The banquet room of the Great Hall of the People, 1 October 1999, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and the beginning of the Chinese Communist Party rule. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Communism spread to China from the Soviet Union in the years surrounding the demise of the Qing dynasty in 1912. The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 by intellectuals Chen Duxiu (1879–1942) and Li Dazhao (1888–1927). Sending its rival, the Chinese Nationalist Party, into exile on Taiwan in 1949 after a four-year civil war, the Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China and instituted massive socialist reforms with mixed success.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was born from the infiltration of Western ideas into China at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. After the Treaty of Versailles ceded Chinese territory to Japan at the end of World War I (despite China’s having participated in the war on the side of the Allies), Chinese students and intellectuals took to the streets in protest. During this time agents of the Comintern, the Soviet-dominated international Communist organization, agitated actively for the formation of a Chinese Communist Party, which they achieved in July 1921.

The decline and fall of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) left China plagued by sociopolitical instability and unable to prevent foreign military attacks and political interference, including the imposition of concessions over which foreign powers had control, and under which foreigners were not subject to Chinese law (known as extraterritoriality). These problems caused many Chinese to search widely for explanations; traditional thought systems such as Confucianism offered inadequate answers. The New Culture Movement beginning in 1915 spurred students to investigate competing foreign ideas, including the ideologies of socialism and anarchism, but socialist and anarchist initiatives failed.

Early Days

In early 1920 the Communist International (Comintern) sent a young revolutionary organizer, Gregori Voitinsky (1893–1953), to China to establish a Chinese Communist party. Before he arrived the Soviet Union issued the Karakhan Declaration renouncing imperial Russia’s claims on China. This declaration set the Soviet Union apart from the West, which continued its exploitation, passing Germany’s concessions in China to Japan in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, despite China’s having been an ally in World War I. As a consequence, many Chinese lost faith in Western ideals, and Voitinsky found a warm welcome.

Voitinsky helped Chinese intellectuals such as Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu form Marxist study groups in Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Guangzhou (Canton), and Jinan. In the mid-1921 delegates representing about sixty members became the core of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), committed to ending exploitation based on private ownership. Yet, the CCP was tiny, whereas the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang [GMD]), led by Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925), was a growing revolutionary anti-imperialist party with an army. To promote revolution, the Comintern pressed the CCP into an alliance with the Nationalists. The aim was for the CCP to help the GMD develop while simultaneously extending Communist influence to eventually make the Nationalist Party a Communist one.

The first period of GMD-CCP cooperation (the First United Front) ended in April 1927 when Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), commander of the GMD forces, turned on the Communists. Communist membership fell from fifty-eight thousand to four thousand active members, now experienced in organization, activism, and military and political affairs. While its urban influence evaporated, the CCP survived in the countryside, where, under Comintern direction, it instigated a series of failed uprisings, established worker-peasant-soldier soviets (councils), and implemented radical agrarian revolution, violently confiscating and redistributing land to the poor.

In October 1934 encirclement and attacks by GMD and local elite troops forced the CCP to flee the Chinese Soviet republic it had established in Jiangxi Province in southeastern China in November 1927. During this retreat, known as the “Long March,” Mao Zedong (1893–1976) rose to prominence. The threat of war with Japan allowed the Communists to portray themselves as patriots heroically advancing to fight Japan despite GMD resistance. Indeed, after Nationalist generals had kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek in Xi’an in 1936 the Communists intervened, urging the generals to spare Chiang’s life if he agreed to a GMD-CCP united front against Japan.

From the Second United Front to Civil War

In 1937 popular opinion and pressure from the Soviet Union forced the GMD and CCP into their second period of cooperation, this time against Japan. This alliance formed half of the CCP’s Second United Front. The other half consisted of winning as many allies as possible among intellectuals, warlords, landlords, and others by making concessions in Communist ideology and practice. Mao justified these concessions by invoking the idea of “New Democracy,” a period of transition from the allegedly old “semi-feudal, semi-colonial” society to a socialist one. This transition would entail the long-term coexistence of different classes and forms of property ownership until the forces for the final transition to a classless socialism were strong enough. During this time all classes allied to the CCP would be represented in the political system. This policy was reflected in moderate policies including rent and interest-rate reductions rather than radical land confiscation and redistribution.

Inside its rural bases the CCP experimented with policies determined by local class structures and attitudes, GMD responses, rural conditions, attitudes of local elites, and international conditions. No overarching revolutionary theme of nationalism or land revolution existed to guarantee success for any one policy throughout China, although the CCP made much of its patriotism and worked hard to win support from the poor and landless in particular.

After the end of World War II in 1945, the CCP delayed civil war as long as possible, building military and political strength. Meanwhile, the GMD, racked by infighting and corruption, rapidly deteriorated. The GMD lacked a strong political and social base, while the economy suffered hyperinflation, further undermining the GMD’s legitimacy. Reviving the anti-CCP civil war cost the Guomindang more support, and its political weakness became increasingly obvious. The GMD was eventually defeated by CCP armies of rural soldiers won over by the promise of land, and by GMD deserters, disaffected students, and others who were promised a new China. The GMD fled to Taiwan in 1949.

People’s Republic of China

On 1 October 1949 Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The CCP quickly moved to eliminate potential enemies, institute thought reform, confiscate many businesses, and implement land reform. The CCP subjected private businesses to repeated campaigns aimed at delegitimizing them and forcing them into state or cooperative ownership. Soviet-model rapid industrialization using central planning to develop state-owned enterprises was implemented according to five-year plans. Despite the Korean War (1950–1953), in which China was involved, the economy grew quickly. In 1956 Mao declared the transition to socialism complete and ended the “New Democracy.”


Despite the apparent success Mao also saw increasing bureaucratism, dogmatism, and sectarianism in the CCP. Mao’s methods for rectifying these problems included allowing intellectuals to criticize government. Mao’s 1957 speech, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions,” especially his line “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred thoughts contend,” implied there was no more need for class struggle and reassured many that it was safe to speak up. However, Mao was shocked when his Hundred Flowers Movement, intended to encourage constructive criticism of CCP shortcomings, including criticism from the CCP’s United Front allies, also elicited severe criticisms of both the party and himself. In response he launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign. This campaign re-emphasized class struggle and encouraged anti-intellectualism. Mao promoted the use of big-character posters (in which propaganda slogans were broadcast in huge red pictographs), public meetings, and debates to force criticism and self-criticism—so-called big democracy. These methods often involved public humiliation and even torture of critics. Accusations of rightism could be spawned by denying the centrality of class struggle, advocating markets in economics, or opposing central planning or party control over politics and culture. Hundreds of thousands were labeled, exiled, imprisoned, demoted, and sidelined. These features of Maoism also marked the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960) and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976).

The Great Leap Forward was an experiment by Mao to overcome the problems of central planning and to speed up industrialization. These goals were to be achieved by emphasizing mass mobilization, native ingenuity, and correct ideological viewpoint. Moral incentives rather than financial rewards were stressed, and distinctions between politics and technical knowledge were to be eliminated to make individuals both “Red and expert.” Relying on surpluses from agriculture to fund industrialization, the Great Leap Forward accelerated the socialization and industrialization of agriculture by creating communes of up to five thousand households, where private plots, markets, and sideline businesses such as selling homemade pickled vegetables were eliminated. Decentralization and self-sufficiency were also key goals. The most famous Great Leap initiative was the building of “backyard” furnaces in communal settlements to raise steel output, but instead it created large amounts of unusable pig (crude) iron at enormous cost in labor, raw materials, and wasted resources. The CCP mobilized the masses to build rural infrastructure such as dams and irrigation projects. Unfortunately, poor planning, excessive state extraction of grain taxes, shortcomings in communes, and other problems, together with bad weather, resulted in an estimated 20 million deaths from starvation in rural areas.

After 1959, stung by the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao retreated from leadership. Pragmatic leaders, including Liu Shaoqi (1898–1969) and Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997), then instituted moderate policies, allowed private plots and sidelines, and rehabilitated some alleged rightists. Mao saw this moderation as revisionism and betrayal of revolutionary ideals. He began building support in China’s army (the People’s Liberation Army) and in September 1962 asked everyone never to forget the class struggle. In 1964 Mao began to reimpose his will and ultimately created the Cultural Revolution.

Through the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as it was officially named, Mao encouraged the army and students in particular to criticize those such as Liu and Deng, whom he saw as taking the capitalist road. Mao told students that rebellion is justified and that they should fight selfishness and criticize revisionism. CCP leaders and intellectuals such as teachers became targets of student Red Guards, who had prepared themselves by memorizing Mao zhuxi yulu (Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong), nicknamed the “Little Red Book.” Many people, including Liu Shaoqi, were tortured and died as a result. In line with Mao’s calls students also worked to destroy old ideology, culture, customs, and habits (the “four olds”). However, Mao’s egalitarianism also spurred the development of basic health care and education and attacked traditional elitism.

China and the CCP since Mao

The CCP now describes the Cultural Revolution as ten years of chaos and waste. After Mao’s death in September 1976 an interregnum existed under Chairman Hua Guofeng (b. 1921). The so-called Gang of Four (including Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, 1914–1991) and others were arrested and blamed for the Cultural Revolution. In 1978 Zhao Ziyang (b. 1919) (tentatively) replaced Hua as China’s premier, but Deng Xiaoping came to wield the most power beginning in 1979 when he officially took over Hua’s position. The new leaders began rebuilding support among non-“Red” classes, especially intellectuals, former businesspeople, and those with overseas connections. The goals were the four modernizations (agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense) and a dramatic increase in economic growth. Farmers benefited first when the communes were replaced with the household responsibility system, under which individual families again had responsibility for many decisions in the management of agriculture and rewards related directly to their success in production. The state increased produce prices and allowed the revival of private markets.

In 1980 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were established in China’s south, where foreigners, overseas Chinese especially, could invest in manufacturing for export. After the SEZs proved successful, efforts to attract foreign investors spread widely. The state also began gradually relaxing controls on private business. Rural industries built by communes for self-reliance assisted rapid rural industrialization because their products could be sold at the revived rural markets or exported. Township and village enterprises (both village and privately owned) are now a major feature of the Chinese economy. State-owned enterprises have dramatically declined in importance and efficiency, and most are now heavily indebted and a drag on the economy. The CCP’s reform and opening-up policy marked a shift from autarky (self-sufficiency). The intent was not to abandon Communist ideals but rather to create socialism with Chinese characteristics, which proved itself by building national strength and raising living standards.

The changes created by reform have created major dilemmas for the CCP and its ideology. China is now a major economic power but only after abandoning most tenets of its original ideology and retreating from full socialization of ownership to mixed ownership and markets. In 1987 Zhao Ziyang justified the CCP’s return to a New Democracy–type economy by declaring that China was in the initial stage of socialism and that full socialism could be achieved only when all the productive forces were fully developed and modernized. This formulation was reinforced by the 1992 promulgation of the concept of the socialist market economy, under which the declining state-owned sector coexists with cooperatives and foreign-owned and joint-venture businesses as well as, increasingly, Chinese privately owned enterprises.

In 1980 Deng Xiaoping had mooted major political reforms after blaming feudal and undemocratic traditions for the overconcentration of power in one person that had resulted in excesses such as the Cultural Revolution. Deng advocated a separation of the roles and powers of the CCP and government and called for more people’s democracy and debate in the party itself. A party theorist, Liao Gailong (b. 1919), promoted reforms, including direct elections at all levels and a two-house national parliament—one for regions and one representing economic interests—but with the CCP maintaining overall power. Deng’s ideas and Liao’s corporatist proposal were forgotten after the rise of Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement highlighted the threat of relaxing controls over mass movements by demonstrating how such movements could easily become dangerously politicized and threaten CCP rule.

A similar fate befell Zhao Ziyang’s modest late-1980s proposals to build socialist democracy—a broadening of representation and participation in the political system by new groups and experts in particular areas—by developing the national and lower-level People’s Congresses and by expanding United Front work and its public face, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Whereas the congresses are elected and have nominal power to make decisions, conference representatives are appointed. They can only review laws and policies and can make only recommendations to the government, the CCP, and public organizations. The student movement of April–June 1989, during which student demands for better living conditions, jobs, and less corruption, escalated to calls for an undefined democracy; the army violently suppressed the protests at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. Zhao was sacked for his sympathy for the students’ demands, and his reforms were dropped.

Jiang Zemin (b. 1926), the PRC’s president from 1993 to 2003, endorsed upholding Deng Xiaoping’s four cardinal principles: the socialist path, proletarian dictatorship, leadership of the CCP, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought. While maintaining CCP dominance, these principles left little room for democratization. The party repeatedly campaigns against bourgeois liberalization (any calls for Western-style political reforms) and spiritual pollution while promoting construction of an ill-defined socialist spiritual civilization and nationalism as counterweights. In February 2000 Jiang began promoting the CCP as being the representative of advanced forces of production, of the fundamental interests of the broad masses, and of advanced culture. After 1987 incremental improvements were made in the local election process. Steady improvements have been made in China’s legal system but they have tended to focus on rule by law rather than on the idea of rule of law, something that is thought to be a better guarantee of the rights of Chinese citizens as written in the constitution. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, its ever-increasing presence in international policy shaping, and its central role in the efforts to respond to the global economic crisis that began in 2008, tend to promote rule-based decision making.

During the last decade, the Chinese Communist Party has presided over a transition to a market-based economic system and seen an economic growth rate that has surpassed developed nations, such as the United States, Japan, and the European Union, while acquiring some $1.2 trillion in U.S. debt. It has done so while conscious of the urgent need to maintain social harmony by improving living standards.

The global economic crisis that began in 2008 presented the CCP with new challenges: It must deal with the plunge in China’s exports and the resulting job losses, and at the same time put a huge stimulus package into effect. By managing to contend with both these difficulties the party will make a significant contribution to the world economy.

Further Reading

Brodsgaard, K. E., & Strand, D. (1998). Reconstructing twentieth-century China: State control, civil society, and national identity. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press.

Brugger, B., & Reglar, S. (1994). Politics, economy, and society in contemporary China. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan.

Feng Chongyi & Goodman, D. S. G. (Eds.). (2000). North China at war: The social ecology of revolution. Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield.

Feng, H. (2006). The politics of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization: The dragon goes global. London: Routledge.

Heggelund, G. (2006). Resettlement programmes and environmental capacity in the Three Gorges Dam project. Development and Change (37)1, 179–199.

Mao Zedong [Mao Tse-tung]. (1967). The Chinese revolution and the Chinese Communist Party. In Selected works of MaoTse-tung, Vol. 2, pp. 305–334. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Saich, T. (1996). The rise to power of the Chinese Communist Party: Documents and analysis. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Saich, T. & Van Den Ven, H. (Eds.). (1994). New perspectives on the Chinese revolution. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Shambaugh, D. (2008). China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and adaptation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yang Dali. (1996). Calamity and reform in China: State, rural society, and institutional change since the Great Leap famine. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Xu Xin. (2006, December). Modernizing China in the Olympic spotlight: China’s national identity and the 2008 Beijing Olympiad. Sociological Review, 54(2), 90–107.

Return the jewelry but keep the box.


Mǎi dú huán zhū

Source: Groot, Gerry. (2009). Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 353–359. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Shanghai Municipal Building. In July 1921, when the Chinese Communist Party was founded, the first party congress was held in Shanghai—not publicly in any official edifice, but in secret at a girls’ boardinghouse. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

The “eight immortals,” a group of older party members of the Chinese Communist Party who wielded power in China from the 1980s through 1990s. Top row, left to right: Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, Bo Yibo, Yang Shangkun. Bottom row, left to right: Song Renqiong, Peng Zhen, Wang Zhen, Li Xiannan.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng 中国共产党)|Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng 中国共产党 (Chinese Communist Party (CCP))

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