Backgrounder

The Chinese Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party faces a host of domestic and international challenges as it aims to bolster China’s great-power status.
Xi Jinping stands before delegates during the nineteenth National Congress in 2017.
Xi Jinping stands before delegates during the nineteenth National Congress in 2017. Thomas Peter/Reuters
Summary
  • The CCP has had a monopoly on power since the Mao Zedong–led party defeated nationalist rivals and founded the People’s Republic in 1949. It has more than ninety million members.
  • Since coming to power in 2012, President Xi Jinping has consolidated control over the party. China’s legislative body ended presidential term limits, creating a path for Xi to rule indefinitely.
  • As the party celebrates its one hundredth anniversary in 2021, it faces a raft of challenges, including slow economic growth, environmental degradation, and tensions with the United States.

Introduction

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the founding and ruling political party of modern China, officially known as the People’s Republic of China. The CCP has maintained a political monopoly since its founding a century ago, overseeing the country’s rapid economic growth and rise as a global power. As the party marks its one hundredth anniversary in 2021, it faces challenges abroad and at home, including economic inequality, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate crisis.

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Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he has consolidated his control over the infamously opaque party, with many experts calling him the most influential Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. In 2017, the CCP reaffirmed Xi’s dominance and elevated new officials to support him in setting the agenda for the second-largest economy in the world. Championing a vision for China’s “rejuvenation,” Xi has pursued a more assertive foreign policy strategy, which has increased tensions between China and the United States and its allies.

Origins and Power Structure

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Inspired by the Russian Revolution, the CCP was founded in 1921 on the principles of Marxism-Leninism. Tensions between the Communist party and the nationalist Kuomintang, its primary rival, erupted into a civil war won by the Communists in 1949. Despite market reforms in the late 1970s, the modern Chinese state remains a Leninist system, like those of Cuba, North Korea, and Laos.

The party relies on three pillars: control of personnel, propaganda, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). As the armed wing of the CCP, the PLA’s main objectives include protecting the party’s rule and defending the party’s interests. The CCP’s Central Military Commission, currently headed by Xi, oversees both the PLA and the People’s Armed Police, which primarily focuses on internal security. According to a 2020 U.S. Defense Department report [PDF] on China’s military, the CCP sees the PLA as “a practical instrument of its statecraft with an active role in advancing the PRC’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to the PRC’s increasingly global interests and its aims to revise aspects of the international order.” For example, the PLA oversees the deployment of warships and aircraft near disputed areas of the East and South China Seas, as well as near Taiwan.

Over 70 percent of the CCP’s nearly ninety-two million members are men. In 2019, however, more than 42 percent of new members were women. Farmers, herders, and fishermen make up roughly 30 percent of its membership.

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Every five years, the CCP convenes its National Party Congress to set major policies and select top leaders. (This is not to be confused with the National People’s Congress [PDF], which is China’s legislature.) During this time, members choose the Central Committee, which comprises around 370 members and alternates including ministers, senior regulatory officials, provincial leaders, and military officers. The Central Committee acts as a sort of board of directors for the CCP, and its mandate is to select the Politburo, which has twenty-five members.

In turn, the Politburo elects through backroom negotiations the Politburo Standing Committee, which functions as the epicenter of the CCP’s power and leadership. The Standing Committee currently has seven members, but membership has ranged from five to nine people. Xi, who took over from Hu Jintao in 2012, sits atop the system as general secretary. He is also the president and head of the military, exerting enormous influence in setting government policy. The premier, Li Keqiang, heads the State Council, China’s equivalent of a cabinet.

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Power Politics and Transition

Party leadership is decided through secretive negotiations. Some experts split the CCP’s power structure into two distinct camps: the “princelings,” the children of high-level leaders, and the “tuanpai, those who came from humbler backgrounds and rose to power through the Communist Youth League, such as Hu Jintao. Other experts, such as Claremont McKenna College’s Minxin Pei, see a more complex power dynamic built from personal alliances and factional loyalties juggled among three groups: retired leaders, incumbents, and the incoming elite class.

These complex dynamics can be seen in Xi’s extensive anticorruption campaign, which began in 2012. While corruption crackdowns are not uncommon following a transfer of power, the scope of Xi’s campaign has been unprecedented, targeting some two million officials, including high-level officials, or “tigers,” senior military figures, and lower-level party cadres, or “flies.” Experts say the antigraft movement, though extremely popular among Chinese people, could alienate some elites and paralyze governance at lower levels for fear of falling under the party corruption watchdog’s suspicions.

The Elevation of Xi

In the reform era that followed the death of Mao and his personality cult, Deng Xiaoping steered the party from strongman rule to consensus rule (or collective leadership) among the elite and institutionalized the transfer of power from one leader to the next, with each president serving a maximum of two five-year terms. These principles had dictated leadership succession since the early 1980s. “This shift from the rule of a man to the rule of the party has been credited with bringing political stability and economic development to China,” writes Mary Gallagher, professor at the University of Michigan.

However, experts say the CCP has moved back toward strongman rule with the elevation of Xi. If the eighteenth Party Congress in 2012 marked the peaceful transition of China’s leadership from Hu to Xi, then the nineteenth congress in 2017 solidified Xi’s ascent as a decisive leader. In March 2018, the congress amended China’s constitution to roll back term limits for China’s president, paving the way for Xi to remain officially in power beyond 2022. Experts on modern China caution that relying on a single leader to navigate reforms could threaten the ruling party’s survival.

“Too much party control—perhaps too consolidated in Xi’s hands—has contributed to economic stagnation.”
Elizabeth C. Economy, CFR Senior Fellow for China Studies

CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy argues in Foreign Affairs that China’s economy has already suffered because of Xi’s control. “Too much party control—perhaps too consolidated in Xi’s hands—has contributed to economic stagnation,” she writes. 

Challenges in Governance

In recent decades, global events and internal strife have tested the CCP. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s triggered a series of existential crises for the party that forced it to reconsider its mandate. The Soviet implosion in particular pushed the CCP to examine the causes of regime collapse and institute intraparty reform to avoid a similar fate. It determined that an ossified party-state with a dogmatic ideology, entrenched elites, dormant party organizations, and a stagnant economy would lead to failure, according to David Shambaugh’s 2008 book, China’s Communist Party.

Since the 1990s, the CCP has shown a technocratic capacity to respond to the developmental stresses brought on by China’s dizzying economic rise. Today, the party has harnessed the rewards of globalization and economic development, lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty. The CCP has reimagined itself as a driver of change, guiding the country’s path to wealth and fueling a sentiment of national pride.

Yet fears of social unrest are persistent. Leaders share concerns that public outrage and activism over a host of issues—such as income inequality, environmental threats, land grabs, food safety, and lack of consumer protection—could threaten the party’s control and catalyze democratic social change. Many of the public’s grievances have been brought to light on the internet, which has eroded some of the CCP’s control over political communication despite being heavily censored in recent years.

To counter threats to its control, the CCP has sought to further embed itself across layers of Chinese society and the economy. With Xi’s encouragement, the CCP has done so by silencing dissent, including on social media; restricting religious groups, media organizations, environmental nonprofits, human rights activists, and lawyers; reining in the private sector; and combating corruption.

Still, actual governance of China can be extremely decentralized. Chinese provinces enjoy significant autonomy, and subprovincial officials and leaders, appointed by the central government, have almost total control over local governance. Policies can originate “haphazardly” in bureaucracies and ministries, within the committee, inside the National Party Congress, or from think tanks and advisors, says Pei.

Domestic Obstacles Ahead

While rapid economic growth has boosted the livelihoods of millions, the CCP must also address massive income disparity. According to a 2016 study from Peking University, the richest 1 percent of households held a third of the country’s wealth, while the poorest 25 percent owned only 1 percent of its wealth.

China’s economic growth, which has slowed since its breakneck, double-digit growth in the early 2000s, has also been a point of concern for policymakers, who have called for reforms to increase domestic consumption and curb reliance on exports. In 2020, the Chinese economy grew by 2.3 percent, the slowest pace since Mao’s death in 1976. However, China was the only major world economy to expand in a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the massive accumulation of debt has some experts concerned about a looming debt crisis. Chinese stock market volatility also raised questions about the party’s ability to implement proper economic reforms. In response, Xi has worked to boost the CCP’s control of both state-owned and private companies. In September 2020, for example, the CCP issued new guidelines to boost party supervision of private firms.

At the same time, China’s industrialization has come at the environment’s expense. In the past decade, China has emitted more greenhouse gases per year than any other country. Air pollution, water scarcity, and soil contamination threaten the health and livelihoods of China’s people. In his book Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State, CFR’s Yanzhong Huang argues that the CCP’s failure to address pollution could lead citizens to question the party’s legitimacy. Indeed, as public awareness of environmental degradation has increased, the number of petitions and protests have grown.

Separately, China’s aging population will test the party’s ability to provide for its people. Estimates suggest that retirees could account for more than 40 percent of China’s population by 2050. Moreover, life expectancy has increased while the birth rate has declined. Recognizing the problem, the CCP announced in 2021 that it would allow married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy enforced for most couples. Broadening insurance coverage has also been a major initiative for the party, with health-care expenditures increasing from 3.5 percent of GDP in 1995 to 5.4 percent in 2018, according to World Bank data, and researchers project that number will rise to 9.1 percent by 2035. While medical insurance covers more than 90 percent of the population, coverage is often limited.

The Party’s COVID-19 Narrative

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic brought a new crisis for the CCP. Public anger erupted over the government’s initial actions: after the virus was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019 and then spread throughout the country, ordinary citizens condemned the government’s slow response and its efforts to silence doctors who warned of the virus. Local and provincial governments locked down cities and halted industrial production. Thousands of people died. CFR’s Economy described the pandemic as “the worst humanitarian and economic crisis of Xi’s tenure.”

By mid-2020, however, China’s reported cases plummeted even as cases rose elsewhere, including in the United States and European Union countries. The CCP declared victory over COVID-19. Since then, party officials and state media have pointed to the low case count to push a narrative that the CCP’s authoritarian governing model is superior to democratic models. In an attempt to boost its soft power, it also delivered more than three hundred million doses of its COVID-19 vaccines—twenty-five million of them donations—to countries around the world by mid-2021, though several of these vaccines appear to have lower efficacy rates than some of the vaccines created in the United States and Europe.

Yet a growing number of foreign governments are calling for a deeper investigation into the virus’s origin, including the hypothesis that it could have leaked from a Chinese lab. Chinese officials have rejected the lab-leak idea and suggested that the virus did not originate in China at all. CFR’s Huang writes that if the lab-leak theory proves to be true, “the self-proclaimed superiority of China’s authoritarian approach in handling the coronavirus would be severely undercut.”

Assertive Foreign Policy

China’s economic prosperity has sparked concerns that it will use its power to dominate Asia and expand its influence on the global stage. In the early 2000s, Chinese leaders sought to assuage foreign governments by emphasizing China’s “peaceful rise.” But Xi has taken a more assertive approach. He has championed a vision for China to become a “fully developed, rich and powerful” nation with international influence by 2049. The CCP has worked to achieve this by modernizing its military, pursuing extensive land reclamation efforts on disputed islands in the South China Sea, investing billions of dollars in countries worldwide through its massive Belt and Road Initiative, and taking on a more active role in international institutions. 

“Xi has made very clear that his ambitions do not stop with the Asia-Pacific region,” says CFR’s Economy. “He is looking to remake global order—the rules of the road—in ways that suit China more.”

International Criticism

Beijing’s assertiveness has drawn heightened scrutiny from Washington and its allies. Of particular concern are actions against Hong Kong and Taiwan, which are critical to Xi’s goal of achieving China’s “national rejuvenation.” Under Xi, Beijing has increasingly tightened its grip on Hong Kong, a special administrative region that for decades has largely been allowed to manage its own affairs. In 2020, China’s National People’s Congress imposed a national security law on the city that gave Beijing broad new powers to punish critics and silence dissenters. China has also been more aggressive toward Taiwan, an island that has been governed independently of China since 1949 but that Beijing views as part of its territory.

The party has also faced international blowback over the government’s harsh repression of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Since 2017, authorities have arbitrarily detained more than one million Muslims in so-called reeducation camps. People in the region are subjected to forced sterilizations, forced labor, intense surveillance, and religious restrictions. The United States, along with a handful of other Western countries, determined that the abuses constitute genocide and crimes against humanity. Chinese officials deny genocide is taking place. In addition, authorities have targeted and detained human rights lawyers and advocates throughout China, drawing condemnation from foreign governments.

The United States has responded in part by punishing members of the CCP. In 2020, the Donald Trump administration limited visa stays to one month for CCP members and their immediate family. That same year, the administration sanctioned more than a dozen officials, including a member of the Politburo, over abuses in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. The Joe Biden administration has kept these restrictions in place.

Recommended Resources

The July/August 2021 issue of Foreign Affairs examines whether China can keep rising under the CCP.

In her book The Third Revolution, CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy investigates the ways that China has changed under Xi Jinping.

Analyzing the CCP’s pandemic response for China Leadership Monitor, CFR’s Yanzhong Huang argues that China’s authoritarian model is not a viable alternative to liberal democracy.

Cai Xia, a former CCP insider, recounts how she became disillusioned with the party’s doctrine and governance in Foreign Affairs.

The Brookings Institution profiles China’s top seven government leaders.

This Independent Task Force report unpacks the Belt and Road Initiative and examines how the United States should respond.

The Asia Society’s ChinaFile tracks Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign from 2012 through 2016.

Zachary Rosenthal contributed research to this Backgrounder. 

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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