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 nearly a century ago, overseeing the country’s rapid economic growth and rise as a global power while facing challenges abroad and at home, including economic inequality and the coronavirus pandemic.
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.
Origins and Power Structure
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 from which the Communists emerged victorious in 1949. Despite China’s 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. Around 70 percent of its nearly ninety million members are men; farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen make up roughly 30 percent of its membership.
The CCP convenes its National Party Congress (NPC) every five years to set major policies and 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.
Power Politics and Transition
Party leadership succession 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. 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 since late 2012, including high-level officials, or “tigers,” senior military figures, and lower-level party cadres, or “flies.” Some of the most high-profile cases include Hu’s former aide, Ling Jihua, and his brothers; former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai; Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, former vice chairmen of China’s top military body; and Zhou Yongkang, a retired Politburo Standing Committee member and former chief of the CCP’s law and politics commission. Experts say the antigraft movement, though extremely popular among Chinese people, may alienate some elites and paralyze governance at lower levels for fear of falling under the party corruption watchdog’s suspicions.
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 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.
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 caution that relying on a single leader to navigate painful reforms could threaten the ruling party’s survival. “Personal rule ultimately weakens a political system, no matter how effective the personal ruler,” writes Salvatore Babones of the University of Sydney.
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 democracy riots 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 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 millions of its 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 over the party’s vulnerability in light of China’s economic slowdown in recent years and public anger over issues such as corruption and environmental threats. In the spring of 2013, a memo named Document No. 9 that was distributed within the CCP outlined seven threats to the party’s control, including “Western constitutional democracy,” human rights, pro-market “neoliberalism,” and Western-inspired ideas of media independence and civic participation. To counter these, the CCP has sought to further embed itself across layers of Chinese society and the economy. Xi has done so by silencing dissent; restricting religious groups, media organizations, human rights activists, and lawyers; detaining more than a million Muslims in the northwestern region of Xinjiang; and staking a much harder line against corruption.
Still, actual governance of China can be extremely decentralized. While Politburo members retain responsibility for dictating policies and staffing ministries, they do not manage day-to-day portfolios the way a cabinet would. 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 NPC, or from think tanks and advisors, says Pei.
This lack of accountability has compounded grievances over income inequality, lack of consumer protection, land grabs, human rights, food safety, and environmental issues. Many of these have been brought to light by the internet, which has eroded some of the CCP’s control over political communication despite being heavily censored in recent years. Forced evictions have spiked over the years as debt-laden local governments raised capital by selling seized land to developers. Activists such as Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who exposed forced sterilizations, raised red flags of human rights violations stemming from local corruption. Following consumer fury over tainted milk and meat, the central government was forced to act on long-standing concerns about the safety of food products. And though the party has demonstrated interest in addressing environmental degradation, it has also been quick to censor viral critiques of pollution, such as the documentaries Plastic China and Under the Dome, and suppress protest movements that have potential to gain widespread traction.
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 2019, the Chinese economy grew by 6.1 percent, the slowest pace since 1990. An important Communist Party policy meeting in 2013, called the Third Plenum, called for a larger role for markets in China’s economy while retaining a strong role for the state; however, analysts say that in practice economic reform has been slow. Chinese stock market volatility in the summer of 2015 raised questions about the party’s ability to implement proper economic reforms, and U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s trade war that began in 2018 has exacerbated problems. Additionally, the massive accumulation of debt has some experts concerned about a looming debt crisis.
The pandemic of a new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, presented further challenges for the Chinese economy and the party. The virus, first reported in the central city of Wuhan in December 2019, spread rapidly throughout the country, infecting tens of thousands and forcing local and provincial governments to lock down cities, stop industrial production, and urge people to stay at home. On social media, ordinary citizens within China condemned government efforts to silence doctors who warned of the virus and criticized the party’s slow response. With economic activity halted for months, China reported its first economic contraction in more than forty years; its gross domestic product (GDP) dipped almost 7 percent in the first quarter of 2020. CFR’s Economy described the pandemic as “the worst humanitarian and economic crisis of Xi’s tenure.”
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. As a result, broadening insurance coverage has been a major initiative for the party, with healthcare expenditures increasing from 3.5 percent of GDP in 1995 to 5 percent in 2016, 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.
Forging Foreign Policy Strategy
China’s economic prosperity has sparked concerns that it will use its power to dominate Asia and expand its influence on the global stage. Indeed, Beijing has pursued a vast modernization of its military, reserving $177 billion for defense spending in 2019. It has also invested billions of dollars in countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East through its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China’s increasing military capabilities have enabled the country to pursue a more assertive maritime policy. It opposes efforts by the United States to strengthen its defense ties with Indo-Pacific partners, including Japan and Vietnam, and consistently protests U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. China has staked claims to contested islands in the East and South China Seas, pitting itself against Japan and several other neighbors. Beijing has also pursued extensive land reclamation efforts on the disputed islands, with satellite imagery confirming the country’s militarization of these lands.
Particularly vulnerable to Beijing’s assertiveness is Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China and a global financial hub that for decades has largely been allowed to manage its own affairs. Massive protests in 2019 against what many Hong Kongers saw as Beijing’s encroachment on their freedoms were an embarrassment to Xi and the party, experts say. In an effort to recover its grip, China’s legislative body approved the introduction of new national security legislation in May 2020 that critics say could mean the end of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy.
These efforts fall within Xi’s goal of achieving China’s “national rejuvenation.” In a speech at the 2017 party congress, Xi called on the party to “do more to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests, and staunchly oppose all attempts to split China [PDF] or undermine its ethnic unity and social harmony and stability.”
But Beijing has also courted its neighbors and sought to build new partnerships. China has been a driving force behind the creation of institutions to support other countries in the region: the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank (previously known as the BRICS Development Bank). Most significant, however, has been the BRI, which has built transport and commercial networks linking Asia to Africa, Europe, and beyond.
“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.”