A Big Party
On the first day of July the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary, this was an official celebration. Historians note the actual founding of the Party in a back room in Shanghai in 1921 was actually three weeks later on 23 July. It is not always clear that this difference is known about even at the highest levels of the Party but details don’t really matter to the CCP, they are active rewriters of history, the loss or addition of a few weeks is nothing compared with years of famine or chaos which get willfully ignored.
For those who like mass spectacles with choreographed set pieces involving thousands of people no place does it better than China, perhaps with the exception of North Korea but China has a bigger budget. Although the first of July isn’t a holiday in China that doesn’t stop the centre of Beijing being locked down and thousands of drilled party members being on display to provide the backdrop to China’s new emperor Xi Jinping taking centre stage. Gun salutes, goose stepping soldiers, uniformed spectators waving flags in unison, helicopter and aircraft flybys are all part of the pageantry.
Xi Jinping stood apart from the rest of the Chinese leadership wearing a trading Mao-style of suit whereas all other leaders were attired in more sober western business suits and ties. It is his role as General Secretary of the Communist Party where he derives all his power from, not from head of state of the country. Power in China resides within the Party. A Party which is without doubt the world’s largest political organization with over 95 million members, which, if it were a country in itself would rank as the world’s 16th largest slightly behind Vietnam. As large a body as it may seem to be it represents only 6.6% of China’s population and is an elite within China, and indeed sits above the law of the country. Party discipline is paramount and under Xi’s nearly decade long rule he has only sought to strengthen internal Party discipline and the role it plays across all sections of society and business.
The Party has been in charge since the People’s Republic since 1949 of course but it is ironic that back in the 1990s when companies were looking to list overseas the investment bankers struggled with how to describe Party structures within Chinese state-owned enterprises. The Party was central to an SOE, far more important than the relatively new Western style corporate structure of CEOs and CFOs but this shadow or additional level of management made no sense to overseas investors. In the end the Party structure was simply ignored as too confusing. Overseas listings presented a corporatized face which masked the true power structures underneath. Fast forward to today’s Party-centric China and Party cells are mandatory in listed companies and private companies are as happy as state ones to have the Party play a leading role. That is today’s China, the Party is not something to hide but to celebrate.
Looking in from outside
What is one to make of such an event? No other major country would have a political party event achieve national prominence or takeover the capital city. Britain’s most successful political party, the Conservative Party will be 200 years old in 2024 yet nothing even remotely similar could be contemplated or achieved. The same would be true for Germany’s Christian Democrats and in France there is such a diversity of parties which emerge it makes such comparisons worthless. Because of this there is a tendency to ignore or downplay such a grand event, telling oneself that this is a domestic focused event, or that this is just what China does. Yet this is wrong, when the Party speaks, then it is vital for the world to understand what is being said for the Party is the decisive factor for China.
The official English language translation of Xi Jinping’s speech ran to 5,151 words. It included lots on nationalism and China’s rejuvenation with China’s past weaknesses blamed on foreign powers or malign foreign influence. Blaming foreigners for China’s domestic weaknesses and failings has a long history in China and remains a mainstay of official response to political crises. The most recent example of course being in Hong Kong where the 2019 protests are presented as a foreign backed plan to destabilize China. No evidence is presented with such statements being repeated as fact by officials in HK and the Mainland. Yet there is to date only a single individual who was born in China but now holds a Belize passport that has been convicted of any crime related to funding the protests. Blaming the outsider has a long and healthy history within Chinese discourse.
One paragraph which has deservedly received much attention is,
“We Chinese are a people who uphold justice and are not intimidated by threats of force. As a nation, we have a strong sense of pride and confidence. We have never bullied, oppressed, or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will. By the same token, we will never allow any foreign force to bully, oppress, or subjugate us. Anyone who would attempt to do so will find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
This official translation is somewhat milder than the original Chinese text. The highly respected French academic Sebastian Veg posted an alternative (and more accurate) translation on Twitter,
“The Chinese people will not allow any external forces to bully, oppress or enslave us; anyone who deludes themselves into doing so will suffer a crushing and bloody head-on collision with the great wall of steel (i.e. the PLA) made of the flesh and blood of 1.4 bn Chinese people.”
So here then is the language of today’s China. It seems to be stuck in a world of viewing international relations in terms of bullying and humiliation. What happened to China’s peaceful rise in the world? How can this be the words of a global leader? This is the sort of language which the world was rightly shocked by and criticized Trump for and yet here it is on full display during the CCP birthday party. It should be noted that this line in the speech received the loudest applause as well. This is the language not of a rejuvenated China but of a hegemonic China with dreams of Asian military dominance.
The speech had plenty on ideology, plenty on the successes of the Party (not of the Chinese people) but was completely lacking in any humility or reflection of the missteps and errors which the Party has wrought in its years in power. No one or no country likes to focus and reflect on their failures but even now with China as the world’s second largest economy, with a rover on Mars and a space station in orbit around the earth it lacks the confidence to reflect even for a moment on its mistakes which costs the people of China so much. Instead, the mistakes, and the tragic consequences in lives are forgotten and erased from history. In their place is a historical blank, a time skipped over in history classes, and punishment for those people brave enough to challenge the orthodoxy and ask difficult questions.
But isn’t this for a domestic audience? It is Chinese domestic theatre and show but in reality the Chinese are very pragmatic. That is a frequent commentary from China watchers about such events yet that just isn’t true. It was noticeable that both CCTV and CGTN the State broadcasters flooded their feeds with Party event broadcasts. Of course the Chinese channels flooded their own broadcasts with such programs but they also provide video feeds and shorts to hundreds of news organizations and channels around the globe via various distribution deals. 24 hour television demands content and over the anniversary the state broadcasts provide plenty of that for foreign consumption. It is hard to pretend that this is for domestic consumption when it is so actively promoted internationally unless through some act of staggering naivety it is assumed that the actual Chinese language content will be ignored by those overseas and instead the foreign audience will only marvel at thousands of coordinated flag waving Chinese smiling at their new great helmsman.
A few days following Xi’s grand speech he held a three-way video call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s President Emmanuel Macron. It looked like business as usual for Europe and China. Merkel of course being China’s biggest promoter within Europe and Macron not far behind. It was reminiscent of the end of last year as the three trumpeted the success of their Comprehensive Agreement on Investment but now the times could not have been more different. The CAI is dead in the water with the EU Parliament having stopped all further progress on the deal. The European and Chinese sanctions and countersanctions have ended any hope of that deal for years to come and for a growing body of people in Europe becoming more wary of China it appears to be only the high leaders like Merkel and Macron who have failed to realize the changing times. Even in Hungary there have been significant anti-China protests over the proposed building of an offshore campus of Shanghai’s respected Fudan University. Hungary has often been seen as the European state keenest to do China’s bidding but strongman president Viktor Orban can’t control his people completely and his pro-China policy has taken a hit.
The Party’s party didn’t seem to figure in the video call between the leaders which instead discussed the usual sort of topics, international trade, climate cooperation, Covid19 and the need for greater engagement. Merkel and Macron were never going to be a troubling pair to Xi, they skipped over the contents of the anniversary because what could they really say in response or comment?
The 100th anniversary was another showcase event for China to show itself to the world. Regardless of whether the focus was to a domestic or international audience, the world was watching. Xi could have used the event to build bridges and reach out to a world still in the midst of the Covid19 pandemic. He could have sounded conciliatory on a number of issues being confident in the global role and position which China now holds. No longer is China the sick man of Asia, the China of 100 years ago is a very different country. But instead of reaching out with an open hand there was a shaking and aggressive clenched fist. A country stuck in the language of bullying and humiliation when it comes to conducting international relations.
Nothing new was said at the event, it was Chinese propaganda at its peak. Its message was depressingly familiar and for foreigner leaders there really is little to comment on but the event reinforces the worrying path Xi is taking the country down. That should not though diminish the message which China’s leadership is sending. They have full confidence in their analysis of the success of their China model, of a rising East and a failing West. China expects the free world and liberal democracies of the world to quietly accept its rise and for those that push back it threatens and bullies both economically and militarily. Policymakers around the globe have no excuse for not understanding the role China wants in the world. It keeps making its ambitions clear, it is for the rest of the world to recognize that.
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