On the morning of July 1st, at Tiananmen Square, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated the centenary of its founding. About 60,000 people attended the ceremony. Fifty-six cannons representing the 56 ethnicities each fired 100 ceremonial shots. More than 280 soldiers marched in perfect unison. Bright-faced young men and women dressed in identical costumes sang zealously of the glory of the party and pledged loyalty to its leadership.

The grand mass ceremony was reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph des Willens. On the balcony of Tiananmen, President Xi stood above the adoring masses and reiterated Chairman Mao’s 1949 claim: “The Chinese People have stood up.”

A secret meeting held on a boat in Shanghai marked the party’s humble beginnings back in 1921. Today, the number of members has grown to 95 million. Yet, apart from the grand ceremony held at the nation’s capital last week, for the majority of the 1.4 billion “stood up” Mainland Chinese people, July 1 was an ordinary Thursday.

Employees needed to clock in at work to fulfil their “996” hours, the expectation that employees work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Kai Fu Lee explained in his 2018 book AI Superpowers that “996” is regarded by Chinese urbanites as “family-friendly working hours”, since typical workplaces in Chinese cities demand even more.

In contrast to the Mainland, the first day of July has been a public holiday in Hong Kong for only 24 years, since the 1997 handover. In past years, apart from the routine parades and flag raising ceremonies at the Golden Bauhinia Square, an annual protest march led by the Civil Human Rights Front was held at Victoria Park area in Causeway Bay.

In 2019, hundreds of anti-extradition bill protesters broke into the legislative building and paralysed the local government for months. In 2020, thousands gathered in Causeway Bay despite the implementation of the National Security Law the previous night. This year, the park was sealed off, and citizens were warned to refrain from joining unauthorised gatherings. The lack of firework displays at Victoria Harbour made the celebration unusually quiet.

In Beijing, dressed in a grey Mao suit and surrounded by party officials in black Western-style suits and red ties, President Xi declared:

“The Chinese people have never bullied, oppressed, or enslaved the people of other nations. Not in the past, not in the present, and not in the future.”

However, the Communist Party came to power in 1949 after winning the four-year civil war against the Nationalist government, and its path to victory evokes a different perspective to that of Xi.

Broken promises count as ‘strategy’

In The Tragedy of Liberation (2013), historian Frank Dikötter described the decisive victory of the Communist Party over the Nationalists in the siege of Changchun. In May 1948, 200,000 Communist troops surrounded Changchun. Army commander Lin Bao, one of the top strategists of the party, ordered the city to be starved into submission. They cut off the water and food supplies.

The Nationalist government allowed civilians to leave but not re-enter the city because they could not provide enough supplies to meet the demands. The Communists refused to let the refugees pass.

By June, around 30,000 civilians were trapped between the two warring armies. Some left their young children to the army and fled, others hanged themselves in front of sentry posts. The siege lasted 150 days. At least 160,000 civilians died of starvation.

Dikötter pointed out that the history of the communist revolution is not only characterised by violence and intimidation like other dictatorial regimes, but also filled with “broken promises”. “Mao achieved power by promising every disaffected group what they wanted the most,” yet these promises were broken one by one. Mao’s strategy was “win over the majority, oppose the minority and crush all enemies separately.” Dikötter adds: “But even as every promise was broken, the party kept gaining followers.”

Cai Xia, a former professor at the Central Party School, provides insight as to why the series of broken promises did not weaken the legitimacy of the one-party rule in China. She wrote in an essay published by the Hoover Institution on June 29:

“One basic cultural tradition of Americans is not to lie, to obey the rules and to respect the spirit of the contracts. In Chinese culture, deception is in our blood. There is no spirit of the contract, no sense of fairness, and people often say different words to mean the same things under different circumstances. Something said today can change tomorrow. … The Chinese Communist Party does not think that this is morally bad, they think that it is a ‘strategy’.”

Birth control policy relaxed too late?

One example of a strategy that changed over time under the communist rule is the birth control policy. In 1979, the Chinese government implemented the one-child policy, which drastically reduced the birthrate in the following decades.

Forty years of forced abortions and sterilisations led to an aging population and shrinking labour force. In 2016, the government adjusted its policy to two children per family, and since May 2021, couples have been encouraged to have three children.

However, it may be too late for these new measures to be effective; the entire social-economic structure has already been shaped by the one-child policy. Long working hours, small apartments, lack of affordable childcare and expensive education have all reduced the desire and motivation for young Chinese urbanites to raise a large family.

Some economists argue that China has exhausted its competitive edge in the globalised economy. The shrinking working-age population makes its sizable low-cost labour and consumer market unsustainable, and China is growing old before it gets rich.

Others argue that China is investing in the most cutting-edge AI and automation technologies and is likely to become the first nation that can capitalise on a technology-driven economy independent of supply of labour.

The rapid development of the self-driving car industry in China is an example of how the state-run economy in authoritarian China can triumph over market-driven economies in democratic nations. China’s ability to centralise resources, tolerate risks, and gather private data without regard to human rights are advantages that democratic nations cannot compete with.

China’s dwindling labour force is also becoming increasingly skilled. Many Chinese families invest much of their resources in the education of their one child, in hopes of bettering their life chances in the long run.

The number of university graduates grew from 85,000 in 1979 to 7,650,000 in 2016, and is expected to reach 9,090,000 in 2021. According to the statistical report of the Chinese Communist Party, an increasing number of educated youths choose to join the party. From January 1, 2020, to June 5, 2021, 4,739,000 people joined the Party: 80.7% of them, 3,824,000, are under age 35; 2,220,000, 46.8% are degree holders.

Hungry dragon — or paper tiger?

In an interview on June 29 with Keith Richburg, the president of Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club, political scientist Eric X Li argued that the 100-year-old Chinese Communist Party is young and full of vitality.

Patriotic Chinese youth born in the 1990s and 2000s have no knowledge of the party’s brutal past. The Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Massacre are not taught in their history curriculums and are deemed irrelevant to China’s present or future.

Chinese millennials have witnessed their own nation’s steady economic rise and its triumph in controlling the COVID-19 virus; they have also observed the chaos COVID-19 wreaked in democratic nations like America, England, and India. “We do not want a system where you hold a vote, you don’t deliver, and you’re still legitimate. That’s bad,” Li declared.

On the other side of the Pacific, communist professor Cai Xia (now in exile in America for having questioned Xi’s authority in a private conversation that was recorded and leaked), believes 100 years is a reminder of the party’s mortality.

“The CCP (Chinese Communist Party) appears to be powerful on the outside, but this refined neo-totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship is actually quite fragile inside. The CCP has the ambition of a hungry dragon, but inside it is a paper tiger,” Cai Xia argues.

She cautions America (and the world) to prepare for the “possible sudden disintegration of the CCP” because of the insurmountable challenges it faces, from inflation to labour shortage to debt accumulation to moral bankruptcy.

Cai thinks any unexpected event can trigger the total collapse of the seemingly powerful Chinese neo-totalitarian regime:

“Xi Jinping’s overly suspicious and narrow-minded personality has led to continuous purges inside the party, which have brought extreme dissatisfaction among the middle- and high-level officials of the CCP. Everyone feels unsafe.”

The question is whether the eventual collapse of the CCP would necessarily lead to China’s transition to a democratic, law-abiding society that respects human rights and freedom of the press.

A post-communist China would remain a challenge

Historian Stephen Kotkin argues that a non-communist or post-communist China would remain a challenge as “the societal dynamism, the economic dynamism, and the nationalism will all still be there.” He points out that an observable pattern of post-communist regimes like Putin’s Russia and many other East European countries is that when the communist monopoly on power eventually unravels, it is most often replaced by an authoritarian right-wing regime with rampant corruption, ultranationalism, and xenophobia towards both internal and external “enemies”.

“One of the things you see in the current [Chinese] communist regime is the post-communist political possibilities are already rampant inside the existing structures,” Kotkin explains.

At the centennial celebration, standing above tens of thousands of ordinary people, president Xi Jinping announced:

“The Chinese nation has fostered its splendid civilisation over more than 5000 years of history. The Party has also acquired a wealth of experience through its endeavours over the past 100 years and during more than 70 years of governance.

At the same time, we are also eager to learn what lessons we can from the achievements of other cultures, and welcome helpful suggestions and constructive criticism. We will not, however, accept preaching from those who feel they have the right to lecture us!”

Thunderous applause rose from below. These bright-faced applauding youth are the future of China as the Communist Party enters its second century.

Emma Zhang

Emma Zhang is Lecturer of English at Hong Kong Baptist University