The focus on the middle of the century emerged in the mid-1980s when Deng and his lieutenants put it forward as the date for reaching the level of “moderately developed countries” or completing “socialist modernization.” As Deng’s successor Jiang put it in a major speech commemorating the 80th anniversary of the party: “In the 100 years from the middle of the 20th century to the middle of the 21st century, all the struggles of the Chinese people have been to achieve wealth and power for the homeland … and the great rejuvenation of the nation. In this historic cause [of rejuvenation], our party has led the people of the country for 50 years and made tremendous progress; after another 50 years of hard work, it will be successfully completed.”

What might completion mean in practical terms? Deng had suggested it would change China’s relationship with the world, and later that it would have critics “completely convinced” of the superiority of China’s socialist system. Jiang agreed, and stressed that it was a kind of restoration relative to the West. Before its fall under the Qing, Jiang noted, “China’s economic level was leading in the world” and “China’s economic aggregate ranked first in the world.” Accordingly, rejuvenation would involve “narrowing the gap with the world’s advanced level” and making China “wealthy and powerful” again.

Restoration would also involve a more global role. After achieving rejuvenation mid-century, Jiang noted, “a wealthy and powerful, democratic, and civilized socialist modern China will stand in the east of the world, and the Chinese people will make new and greater contributions to humanity.” Hu Jintao indicated that at the global level it would mean promoting “the development of the international political and economic order in a more just and reasonable direction.” It would allow China to “stand in the forest of nations with an entirely new bearing.” At the 19th Party Congress, Xi was specific on what rejuvenation by mid-century would mean: “China would become a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence,” construct a “world-class army,” be actively involved in “global governance,” and foster “a new type of international relations and build a community with a shared future for mankind.

Xi’s brash vision of mid-century rejuvenation is the product not simply of personality or parochialism but something more powerful: a nationalist party consensus that stretches back through time more than a century to the self-strengthening focus of the late Qing reformists. The Chinese Communist Party has had its internal disagreements, struggles, factionalism, and extended descents into ideological extremism, but its founders and their successors have consistently understood the arty as the vehicle for rejuvenating China. Disagreements about the ways and the means have surfaced at times, but the end goal is relatively clear and has imposed consensus on China’s post-Cold War grand strategy. And that goal is to many in Beijing increasingly now within reach.

Rush Doshi’s The Long Game was completed before his government service, is based entirely on open sources, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.

Rush Doshi is a former director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative and the author of The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.

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