A tense 100th birthday for Chinese communism
Is communism at odds with human nature? The Chinese Communist Party has transformed the nation from a famine-stricken land to a superpower. But are its ideas inspirational or cruel?
In 1989 it looked like it was all over for the Chinese Communist Party. Across the world, communism was collapsing. Democratic movements were tearing down the Iron Curtain. One million people gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Then China sent in the tanks.
Today, only five communist regimes remain, and the People’s Republic of China is by far the largest. This week, the ruling party is celebrating its centenary with a “patriotic extravaganza” of films, ceremonies and mass weddings. The mood is jubilant: the economy is booming and the pandemic is contained. China has even broken the Olympic curse.
The slogan for the celebrations is “follow the party forever” and they hope to rule for “one thousand autumns and ten thousand generations”. Experts say a Chinese Century has already begun, with the country replacing the US as the dominant superpower.
When a young Karl Marx wrote his explosive Communist Manifesto in 1848, it was just a radical idea held by a handful of European intellectuals. By 1917, communism was an international movement sweeping the Bolsheviks to power in Russia. In China, the party under Mao Zedong took power in 1949.
Marx’s key idea was to end private property and share resources fairly, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. Under capitalism, he argued, a factory or farm-owner gets rich whilst the workers stay poor. In China’s Great Leap Forward, Mao put communism into practise on a massive scale.
It was a disaster. Between 15 and 55 million people died in the worst famine in history and the reforms were abandoned. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, said the party had been “70% right” and needed to progress more slowly and “with Chinese characteristics”, adapting communism to the country’s culture.
Commentators say this flexibility, scrapping ideas that don’t work, is why Chinese communism has survived so long. Deng’s reforms started a “Chinese miracle” that saw the biggest and longest-running period of economic growth in history. Over the last 40 years, China has eradicated extreme poverty and created the world’s largest middle-class and second-largest economy.
After 1989, political theorist Francis Fukuyama predicted that capitalism would triumph over communism. Authoritarian governments could never meet the growing needs and aspirations of their people. But the party remains popular in China, despite critics denouncing Xi Jinping as a “mafia boss” in charge of a “political zombie”.
Its popularity is helped by the many problems facing western democracies. Xi points to riots, terrorist attacks and ineffective pandemic controls. The choice, he argues, is between the stability of communism and the chaos of capitalism.
But for many, this stability looks increasingly like totalitarianism. Internet use is controlled, and people’s movements closely monitored by sophisticated digital technology. Democracy activists in Hong Kong sit in prison and millions of Uighurs have been interned in camps.
Is communism at odds with human nature?
Some say no, it is a misunderstood idea that asks an important question: where does wealth come from? The goal of communism is to make a fairer society built on friendship and shared property. No political idea is perfect. Capitalism values liberty and freedom, whilst communism values equality and society. Human greed and a love of power can distort both systems, but neither is inherently inhuman.
Others say yes, it crushes the spirit. Every human is a unique individual, with different potential and a right to choose their own path in life. Because communism values equality above all else, it treats everyone the same and crushes creativity and difference. It dehumanises people and makes it easier for great cruelty to be carried out, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre or the Cultural Revolution.
- Would you live in a commune where you had to share all your belongings?
- What is more important, freedom or equality?
- In small groups, plan a revolution in your school. Write a manifesto, setting out the new school rules.
- Class debate: communism or capitalism? Divide into two groups and discuss the benefits of your system and the drawbacks of the opposing philosophy.
Some People Say...
“Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.”John Kenneth Galbraith (1908 – 2006), Canadian-American economist
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that Chinese communism has changed dramatically over the years. In 1966, Mao led the Cultural Revolution–a violent purge of people accused of capitalist or traditional views. Hundreds of thousands were killed and many books were burned, including those of the philosopher Confucius. Confucianism is central to Chinese history and society. Under President Xi, Confucius is again being studied. His ideas of harmony and order align with the current values of China.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate surrounds whether it still makes sense to call China a communist country. Its centenary celebrations root the party in its communist history, from Marx to Mao. The party uses the communist hammer and sickle flag and the colour red, which is also traditionally associated with good fortune and happiness. However, supporters and critics of China say its focus on economic growth and support for the super-rich are very far from the communism of Marx, Lenin or Mao.
- Chinese Communist Party
- At 91 million members, the CCP is the second-largest political party in the world.
- Iron Curtain
- The political boundary that divided Europe from 1945 until 1999.
- People’s Republic of China
- China is home to a fifth of humanity.
- Olympic curse
- Until 2018, no authoritarian regime had lasted 10 years after hosting the Olympics. Nazi Germany hosted in 1936, the Soviet Union in 1980, and Yugoslavia in 1984.
- Communist Manifesto
- The pamphlet ends with the words: “Workingmen of all countries, unite.”
- The party included Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.
- Mao Zedong
- The communist leader created a personality cult that presented him as a god-like founding father.
- Great Leap Forward
- From 1958 to 1962 private farms were outlawed and land and factories were worked by people’s communes.
- Xi Jinping
- The president has concentrated power and removed term limits allowing him to serve for life.
- In its most extreme form, the government demands complete obedience, controls every part of life and suppresses all forms of opposition.