The Chinese Communist Party
- 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 2012, leader Xi Jinping has consolidated control over the party, restored its central role in society, and asserted China’s global power. He will likely get a third term during the party congress in 2022.
- The party faces a raft of challenges, including slow economic growth, environmental degradation, and tensions with the United States.
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 Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic in 1949, and it has overseen the country’s rapid economic growth and rise as a global power.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has consolidated control over the infamously opaque party since coming to power in 2012. Some experts have called him the most influential Chinese leader since Mao, and Xi is poised to win an unprecedented third term during China’s twentieth party congress in 2022. Championing a vision for China’s “rejuvenation,” Xi has pursued a more assertive foreign policy strategy, which has increased tensions with the United States and its allies. At home, some of his policies, such as those aimed at reining in corruption and reducing poverty, have been widely popular, while others have received some pushback. Challenges facing the party include slowed economic growth, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate crisis.
As general secretary of the CCP, Xi sits atop the party’s power structure. He is also China’s head of state as president and the head of the military. But most of his power stems from his role as general secretary because of how China’s political system works: Party institutions and state institutions are technically separate, but the ultimate power comes from the CCP. As CFR’s Ian Johnson writes, “Run the party and you run China.” Xi will likely be given a third five-year term as general secretary during the CCP’s twentieth party congress in October 2022, breaking a trend in recent decades in which leaders have stayed on for two terms.
The son of a CCP revolutionary, Xi has worked to restore the party’s central role in society and reclaim China’s power on the world stage. These goals are expressed in his “Xi Jinping Thought” doctrine, which is expected to be enshrined in the party’s constitution. To those ends, Xi has overseen the modernization of China’s military, the harsh repression of minority communities throughout the country, and the increase of state control over private companies, among other actions.
Xi has consolidated his control of the party by ousting rivals and promoting supporters. He launched a massive anticorruption campaign in 2012 that has targeted more than four million officials, including high-level officials, or “tigers,” senior military figures, and lower-level party cadres, or “flies.” In promoting his supporters, Xi has created a faction of loyalists in the party leadership. There is some debate about whether Xi has any formidable opposition. Victor Shih, an expert on elite Chinese politics at the University of California, San Diego, has observed that top officials Wang Yang, Li Xi, and Hu Chunhua all have sizable factions [PDF] separate from Xi. He writes that what happens to them during the twentieth party congress will determine how much of a check there is on Xi’s authority. Meanwhile, Xiaohong Xu, an Chinese history expert at the University of Michigan, writes that previously powerful factions are “dead” and power lies with Xi loyalists.
Xi’s elevation marks the first time that the CCP has moved toward strongman rule since Deng Xiaoping steered the party to consensus rule (or collective leadership) in the 1980s. Experts on modern China caution that relying on a single leader to navigate reforms could threaten the party’s survival. Former CCP insider Cai Xia has said that Xi’s consolidation of power has crushed any form of policy debate among the party’s top officials. Similarly, former CFR Senior Fellow Elizabeth C. Economy argued in Foreign Affairs that China’s economy has suffered because of Xi’s control. “Too much party control—perhaps too consolidated in Xi’s hands—has contributed to economic stagnation,” she wrote.
The CCP’s Origins and Membership
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 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 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.
As of 2021, the CCP has more than ninety-six million members. Over 70 percent of them are men, though the number of women in the party has grown in recent years. The number of members with college degrees has also increased, as have members younger than forty. Agricultural and blue-collar workers make up roughly 30 percent of CCP membership.
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 it is required to hold annual meetings, known as plenums. The Central Committee also selects the Politburo, which has twenty-five members.
In turn, the Politburo chooses the Politburo Standing Committee through secretive, backroom negotiations. The Standing Committee functions as the epicenter of the CCP’s power and leadership, and its membership has ranged from five to nine people. Xi is at the top, as the party’s general secretary. The premier, Li Keqiang, heads the State Council, China’s equivalent of a cabinet. Li is expected to step down in March 2023.
Since a precedent took hold in 2002, members of the Politburo have been expected to step down after reaching the age of sixty-eight. Despite being sixty-nine in 2022, Xi is likely to stay on for a third term. Ahead of the twentieth party congress, however, analysts said older members of the Politburo Standing Committee would likely stick to the retirement age and step down.
While the Central Committee, Politburo, and Standing Committee generally give broad policy direction, actual governance of China can be quite decentralized. Policies can originate “haphazardly” in bureaucracies and ministries, within the Central Committee, inside the National Party Congress, or from think tanks and advisors, says Claremont McKenna College’s Minxin Pei. Chinese provinces enjoy significant autonomy, and subprovincial officials and leaders, appointed by the central government, have much control over local governance.
China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is technically the armed wing of the CCP, and its 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.
Challenges to the Party’s Legitimacy
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.
Economic slowdown. China, the world’s second-largest economy, has seen economic growth slow since its breakneck, double-digit growth in the early 2000s. The massive accumulation of debt by companies, local governments, and households, as well as the teetering real-estate sector, has led to concerns among policymakers. Under Xi, the party has increased its oversight and control of the economy, cracking down on tech firms and increasing state involvement in private companies.
COVID-19 pandemic. Public anger erupted over the government’s initial actions: after the virus was first reported in 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. By mid-2020, China’s reported cases plummeted even as cases rose elsewhere, including in the United States and European Union countries. Party officials and state media pointed to the low case count to push a narrative that the CCP’s authoritarian governing model is superior to democratic models. With that framing, the party’s legitimacy has become tied to having few COVID-19 cases. That’s why China has upheld its strict “zero-COVID policy” through 2022 even as other countries relaxed restrictions. Though many Chinese people support the policy, some have criticized it, pointing to the economic losses resulting from frequent lockdowns and the challenges in obtaining food and medical care. CFR’s Yanzhong Huang warns that if Beijing loses support for its COVID-19 policy, “a regime once known for its technocratic efficiency could soon face a growing legitimacy crisis.”
Income inequality. The CCP grapples with growing income disparity. According to the World Inequality Database, the richest 10 percent of China’s population earn on average fourteen times more than the poorest 50 percent. (This is worse than inequality in many European countries, but better than in the United States and India.)
Environmental degradation. 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. Climate change also threatens the country’s food and water security. In his book Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State, 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.
Aging population. 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. In response, the party has worked to broaden insurance coverage. Moreover, life expectancy has increased while the birth rate has declined. The CCP allowed married couples to have three children, ending a two-child policy, in 2021. But the birth rate has continued to decline, and CFR’s Carl Minzner warns that promoting births could come at the expense of women’s rights.
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; restricting religious groups, media organizations, environmental nonprofits, human rights activists, and lawyers; reining in the private sector; and combating corruption. It has also increased censorship of the internet, where many of the public’s grievances have been brought to light. which has eroded some of the CCP’s control over political communication despite being heavily censored in recent years.
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, and some experts expect that his confidence will only grow during his third term. 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.
Beijing has been more aggressive toward Hong Kong—a special administrative region that for decades has largely been allowed to manage its own affairs—and Taiwan, an island that has been governed independently of China since 1949 but that Beijing views as part of its territory. Both regions are critical to Xi’s goal of achieving China’s “national rejuvenation.” The government also launched a campaign to repress Uyghurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region. Since 2017, authorities have arbitrarily detained more than one million Muslims in so-called reeducation camps, and people in the region have been subjected to rights abuses including involuntary sterilizations, forced labor, and intense surveillance.
In response to China’s foreign policy assertiveness and domestic human rights abuses, the United States and other Western countries have sanctioned members of the CCP and expressed wariness to do business with China. The European Union, for example, froze a planned investment deal with China in 2021 after relations deteriorated. At the same time, global perceptions of China have become increasingly negative.
CFR’s Ian Johnson previews the twentieth party congress.
This Congressional Research Service report explains China’s political system [PDF].
For Foreign Affairs, the Stimson Center’s Yun Sun unpacks what to expect from a bolder Xi after the 2022 party congress.
CFR’s Carl Minzner argues that China’s domestic politics are eroding its governance.
Cai Xia, a former CCP insider, explains how hubris and paranoia threaten the CCP’s future in Foreign Affairs.
CFR’s Joshua Kurlantzick looks at China’s collapsing global image.
Zachary Rosenthal and Beina Xu contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the graphic.