Rise of China's CCP and demise of USSR's CPSU: A tale of two communist parties

The CCP has much to be proud of on the 100th anniversary of its founding on 1 July. Coincidentally, this year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)’s demise. Chinese leaders have learnt much from the Soviet Union’s experience, not least the importance of a people-centric approach. In fact, the party is undergoing a grand synthesis of its reforms to chart the country’s way forward. However, amid problems such as regional disparities and insatiable expectations, fresh solutions need to be found. The CCP also needs to present a brand new image of itself in the international arena.
Performers wave national and party flags as they rehearse before the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)
Performers wave national and party flags as they rehearse before the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It also happens to be the 30th anniversary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)’s demise. The domino-style collapse of the communist regimes across the USSR and Eastern Europe 30 years ago was splendidly ironic vis-à-vis the “domino effect” posited in George Kennan’s Cold War theory. The dramatic event highlighted how ignorant people were of the internal dynamic of the politics of communist states. 

It has been three decades since the CPSU bowed out of history. Its wretched end and Russia’s irreversible downhill slide stand in sharp contrast to the magnificent rise of China as a mighty power under the CCP’s leadership. 

The fall of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

The historic demise of the CPSU sent tremendous shockwaves through the CCP. Here was an experienced and mature political party with an impressive membership, which had held power for over 70 years. It emerged from poverty and backwardness to create a superpower as well as an entire socialist camp, and led a global movement for decades. And yet, it disappeared overnight. Out of all of the CPSU’s members, who numbered more than 10 million, there was not “a single individual man enough” (Xi Jinping’s words) who stood out to defend the party that gave them everything. 

On the night when the USSR was formally dissolved, a Chinese journalist in Moscow walked the streets of the Russian capital to see how the people were responding to the historic event. But what did he see? Nothing. In the boundless evening panorama, Moscow was just the way it had always been. The CPSU was abandoned by its own members and the general population of the USSR. The people were totally indifferent to whether the party lived or died.

The CPSU had its glory days. The speed of industrialisation during the Stalin era was historically unprecedented. The Soviet model was the top choice for newly independent countries after the Second World War. Countries that took the socialist path once accounted for almost half of the world’s population. The passion, idealism and commitment demonstrated by Soviet youths as they fought to defend their country in the “Great Patriotic War” and worked towards building socialism were remarkable. They continue to be a wellspring of inspiration for the current generation of Chinese leaders.

...the CPSU had completely turned its back on the people. Indeed, the ruling elite of the party had become a privileged class. 

People walk on an overhung pedestrian bridge near a Stalin-era skyscraper, in central Moscow, Russia, on 16 May 2021. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP)
People walk on an overhung pedestrian bridge near a Stalin-era skyscraper, in central Moscow, Russia on 16 May 2021. (Yuri Kadobnov/AFP)

And yet, according to an opinion poll conducted before the fall of the CPSU, 85% of the subjects polled believed that the Soviet party represented only its own interest groups (the bureaucrats, cadres, the functionaries of official bodies). A mere 7% saw it as representing the people at large, while 4% saw it as representing the working class. Even those who thought that the CPSU represented its own members constituted only 11%. In other words, the CPSU had completely turned its back on the people. Indeed, the ruling elite of the party had become a privileged class. 

A particular anecdote offers a telling revelation of what the USSR’s political ecology had come to. When Nikita Khrushchev was delivering a secret report that denounced Stalin during the 20th Congress of the CPSU, someone from among the listeners raised a question: “Why did you not speak out against Stalin’s crimes when they were occurring?” Khrushchev immediately responded: “Who posed that question? Step out now!” The stern demand was met with complete silence. He then said, “That’s exactly why I didn’t speak out.” 

Equally sobering, when Khrushchev delivered his last political report before being removed from power, he remarked tearfully, “Comrades, you failed to point out my shortcomings and mistakes candidly and openly. You blindly echoed and supported everything I said. You lack principles and courage.” 

The rise of the Chinese Communist Party 

The CCP’s achievements over the last 40-odd years would make any political party proud. The party has established a superpower not only comparable in glory to the USSR, but actually superior to it in terms of its foundation and sustainability. All this is indissociable from the path taken by the CCP since the Chinese economic reform, along with the policies and strategies it has adopted. 

A giant decoration marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China is seen inside a bookstore in Beijing, China, 21 June 2021. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
A giant decoration marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China is seen inside a bookstore in Beijing, China, 21 June 2021. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

Looking back on how economic reforms unfolded, the first 20-odd years was a time when China was “crossing the river by groping for stepping stones”. With Deng Xiaoping’s push, the ideology and the system of the planned economy that had put productivity in a straitjacket were boldly torn down. Marketisation moved forward dynamically. China’s rural reform led to the extraordinary rise of the township and village enterprises, which was contributing to almost half of the country’s gross industrial output by 1994, surprising even Deng Xiaoping himself greatly. Thanks to the open-door policy, there was a massive influx of foreign funds, advanced technologies, management know-how, various talents, scarce products and raw materials. This narrowed the gap between China and advanced countries of the world across various domains significantly, and gave rise to a conducive international environment for China’s development drive.

Spurred by the decentralisation of power and transfer of profits, the local governments on all levels, from the provincial cities down to the towns and villages, were arguably the first large-scale entrepreneurs as well as the drivers of marketisation. It was the local interests that tore central planning apart, and consigned the planned economy to the dustbin of history. In their moves to attract businesses and investments, and also in their speed and manner of growth, the local governments were comparing with, learning from and competing with one another. In this way, they constituted a second engine of growth apart from market competition itself. 

Driven by the twin engines, the Chinese economy generated a greater and longer-lasting miracle after the “four little dragons” of East Asia. The local governments created many local development models according to the relevant conditions on hand. These included the famous Southern Jiangsu Model and Wenzhou Model. Creation and innovation flourished. The Chinese economy was brimming with vitality. 

The rapid growth during the first two decades or so of Chinese economic reform was driven by the profits generated by marketisation. As the saying goes, ”rising tide lifts all boats”. There was ample impetus as everyone riding on it had something to gain. After the late 1990s, however, the reform dividends began to tip towards power, such that the main beneficiaries were the local governments, monopolising oligarchs backed by connections to the powerful, as well as other vested interests. The costs of reform, unfortunately, were mainly borne by ordinary citizens. This was evident, for example, in the marketisation-oriented reforms involving housing, healthcare, education and state-owned enterprises. 

Social issues bubble up

Then China entered the period of the Hu-Wen administration. Social conflicts became prominent. Extensive industrialisation, urbanisation, social transformation, coupled with massive movements and reorganisation of people, led to numerous social and environmental problems. Urban-rural disparities, the rich-poor divide and issues of equality and justice became points of heated social discussion and gradually also central concerns for the policymakers. It was in response to these issues that the notions of a “harmonious society” and the “scientific outlook on development” were put forward.

...the CCP has never completely forgotten its “original intention”. It also has the courage and ability to struggle against adverse interest groups, even when these forces are from within the party itself. 

This photo taken on 22 May 2021 shows people cycling in front of a poster that reads "The original intention and mission of the Chinese Communists is to seek happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the nation", along a street in Huaxi village, Jiangsu province, China. (Noel Celis/AFP)
This photo taken on 22 May 2021 shows people cycling in front of a poster that reads "The original intention and mission of the Chinese Communists is to seek happiness for the Chinese people and rejuvenation for the nation", along a street in Huaxi village, Jiangsu province, China. (Noel Celis/AFP)

In contrast to the governments of many developing countries that find themselves in the long-term grip of vested interests, the CCP has never completely forgotten its “original intention”. It also has the courage and ability to struggle against adverse interest groups, even when these forces are from within the party itself. 

From the Hu-Wen administration’s “New Three Principles of the People” (the call to “use power for the people, maintain emotional ties to the people, and seek benefits for the people”) to the “Principal Contradiction” of Xi Jinping’s new era ("the contradiction between unbalanced, inadequate development and the people's ever-growing needs for a better life”), their underlying spirit has a common source. That source is the original intention behind Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, which is to bring down the privileged class that sits above the general populace. 

People-centric approach will keep CCP undefeatable

With far superior perceptiveness than George Kennan, Mao Zedong had foreseen the endgame for the Soviet model. He tried his best to steer China off the projected downward spiral, but did not succeed. The same people-oriented thinking — that is, the outlook on development that places the people at the centre — has recently been elevated to a higher level by Xi Jinping, who quips that “people’s hearts and minds are political power, and to maintain political power is to gain constantly the hearts and minds of the people”. Putting people at the centre of everything is regarded as the foundation on which the CCP will stand forever undefeatable. This is a key takeaway on Xi’s part from the CPSU’s demise. 

Another important factor of the CCP’s success is that, despite the impact of marketisation and globalisation, the party has basically retained and improved on the system of grand unity established during the Mao era. The superiority of this system lies in many aspects. Apart from the capacity to “come together to make things happen” (集中力量办大事), as often touted by the CCP, these include, inter alia, the maintenance of national unity, social stability and the cohesiveness of the Chinese people; the training of government officials and the arrangements to help them gain experience; infrastructure-building based on long-term planning and as a coordinated national effort; the promotion of education, poverty alleviation and ecological protection and restoration; the push for key scientific and technological breakthroughs; coordinated regional development; as well as the ability to respond to arising situations and innovate, backed by the combination of top-level design and localised piloting. These competencies constitute China’s core competitiveness. Their importance will surely be increasingly prominent in the ongoing age of upheavals.

However, while the efforts against corruption can indeed dissolve some resistance, it is incapable of providing a new driving force to replace the now-gone situation of “rising tide lifting all boats”. New impetus and vitality have to be generated from systemic design and acquired from a spiritual power source. 

Paramilitary police officers patrol Tiananmen Square a day before an event marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, China, on 30 June 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP)
Paramilitary police officers patrol Tiananmen Square a day before an event marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing, China on 30 June 2021. (Greg Baker/AFP)

The weightiest factor behind the rise of China is that the country has a ruling party that is able to constantly purify, improve, reinvent and enhance itself. The “great project” of “party building” has been going on unceasingly since the Mao era. Mao Zedong made use of various campaigns to keep the party from bureaucratisation and ossification, so that it would maintain its vibrancy and close connection to the masses.  

The Chinese economic reform originally grew out of a mind emancipation movement in a grand debate about the criteria of truth. After marketisation, the idea of the “Three Represents” (economic production, cultural development and political consensus) was put forth to expand the party’s popular base in order to adapt to a more complex society. Subsequently, measures like the building of a “learning party” and improving the CCP’s governing capacity were rolled out. These were a response to the “Four Tests” (governance, reform and opening-up, the market economy, and the external environment) and “Four Dangers” (slacking spirit, inadequate ability, being divorced from the masses, and passive corruption) faced by the party.

The large-scale combat against corruption after Xi Jinping came into power can do more than boost morale, set a new style and draw the hearts and minds of the Chinese people together. It is also an effective way to overcome vested interests. However, while the efforts against corruption can indeed dissolve some resistance, it is incapable of providing a new driving force to replace the now-gone situation of “rising tide lifting all boats”. New impetus and vitality have to be generated from systemic design and acquired from a spiritual power source. 

The age of grand synthesis

Deng Xiaoping once said, “It will take about 30 years before we can form a mature system.“ 30 years later, Xi Jinping has initiated large-scale institution-building through his  “Four Comprehensives” (to comprehensively deepen reform, to comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, to comprehensively govern the nation by law, and to comprehensively govern the party with strictness) so as to gather in a grand synthesis the experience gained during the four decades of reform and opening. The aim is to lay the institutional foundation for China’s long-term social and economic development from here on.

The “communist state” as they [the West] imagine it is basically still a relic of the Cold War period, a very far cry from the China of today. How is the CCP going to escape this perception trap? How is it going to present a brand new image of itself in the international arena?

Chinese President Xi Jinping (on screen) delivers a speech during the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on 1 July 2021. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
Chinese President Xi Jinping (on screen) delivers a speech during the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China on 1 July 2021. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

The international situation and great historic changes also set the stage for a grand synthesis. Neoliberalism was in its prime when the CPSU collapsed. 30 years later, the West is beset by numerous difficulties, and neoliberalism is being implicated from all sides. Calls for reform are growing ever louder in the West, but there is hardly any clear blueprint to follow. As a result, chaos breaks out, as manifested in the radicalisation of both the Left and Right, populism running rampant, Donald Trump being elected as president and the whole Brexit business.

The China Model has become the only challenger that is still standing. However, the “communist state” as such is something which the West and many countries in the world still find absolutely unacceptable. Because of this, they are willing to even resort to a new Cold War, decoupling and so on to stop the re-emergence of the “Red Peril”. The “communist state” as they imagine it is basically still a relic of the Cold War period, a very far cry from the China of today. How is the CCP going to escape this perception trap? How is it going to present a brand new image of itself in the international arena? This is an issue that needs to be resolved urgently. It requires bold innovation. 

Fortunately, we are also in an era of innovation. Some even believe that humanity is now in the midst of the Third Axial Age. The First Axial Age, as we may recall, gave us Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Confucius, Mencius, Siddhartha Gautama and other great sages of old. The Second Axial Age, which spanned the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, gave us a host of towering figures (including Karl Marx) associated with modern civilisation.

In the current age of upheavals unseen in centuries calls for its own intellectual progenitors. While China is destined to play an important role in ushering in a new era of human history, we have to ask: is it going to be the lead or a supporting actor? Is it going to play the hero or the villain? To a great extent, the answers depend on what China’s leaders do with the Soviet Union’s legacies and whether or not they have a transcending vision. 

Related: A secretive centenary celebration: Can the CCP be more open? | Heritage, CCP traditions & liberalism: Three fundamentals of China's new social contract | Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping – Five generations of CPC leaders | The CCP’s massive left turn and the post-Xi political landscape of China | Can the CCP forge an inclusive social contract and build a healthy civil society?