from Asia Unbound

China’s Communist Party Turns 100: A Major Force in Global Governance, But Cracks Exist in the Xi Era

A man walks past a light installation marking the one hundredth founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China at a hi-tech industrial park, in Beijing, China on June 23, 2021.
A man walks past a light installation marking the one hundredth founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China at a hi-tech industrial park, in Beijing, China on June 23, 2021. Tingshu Wang/Reuters

China’s Communist Party (CCP) celebrates its one hundredth anniversary in July, although the specific date of its founding remains a bit unclear. It has long outlived most of the world’s other communist parties, and has outlived numerous predictions by both foreign and some Chinese scholars that the Party-state would collapse. It has pursued policies that lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and modernized large portions of the country, which contributed to Beijing’s legitimacy. It also has, at least between the Deng Xiaoping and the beginning of the Xi Jinping era, proven more adaptable in its economic policy–making, some of its domestic policy–making related to social issues, and some of its foreign policy–making than many observers expected.

For instance, after alienating many Southeast Asian states in the 1970s and 1980s, Beijing pursued a relatively effective soft power effort in the 1990s and early 2000s designed to bolster its regional image and smooth the way for China to become the dominant trading partner with Southeast Asia, and to sign a trade deal with Southeast Asian states. The CCP also has, in the past two decades, inculcated nationalism among younger Chinese, tying that nationalism to the CCP itself. And it has skillfully used a crackdown on links to the outside world, and a portrayal of wealthy democracies as failing to contain COVID-19 and rife with internal problems to boost the image of the CCP. It has become confident enough that Xi and the CCP in general have, on multiple occasions, sought to promote China’s model of authoritarian state capitalism, enabled by technology, to multiple other countries.

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And yet under Xi Jinping, the CCP is not unassailable. Under Xi, China has become far more repressive domestically, and assertive internationally—often so assertive, via Beijing’s “wolf-warrior diplomacy” and assertive moves in the South China Sea and South Asia borders, that it is turning world opinion against it. China’s thus-far ineffective vaccine diplomacy, combined with its wolf-warrior diplomacy, may further come to a head in the run-up to the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. The fact that the Biden administration appears to be pursuing similarly tough policies toward China as the Trump administration—and that many European countries are increasingly toughening their approach too—also could further isolate China internationally.

China faces internal challenges as well. Harsh repression in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong, and among the population in many other parts of China risks not only atomization and fragmentation of the population but also a backlash, especially if the central government fails to maintain high growth rates and to keep COVID-19 under control. In addition, as my colleague Elizabeth Economy has written, China faces a serious demographic crisis, in which it is aging rapidly and may be left without enough younger workers to fill jobs as the population ages. In addition, as she notes, harsh gender discrimination limits China’s economy and its future growth, as does discrimination against ethnic minorities, who are essentially being taken out of the talent pool. What’s more, rural China remains extremely poor, and China is developing some of the worst income inequality in the world.

Xi’s abandoning of China’s consensus-style leadership at the top, and his clear plan to serve more than two terms as president, also risks putting China in the position of having no clear successor to Xi, (in contrast to the well-planned and signaled successions of Hu Jintao and Xi) and a succession crisis if Xi gets sick or suddenly dies. And Xi’s increasing authoritarianism strangles China’s creative class, Economy notes, hurting innovation in a range of industries, including the vital technology sector, and possibly hindering China’s long-term growth by undermining private sector companies and innovative firms.

Yet despite all these challenges, China is continuing to become a dominant actor in much of Southeast Asia, and an increasingly assertive actor on the world stage, including in areas of global governance. For more on China’s historical views of global governance, and how Beijing addresses global governance today, see the CFR Interactive report China’s Approach to Global Governance, by CFR Senior Fellow for Global Health Yanzhong Huang and myself.

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