The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the founding and ruling political party of modern China, boasting nearly ninety million members. In 2017, the CCP exalted President Xi Jinping and elevated new officials to support Xi in setting the agenda for the second-largest economy in the world. The party has maintained a political monopoly since its founding, despite the effects of China’s rapid economic growth, increasing social unrest, and political destabilization that challenge the country’s rise as a global power. A spate of political and corruption scandals has also exposed deep power struggles inside the infamously opaque organization. Nevertheless, through the course of Xi’s first term in power, he has taken drastic action to not only consolidate his hold on power via party levers, but experts say he has also positioned himself to become the most influential Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
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 members are men, and 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 Standing Committee, which functions as the epicenter of the CCP’s power and leadership. The Politburo Standing Committee currently consists of 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; and as president and head of the military, he exerts enormous influence in setting government policy. The premier, Li Keqiang, heads the State Council, China’s equivalent of a cabinet. Since Xi’s transition to power, he has amassed more power than his predecessors and his unilateral decision-making has undermined his party’s prior commitment to consensus-based rule.
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, such as Hu Jintao, come from humbler backgrounds and rose to power through the Communist Youth League. Others, such as Minxin Pei, a China expert at Claremont McKenna College, 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 is unprecedented, targeting senior political and military figures, as well as lower-level party cadres. 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. Between Xi’s power elevation and the end of 2016, more than 850 individuals were expelled or arrested for corruption, including nearly one hundred “tigers,” or high-level officials. In addition, eighteen members of the party’s Central Committee have been detained by corruption investigators. The antigraft movement, though extremely popular among Chinese people, may alienate some elites and paralyze governing 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 solidified Xi’s ascent as a decisive individual 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 Chinese 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. But in March 2018, the congress amended China’s constitution rolling back term limits for China’s president, a move that paves the way for Xi to remain officially in power beyond 2022.
While some experts say that Xi’s extended influence may enable the party to more deftly address economic challenges, others such as CFR’s Jerome Cohen warn that China may in fact be headed for a renewed period of severe repression. There are also signals that Xi will pursue a more assertive foreign policy and in turn intensify alarm of the “China threat.” Experts also caution that the short-term investment in a single leader to navigate painful reforms may threaten the ruling party’s very survival. “Personal rule ultimately weakens a political system, no matter how effective the personal ruler,” writes Salvatore Babones of the University of Sydney. Domestically, “as it becomes more obvious that China’s problems are catching up with its achievements, the government will look less impressive and the masses will begin to lose their enthusiasm and hold the great leader responsible,” writes Cohen.
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 to undertake systematic assessments of 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 of society 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. It has done so by silencing dissent; restricting religious groups, media organizations, human rights activists, and lawyers; and staking a much harder line against corruption that has been responsible for the downfall of influential politicians, military officers, and businessmen.
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 Claremont McKenna College’s 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 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 recent 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 for growth. In 2017, the Chinese economy grew by 6.9 percent, marking its first annual acceleration in seven years, but a year earlier gross domestic product (GDP) grew by around 6.5 percent, the country’s 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. Additionally, the massive accumulation of debt has some experts concerned about a looming debt crisis.
Separately, China’s aging population will test the party’s ability to provide for its people and ensure a stable economic future. 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 health-care expenditures increasing from 3.5 percent of GDP in 1995 to 5.5 percent in 2014, according to World Bank data. Spending on health care is slated to increase to $1 trillion annually by 2020, according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, from the $357 billion spent in 2011, and while medical insurance covers more than 90 percent of the population, coverage is often limited.
Forging Foreign Policy Strategy
China’s burgeoning power on the global stage has sparked widespread perceptions of an assertive, expansionist power. Beijing has pursued a vast modernization of its military [PDF], reserving $175 billion for defense spending in 2018. It protested the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system to South Korea and reacts vehemently to the U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan. China’s increasing military capabilities have enabled the country to pursue a more assertive maritime policy. The bolstering of U.S. defense ties with Asia-Pacific partners—Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam—has also stoked China’s maritime assertiveness. China has staked unwavering claims on contested islands in the East and South China Seas, a move that pits the country against Japan and several other neighbors and has caused a diplomatic rift in the immediate region. Beijing has also pursued extensive land reclamation efforts on the disputed islands, with satellite imagery suggesting the country’s militarization of these lands. 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 China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build transport and commercial networks linking Asia to Africa, Europe, and beyond.
China under Xi has staked out a larger role in the global system. Though Beijing has clamped down on the penetration of foreign influence with new restrictions on the internet, nongovernmental organizations, and religion, its outreach to the outside world has not only expanded rapidly, including through controversial influence campaigns, but has also been orchestrated through the party’s lens to showcase a strong, admirable Chinese nation. “Xi has made very clear that his ambitions do not stop with the Asia-Pacific region,” says CFR’s Elizabeth C. Economy. “He is looking to remake global order—the rules of the road—in ways that suit China more.”