How the CPC can keep moving forward
Josef Gregory Mahoney
An art performance titled "The Great Journey" is held in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at the National Stadium in Beijing, China, June 28, 2021. /Xinhua

An art performance titled "The Great Journey" is held in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at the National Stadium in Beijing, China, June 28, 2021. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Josef Gregory Mahoney is a professor of politics at East China Normal University. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN. This is the sixth piece of our "Decoding China" series. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

In a recent July 1 speech President Xi Jinping said, "We must continue to advance the great new project of Party building. A hallmark that distinguishes the Communist Party of China (CPC) from other political parties is its courage in undertaking self-reform. An important reason why the Party remains so vital and vibrant despite having undergone so many trials and tribulations is that it practices effective self-supervision and full and rigorous self-governance."

Although we generally accept historical performance as an indicator of current and future capacity, we also know that what one has accomplished in the past, and indeed, why one was able to do so by no means guarantees future success. This raises a question that is on many minds, including the CPC itself as well as other political parties that want to emulate it and those who fear it: How can the CPC retain its progressive capacity, carry on self-reform, and strengthen its leadership role in the face of future challenges?

Focus on discipline and governance

One of the biggest misperceptions about the CPC internationally is that it is an all-controlling monolith. This frequently combines with another: the idea that the Party is ideologically limited in some totalizing if not totalitarian way.

This type of thinking is natural but inconsistent with reality. Many political parties would like to have an absolute monopoly on power. They would like to eliminate divisions and factions within their own ranks. They would like to have a rational regime in which each level of government and every ministry, bureau and office works together in functional harmony.

Of course, this is always impossible everywhere, but especially in a culturally diverse country like China, with more than 1.4 billion people and stark geographical and regional differences in development. It’s also impossible in the Party itself. The CPC now has more than 95 million members. While one can strengthen democratic centralism and supervision as Xi has, while one can implement an effective party rectification campaign and significantly reduce corruption and improve governance, it requires a utopian fantasy to believe that every Party member or unit is on the same page, so to speak.

More than this, most people recognize that even if this was realizable, it would likely produce a dystopian nightmare. With too much rigidity and too many restrictions, the Party loses the flexibility necessary to govern effectively in a differentiated and dynamic political and economic landscape. One must be well-organized and rational but one cannot afford to be too stifling. That would imperil innovation and the capacity for reform and lead to stagnation.

The two major hallmarks of the Xi era have been an intense focus on discipline and governance, while also pressing the need for progressive reforms and innovation. In fact, these four elements support each other in some respects but inevitably some tensions arise between them. Balancing those tensions and resolving them positively is a perpetual challenge.

But doing so is central to the purpose of a Marxist-Leninist organization like the CPC. This was true before the current generation of leadership came to power in 2012, but it was also the pressing need of that moment. Corruption had become a widely recognized problem, one the Party itself acknowledged and then moved to resolve, in tandem with improving governance at the national and local levels, along with improving the rule of law and other overlapping and mutually reinforcing initiatives.

Fireworks rocket into the sky, displaying the number "100" over the National Stadium in Beijing, China, June 28, 2021. /Xinhua

Fireworks rocket into the sky, displaying the number "100" over the National Stadium in Beijing, China, June 28, 2021. /Xinhua

Historically, in the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras, the general view was that the Party needed a major rectification campaign every ten years or so. Whenever this lagged for whatever reason, the organizational capacity of the Party suffered, with increasing corruption, less democratic centralism and less effective governance. In fact, many believe this waxing and waning was necessary to accommodate China's rapid changes.

Under Xi, the goal has been to create a more effective, ongoing system of supervision, to better institutionalize discipline and to bring more stability to governance. This is due in part to the fact that China's development level has reached a point where the country is unlikely to see the same kind of accelerated changes that it's experienced over the past seven decades. Furthermore, as Xi has said, China is more confident and in its path now: it can better institutionalize lessons it has learned to govern government itself.

Embrace the right mix of continuity and change

The Party was founded a hundred years ago and has held power nationally since 1949. In fact, it has held power longer than that in some parts of China, which were under CPC control before the Civil War was won.

The CPC's first generation of political and military leaders were the geniuses of their moment. Although imperfect and frequently corrected by trial and error, their ability to understand the unique problems and challenges facing China and innovate effective solutions are a matter of historical record.

That history is a heavy weight to carry. Political parties and leaders in other countries, particularly multi-party democracies, not only frequently reject and demonize each other, they also disavow their own party predecessors. In this way, no one is burdened by history, no one has to answer for the wrongs of the past. This might seem like a clean slate for moving forward, but in fact the opposite is often true. If one does not take responsibility for the past, is one really solving the problems of the present? And does this not risk a type of systemic decline, one in which parties constantly blame each other and trade positions in power with each election cycle?

When a Party has been in power for a long period of time, it cannot escape its history. In the case of the CPC, this has been especially true because one of the overarching goals of China's political system is to correct the historical wrongs associated with China's relative lack of development from the 19th century onward, which had made the country vulnerable to existential crises associated with foreign aggression.

Given the continued importance of Marxism for the CPC, there is a recognition that one must have an acute understanding of history and one's place in it. One must also have clear values and the discipline to pursue them effectively. At the same time, one must embrace the principle of "negation of the negation." In other words, one must stay true to core values, one must maintain an accurate reading of history and one's position in it, but one must also step forward and upward in progressive ways.

This requires holding on to some ideas and values while encouraging others to change. This is difficult to do if one is too ideologically constrained, but also unlikely to happen if one becomes completely unfocused and undisciplined. On the whole, while there have been some rough transitional periods in China's rapid development, most agree that the CPC has demonstrated a unique capacity for leading adaptation and change - of itself and the nation, together.

Villagers sort out just-harvested mushrooms at an edible fungus growing base at Minjiachang Village, in Jiangkou County of southwest China's Guizhou Province, January 3, 2019. /Xinhua

Villagers sort out just-harvested mushrooms at an edible fungus growing base at Minjiachang Village, in Jiangkou County of southwest China's Guizhou Province, January 3, 2019. /Xinhua

Be crisis-seeking

I wrote in a recent article with Beijing Review that one of the most powerful characteristics of the CPC is that it's inherently "crisis-seeking." This does not mean that it is crisis-wanting - although others should take note: if they bring crises to China, then Beijing is better prepared than most do deal with them - a point Xi underscored during his recent speech marking the Party's centenary.

Here's how I phrased it in Beijing Review: "The CPC was founded as a potential solution to several existential crises then confronting China and that soon confronted the Party itself. While we can speak of a Marxist orientation toward addressing contradictions that hamstring progress, it's perhaps easier to understand that the Party became intrinsically 'crisis-seeking' as it directly encountered the early crises of its own survival and that of China. It learned how to adapt and reform itself…This desire to move toward crises and to address them is not the same as wanting them, normalizing them or intentionally exploiting them in competition with others."

As long as the Party retains this nature, it increases the likelihood that it resolves its internal problems and those facing China.

Always return to the mass line

Another point I raised in that article was the necessity of always returning to the "mass line," one of Mao's most important innovations, and one that Xi has reemphasized repeatedly. As I wrote, "This concept has been instrumental in terms of how the Party established its dialectics of leadership. On the one hand, it has the role of helmsman, or center, who guides the ship. On the other hand, it has the role of steward, who serves the people."

Continuing: "On the level of national praxis, this offered an effective ethos of becoming a responsible steward of the national interest, and the nation has risen accordingly. While this has confused some binary thinkers into the simple formula of either the Party putting itself over the nation or vice versa, in fact, the dialectic that exists between these two in actual practice is neither as dichotomous or hierarchical as it might seem or sometimes pretends itself to be. Nor, for that matter, is it so singular, given both its multiplicity of being and differences across a massive country undergoing constant change and development."

Altogether, if the CPC continues to focus organizationally on discipline and governance, if it continues to find the right mix of continuity and change, if it remains grounded in history but not stuck in it, if it is crisis-seeking but neither crisis-wanting nor crisis-avoiding, if it perpetually returns to the mass line, then it will continue to lead China effectively into the future. And if it can do all of those things with relative consistency, then both China and the world can rest assured that China will remain well-governed in ways that are better for the Chinese and everyone else.

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