On July 1, the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary. For those in the West banking on its demise, they’re sorely mistaken. Because while the party may have committed some significant missteps throughout its rule, it is still a formidable force that will remain a threat to the United States and Western allies for years to come.
The party has fared exceptionally well compared with other totalitarian parties and the states they built. Those who look to Russia for a historical parallel for China’s Communist Party mistake its staying power. Lenin’s party and the Soviet Union were in death throes at a comparable point in their life cycle. China under the C.C.P. has been recognized only relatively recently by the West as its most formidable adversary, not just militarily and ideologically, but also technologically and economically. The party has deeply Chinese roots. It exists on a continuum with China’s long dynastic history. It’s not going anywhere.
The C.C.P. is colossal, highly hierarchical and regimented. From its inception in 1921 with only 12 members, it has expanded to over 90 million, averaging almost 20 percent growth a year for 100 years. To maintain control and effectively rule the 1.4 billion population, the party leadership still uses centuries-old tactics but has refined them with high-tech techniques. For example, the sweeping surveillance the C.C.P. conducts on the Chinese people today is the legacy of the ubiquitous people-on-people watch system known as the “baojia” scheme, invented in the Qin Dynasty, revived in the Song dynasty, and perfected and used on a large scale during the Qing dynasty. The C.C.P. merely added the digital cameras. There has been no obvious opposition to such a surveillance system in China, at least among the Han Chinese. But that ought not to be a surprise: A Chinese Big Brother has been watching for 2,000 years.
For the recalcitrant, punishment awaits. (See the crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy movement and the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang). The last two Chinese dynasties, Ming and Qing, were also particularly repressive, and long-lasting — together they survived more than 540 years. A long line of prior dynasties and emperors had already trained the people to be opportunistically oppressive to those below one’s status and submissive to those above it. But aside from the big stick, there are carrots too. Faithful party members are richly rewarded.
The C.C.P., like any of the more effective ancient Chinese ruling classes, diligently reads historical events for lessons. That has helped it navigate crises and, often, emerge stronger. Take the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. There the historical guide was the knowledge that among numerous Chinese rebellions throughout the several millenniums, those led by scholars and intellectuals were never successful. The C.C.P., then under the strongman Deng Xiaoping, judged that there would be practically zero resistance, and few political consequences, for cracking down hard on the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and that any boycott by the West would quickly burn out. Sure enough, foreign investors quickly flocked back to China in greater numbers. Not long after that, the country became “the factory of the world” and was rewarded with World Trade Organization membership.
The C.C.P. also uses a tried and tested tactic of stating mistruths but presenting them as facts. Its root is an ancient China proverb, “Declaring a deer a horse” — the expression explains the high value of uttering patent falsehoods or telling blatant lies not meant to mislead or deceive. In a political context it means if someone powerful makes an obviously false public statement and you publicly accept it to be true, then he knows he can easily control you. The C.C.P. does that often. The latest example, from President Xi Jinping himself, was when he said that China sought an international image that was “trustworthy,” “respectable” and “lovable.”
Mr. Xi knows well that some politicians and corporate interests in the West need cover for continuing, or resuming, cozy business partnerships despite the much increased hostility toward China among many countries. It is not lost on Mr. Xi that even though President Biden has recently called on the Western world to put up a strong front of resistance to the C.C.P.’s ambitions, no country, not even the United States, has punished Beijing significantly enough to jeopardize the bulk of their business interests in China.
And so by using these political strategies from ancient China and exploiting economic opportunities with the West to support its systemic repression, the C.C.P. has achieved political stability. In 100 years — fleetingly short in Chinese history — it has reached wide and deep into the substrata of Chinese society like the strong roots of a banyan tree, fusing every aspect of people’s lives with punishment and reward, mixing indigenous cultural norms and Western materialistic consumption. It is almost impossible to uproot and overturn a giant banyan tree.
Those in the West who think that the C.C.P. will implode and collapse rely on an easy narrative that says the party feeds on an imported Leninist ideology that it imposes on an unwilling populace yearning for freedom and democracy. But this view fails to recognize the C.C.P. as an exceptionally successful and rapacious Chinese ruling class that knows how to tap into the yin, or nefarious side, of the Chinese culture, suck up dark matter to grow its muscles and live long, and now to threaten the West.
Yet the communist empire is not without its weakness. The C.C.P.’s historical trajectory of power and the fortune of the Communist state it founded may have reached their zenith around the time when Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics. China’s real G.D.P. growth rate, the size of its working-age group, net foreign direct investment inflow, even Hong Kong people’s positive opinion of China and their claim of Chinese self-identification, all peaked around that time. But still, the world is not going to witness a China meltdown anytime soon, if history is any guide. The Ming dynasty, probably the most repressive among dynasties established by Han Chinese, wore on for some 72 years after its last peak. The Qing dynasty, established by foreign Manchurians, was no less repressive than the Ming; yet from zenith to collapse took about a century.
Banking on the dissolution of the Communist Party in China will only disappoint. Chinese history provides a template for countries as they create their China policies. Each nation must choose long-term means to protect its interests against the C.C.P. because the party may well outlive us all. The Western assumption that the growth of a middle class in China would lead it toward democracy — similar to other countries in the West — resulted in the costly 45-year failure of the engagement policy.
This is the most important lesson the world can learn on July 1. The date carries deep significance both because, looking back at the century past, so many Chinese have lost their lives and freedom to the C.C.P. and because, looking forward, it serves to deliver a grave warning to the West that a menacing challenge remains at its front door.
Yi-Zheng Lian is a former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He teaches economics in Japan and writes on Hong Kong and China.
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