The Chinese Communist Party’s Big Year

China’s government wants the country to have one story, and Xi Jinping is at the center of it.

Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
Palmer-James-foreign-policy-columnist20
James Palmer
By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on July 1.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on July 1.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on July 1. WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

2021

It’s been a year of deepening global isolation for China, with its closed borders, plummeting global reputation, and increased crackdowns on online speech and social norms. Among all this came the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) celebration of its own centenary. This was more muted than might have been expected pre-COVID-19—not least out of the need to maintain the country’s draconian, if increasingly necessary, zero-COVID-19 policy. There were still parades, but they weren’t on the scale of those thrown for the country’s 70th anniversary in 2019 or its World War II anniversary in 2015.

But the centenary was still an assertion of the Chinese Communist Party’s power—and of the increasingly dictatorial role of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has consolidated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. A historical resolution, only the third in the party’s history, emphasized just how critical Xi has become to the party’s narrative. At the heart of every crackdown under Xi has been the watchword that the party comes first.

Here are five of Foreign Policy’s best takes on Xi and the party’s power during China’s centenary year.

It’s been a year of deepening global isolation for China, with its closed borders, plummeting global reputation, and increased crackdowns on online speech and social norms. Among all this came the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) celebration of its own centenary. This was more muted than might have been expected pre-COVID-19—not least out of the need to maintain the country’s draconian, if increasingly necessary, zero-COVID-19 policy. There were still parades, but they weren’t on the scale of those thrown for the country’s 70th anniversary in 2019 or its World War II anniversary in 2015.

But the centenary was still an assertion of the Chinese Communist Party’s power—and of the increasingly dictatorial role of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has consolidated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. A historical resolution, only the third in the party’s history, emphasized just how critical Xi has become to the party’s narrative. At the heart of every crackdown under Xi has been the watchword that the party comes first.

Here are five of Foreign Policy’s best takes on Xi and the party’s power during China’s centenary year.


1. The Party’s Party Is All About Xi

by Melinda Liu, July 1

As CCP celebrations gathered momentum in Beijing, one man was at the center. “Xi Jinping Thought” was everywhere—from the party’s own declarations to new editions of schoolbooks for children. As Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief Melinda Liu writes, “Not since Mao Zedong died in 1976 has the fate of the Chinese nation seemed to balance so intentionally on a single individual. This also means the party’s party isn’t just a few days of flag-waving and fireworks.”

For Xi, the centennial is also a struggle to purge the last remnants of a once-exalted system of collective leadership as he prepares to consolidate his own power next year, when he takes an unprecedented third term as party chairman. As I traced in 2017, Xi’s rise wasn’t inevitable—but today, with his name engraved in the party’s constitution, signs of resistance are few and far between.


2. China’s Growing Censorship Is Training the Public to Be Online Snitches

by Tracy Wen Liu, Aug. 8.

The single-minded story the CCP tells about itself needs rigid enforcement. Under Xi, online spaces were massively curtailed, competing historical narratives were smacked down, minorities were sent to concentration camps, and were dissidents jailed. But all this can’t depend on the censors alone.

As reporter Tracy Wen Liu writes, the party has created an entire generation of online snitches—informers looking to push their own careers by turning in others.

Whether it’s human rights advocates, feminists, or nationalists and Marxists who stray from the party line, the public has been taught to be suspicious of one another. “The constant loss of freedom of speech makes some people anxious—but drives others to take advantage. A group of aggressive and assertive nationalists are able to become internet influencers by attacking people who they consider not patriotic enough.”


3. The Chinese Communist Party Still Thinks It Owns the Future

by Nathaniel Sher and Sam Bresnick, Nov. 21

Several prominent pieces this year contemplated whether China’s rise is over as it faces economic slowdowns and a demographic nightmare. Yet policy analyst Nathaniel Sher and writer Sam Bresnick argue the world shouldn’t be too hasty to call time on China’s rise.

As centennial rhetoric showed, the CCP is still convinced it’s the power of the future—especially given a flailing and divided United States. “The recently released 6th Plenum Communique, like Xi’s report at the 19th Party Congress, depicts China on an inevitable path to national rejuvenation under the CCP’s central leadership,” they write.

Of course, it can be tricky to tell propaganda and genuine belief apart—but there’s no indication of falling confidence in the party’s own narratives.


4. A Squabble About History Almost Killed Xi Jinping’s Father

by Joseph Torigian, Nov. 25

Xi Zhongxun in his office in July 1987.
Xi Zhongxun in his office in July 1987.

Chinese communist revolutionary Xi Zhongxun sits in his office in July 1987. Xinhua News Agency via Redux Pictures

Xi’s obsession with a politically correct version of history isn’t just a matter of communist control. As Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, details, it’s also a personal need that stems from squabbles over party history, which almost doomed Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, during the Cultural Revolution. (Torigian is the author of an upcoming biography on Xi Zhongxun.)

As a young revolutionary, Xi Zhongxun was caught up in the deadly intrigues of his local party, which was cut off from the main party base and dominated by mutual accusations, purges, and murders. Fights over those events’ legacy came back to bite him in the 1960s.

One minor dispute over party history ended with 20,000 people being persecuted—a chaos Xi Jinping fears repeating unless history’s narratives are kept under singular control. “As the story of the Xi family shows, most party members accept that, even when narratives do not go in the direction they like, the party’s interests come first,” Torigian writes.


5. China’s Sham Meritocracy Has Created a Burned-Out Generation

by Helen Gao, Oct. 23

One of the party’s chief concerns in 2021 has been young people, whom it sees as dangerously Westernized and unambitious—whether that’s because the men are too “effeminate” or because video games aren’t didactic enough.

But with the country’s working-age population rapidly shrinking, it’s also the young who will have to bear the burden of carrying China through difficult times. “The Chinese Communist Party is using the whole of its propaganda might to push a simple message: The young must throw themselves into work and life with a zest befitting China’s glorious ‘New Era,’” writes Beijing-based writer Helen Gao.

Despite government propaganda though, many young people are not keen to do so, Gao argues, especially as economic inequality widens and success seems far away. “Others have decided that such reflections are futile, reasoning that all their hard work up to now has got them nowhere anyway,” she writes. “Instead, they decide to embrace their downtrodden existence. If nothing else, this attitude allows them to bear their lot with dignity.”

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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