Founded in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. As would be expected from such a historic institution that has lived through a century of world power shifts and global changes, the party's ideology has been redefined over the years and adapted to the needs of the country in order to build and maintain its importance in the world’s economy and geopolitics. According to the statement released in 2012 for the party’s 18th National Congress, the CCP “takes Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and the important thought of Three Represents as its guide to action and theoretical bases” (People’s Daily Online, 2012). This article will summarize what these different theories are and how the most influential General Secretaries of the party have shaped its ideology.
The founders of the party, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, were firm defenders of Marxism-Leninism. After the successful revolution in Russia and the creation of the USSR in 1917, with an increasing dissatisfaction towards the living conditions growing amongst the Chinese population, they strongly believed that the historical materialism theory proposed by Marx and Engels could be applied to the country and that, following their ideas, the CCP could build a prosperous communist country in China.
On October 1st 1949, after the Chinese Civil War, which started in 1927, chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China and established the CCP as the ruling party of the country, a role which it has maintained until nowadays. During his time as the PRC’s leader, Mao brought great changes in Chinese politics, economy, and society. His theories compose the Mao Zedong Thought, or Maoism ideology. Its key elements are “the Marxist revolution, class struggle, mass mobilization and voluntarism, continuous revolution, self-criticism, and a peasant and proletarian revolution in order to achieve wealth equality” (Dabphet, 2018).
Probably Mao Zedong’s most influential action on the country, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (shortened the Cultural Revolution) was launched in 1966. Nowadays, it is widely interpreted as an attempt to destroy his enemies by unleashing the people on the party and urging them to purify its ranks. The Revolution called for youth mobilization, involving the youngest segments of the country in the fighting and killing the so-called imperialists and capitalists on behalf of Mao. Also, it implemented communism in education, production, and culture. The Cultural Revolution caused a shift in Chinese people’s regard of the world and their values. However, the cost was very high: not only did it cause disorder in the society and disruption of the national and traditional heritage of China, but it also ruined the economy and it is believed by historians that 500.000 to a million people lost their lives (Phillips, 2016). When Mao realized the Revolution had spiraled out of his control he tried to restructure the army and reeducate the youth, but the Revolution only ended with his death in 1976.
In 1981, the CCP made its position toward the Cultural Revolution clear: they stated that it was Mao’s fault, but lessened his responsibility by partly blaming counterrevolutionary groups for some manipulation that ended up causing the worst results of the Revolution. On the other hand, they tried to separate the Cultural Revolution and Mao Zedong Thought, since it still formed part of the party’s fundamental ideology. Summed up by the general secretary that followed Mao, Deng Xiaoping: “Mao was 70% good, 30% bad” (Schmidt-Glintzer, 2017).
The new leader, Deng Xiaoping, introduced his own reforms in the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology of the CCP. In 1982, during the 12th National Congress, the CCP’s constitution was changed to allow a private economy, considered a complement to the socialist economy. Xiaoping considered that China was in the “primary stage of socialism”, and therefore it still had a long road before it to develop the economy and the public sector, but some people could be allowed to become rich “before the objective of common prosperity is achieved”. Several capitalist techniques were introduced, while science and technology were to be the primary productive force.
The so-called Deng Xiaoping Theory would be one of the most important steps in shaping the Chinese economy and society as we know it, since its flagship slogan was "socialism with Chinese characteristics", which not only meant Marxism-Leninism could and should be bent and adapted to the country, but that some parts of their theory could be left out if needed when they weren’t applicable to the country.
After the Tiananmen demonstration and heavy suppression in 1989, Jiang Zemin rose to power. Only two years after having to deal with this incident, Zemin also had to deal with the USSR and Eastern Bloc’s dissolution. The party concluded then that the worst that could happen to its ideology would be stagnation and rigidness, which had been what broke the USSR up. After surviving the communists' fall in Europe, in 2000, Zemin introduced his own theory to the CCP, called The Three Represents.
As its name states, the theory presents three socio-political ideas to be followed by the CCP in its work and plans. It reads as follows: “The Party must always represent the requirements for developing  China’s advanced productive forces,  the orientation of China’s advanced culture, and  the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people” (Mohanty, 2003). While it may seem a somewhat abstract statement, it serves as a socio-political guide that also defends the CCP’s actions as the best ones for the people.
Aside from his contribution to the CCP’s constitution, during Zemin’s presidency a very notable change was established in party: capitalists were allowed to join the party as long as they engaged in “honest labor and work”, and through them they contributed “to build socialism with Chinese characteristics”, as he pronounced in the celebration of the 80th anniversary of the party.
Finally, the current President of the PRC, Xi Jinping has developed his own socio-political theory, the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, which was incorporated into the CCP’s constitution in the 19th National Congress, held in 2017. It consists of 14 ideas derived from his speeches concerning the party’s leadership, further reforms to “improve people’s livelihood and well-being”, the army, and national security and foreign policy (Babones, 2017).
Despite stressing in one of the points the need for the party to follow Marxism-Leninism and socialism with Chinese characteristics, analysts around the globe have been calling China’s economy “state capitalism”, referring to “party-state encroachment on markets; a blending of functions and interests of state and private ownership; and politicized interactions with foreign capital” (Pearson, Rithmire and Tsai, 2020).
In conclusion, while it’s expected that a party that has been in power for a hundred years and has overcome and survived so many historical events would reshape and redefine it’s ideology to adapt to current times in order to secure power and as much stability as possible within the same party and within the country, the Chinese Communist Party has been for many years now introducing changes that directly oppose and contradict its supposed foundation, Marxism-Leninism, to a point where, apart from the speeches, this theory can no longer be found in the country’s economy or politics. It has undoubtedly left a mark in the rhetoric of China and the CCP, but its actual impact in the planning and leading the country is far from actually influential.
Ariadna Mañé is a 21-year-old Spanish student. She is currently finishing her bachelor's degree in Journalism in Barcelona. She's interested in geopolitics, with a special emphasis on Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia. She believes anyone interested in International Politics must be knowledgeable about China, as a continuously growing world power affecting the construction of the present and the future. You can find her on Twitter as @ariadna_mane or on LinkedIn.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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