In July 1921 a small, secretive gathering took place in the top floor of a girls’ school, empty in the summer holidays, in the French Concession in Shanghai. It comprised 13 Chinese delegates from different parts of the young republic created after the fall of the Qing dynasty a decade before. The 14th and final participant was Henk Sneevliet, a shadowy Dutch Comintern functionary sent by Lenin. It was the first meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), then a tiny, fragile organisation. Encouraged into life by Grigori Voitinsky, another envoy of Moscow, the infant CCP then numbered about 60 members. Its first leader, Chen Duxiu, could not even attend the small conference.
The contrast between these modest beginnings and today’s CCP could hardly be starker. On 1 July China will mark the 100th anniversary of the party’s foundation in epic style. The first crew of the country’s new space station blasted off on 17 June to the patriotic song “Without the Communist Party, There Would be no New China”. On the big day itself there will be a grand ceremony in Beijing with a speech from President Xi Jinping, and the awarding of medals to distinguished party members. Exhibitions, seminars and performances are being laid on, commemorative coins and stamps have been issued, and a wave of new patriotic films are playing in cinemas (one, 1921, tells the story of the CCP’s first days in Shanghai). Chinese citizens can now anonymously ring a phone line to report online comments that deviate from official history.
When Europeans or Americans vote for politicians who wallow in the past like this, it is often written up as a nostalgic expression of relative decline. So why is the leadership of a country that seems to be marching confidently into the future seemingly so mesmerised by its own past? The answer is key to the CCP’s legitimacy, for two reasons present in the very circumstances of the party’s foundation.
The first has to do with a longue durée narrative about Chinese history. The meeting in 1921 came just as the notion of the country’s “century of humiliation” was first gaining currency; the idea that from the 1840s onwards a once-glorious civilisation had become fragmented and subordinated by outsiders. “The world’s industrial powers,” writes the historian Jonathan Spence in The Search for Modern China, “saw China as an almost boundless potential market as well as a generous source of cheap industrial labour. The Qing’s fall had brought no independence.” That the CCP itself was founded in the French Concession, the bustling embodiment of that subordination, stands as an important symbol.
When he became general secretary in 2012, one of Xi’s early moves was to take the entire politburo to the permanent exhibition on China’s “Road to Rejuvenation”. There, writes the sinologist David Shambaugh in his new book China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now, “Xi and his colleagues paid particular attention to the pre-1949 period of modern Chinese history [which] emphasises China’s national dismemberment, deprivation and humiliation”. Addressing the group, Xi told them: “The Chinese nation has suffered unusual hardships and sacrifices in the world’s modern history.” This curious emphasis on past ignominy in a country undergoing an historically unprecedented rise, argues Shambaugh, explains the hubris and insecurity that has since come to define Xi’s leadership.
To revisit the events of 1921 is also to witness a second trait of that time that remains a powerful force today: the deep historical links between the Soviet project and the CCP. It was Voitinsky who had in 1920 sought out Chen, a veteran of the anti-imperialist May Fourth protests of the year before. Spence also hears Sneevliet’s voice in the orthodox Leninism of the Shanghai delegates’ joint statement committing to “the organisation of a militant and disciplined party of the proletariat”. As the CCP’s first general secretary, Chen would come to be known as “China’s Lenin”.
While those links seem fanciful today – given both the Sino-Soviet split of the 1960s and the sheer glitz of contemporary China – it remains the case that the country’s capitalist software still runs on Leninist hardware. Beyond the soaring skyscrapers and fashion boutiques of Shanghai, or even the dystopian high-tech surveillance deployed in Xinjiang, the fundamental structures of the party state still bear the traits of that early communion between Moscow and its fellow travellers in the China of the 1920s.
Xi knows this. Intellectually, he emerged from the debates between two rival schools in the CCP on how to interpret the fall of the Soviet Union. Where some believed the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalising reforms merely came too late, another faction in the CCP argued that the reforms themselves were the problem. Xi’s rise through the party owed much to the support of Zeng Qinghong, a leader of the latter, more authoritarian camp. Xi’s autocratic, militaristic style of leadership can be well understood as a bid to steer China away from a Gorbachev moment and to restore earlier Leninist principles. Shambaugh concludes that the two imperatives (“augmenting China’s strengths and making China a major global power while rectifying the Communist Party’s weaknesses and preventing its institutional implosion”) are intertwined in Xi’s thinking and dominate his presidency. Both can be traced back to that meeting in the girls’ school in Shanghai in 1921.
So when, on 1 July, the pomp and ceremony of Xi’s China is displayed at the anniversary commemorations, do not dismiss it as merely empty nationalist propaganda and bombast. It is also a window on the enduring relationship between a futuristic present and what otherwise seems like an impossibly distant past.
This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us