July 1st marked the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Love it or hate it, the Chinese Communist Party is the largest political organization in the world, and arguably one of the most powerful. The CCP has around 90 million members, ten times the population of New York City. The party leads the most populous and second most powerful nation on Earth. In China, at least, the centennial celebration is kind of a big deal.
A Century Ago in China
China in 1921 was a very different place than it is today. In fact, the differences are kind of mind boggling. While American flappers and dandies were celebrating the roaring twenties by banning alcohol and occupying Haiti, China was suffering as a poor, feudal, semi-colony.
The U.S., England, France, Germany and Japan all held on to outposts in Tianjin, Qingdao, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and elsewhere. They were called “concessions” but they functioned like colonies. Foreign citizens weren’t subject to Chinese law. The Europeans and Japanese enjoyed glamorous lifestyles of jazz and opium dealing, the local population struggled in poverty and toiled away in sweatshops. Various warlords divided the countryside into their personal fiefdoms.
In 1919, a group of students in Beijing protested the territory granted to Japan by the Treaty of Versailles. The movement spread around the country and became known as the May 4th Movement. The May 4th Movement inspired a whole generation of Chinese intellectuals and activists.
And of course, some of these intellectuals and activists were also inspired by the Russian revolution of 1917. Many of them rejected classical Western liberal democracy as being Euro-centric, if not downright imperialist. They viewed Marxism as a means to liberate the suffering Chinese masses. They translated the Communist Manifesto into Chinese and began agitating and organizing.
The Humble First Meeting of the Chinese Communist Party
All this led to that fateful day in July, 1921. Records from the time are spotty. Apparently, nobody really remembers when the meeting was actually held. It also isn’t clear how many people actually came. Some say 13. The Party officially says it was 12. Others say there were more.
They convened the meeting in an abandoned girls’ school in the French Concession in Shanghai. The attendees represented some various Communist groups from around the country. The most famous participant was one Mao Zedong.
Somewhat ironically, the first congress of the CCP was held in the French Concession. Since the concession was French territory, they were able to meet without having to worry about repercussions from the Chinese government. Unfortunately, the French police were also hunting a Dutch representative of the Communist International who was hiding out next door. At the last minute, they had to move the meeting. They finished the final day on a boat in the middle of a lake in nearby Zhejiang province.
Despite the excitement of finishing on a boat, I’m guessing the meeting itself was probably pretty dry. Anyone who has gone to any multi-day political conferences can probably attest to how boring they can be. They released a big budget movie about the founding this year, and I’m guessing it’s just two and a half hours of dudes arguing about rules of order.
Either way, some-time in late July of 1921, the Chinese Communist Party was officially founded and the rest is history.
The Chinese Communist Party’s 100 Year Anniversary Celebrations
I was here for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It seems like the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party is a much bigger deal.
I don’t know if that’s because 100 is bigger than 70, if the government feels like people need a confidence boost after COVID and political strife with the U.S., or if that’s some kind of insight into how China views the party as above the government. Either way, the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial celebration is a huge deal.
Every metro station is decked out in vibrant red and hammers and sickles are everywhere. The site of the first national congress is in Shanghai, and tourists are flooding into the city. I haven’t been to the site itself, but it’s located in the middle of Shanghai’s second fanciest shopping district. People are packing like crazy into the subways going to and from the site.
Shanghai, and other cities, also put on a huge light show downtown. Red lights flashing everywhere, more hammer and sickles lit up in LEDs on the face of corporate skyscrapers. I didn’t go, but the pictures were a little surreal.
They held the main celebrations in Beijing. Thousands of people crowded into Tiananmen square to join the Party’s party. Since nobody knows the exact date of the Party’s founding, they just go with July 1st. Personally, I think they should have made it a national holiday. I had to work, so I didn’t get to witness any of the hubbub personally.
The Communist Party in Modern Chinese Society
In normal times, though, you could forget you’re in a communist country. There aren’t huge portraits of Mao or Xi everywhere, Communist Party members don’t knock on your door in the night, and life just sort of goes on pretty similar to how it does anywhere else.
The Chinese Communist Party, however, isn’t just another political group like the Democrats or the Republicans. The thing I find the most interesting is how the CCP has become wrapped up with Chinese national identity. I have yet to meet any Party members, yet every Chinese person I’ve talked to refers to the Communist Party as “our party.”
I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the current leadership of the CCP, but never once has anyone criticized or questioned the Party or Communism itself. I don’t think the lack of complaints have to do with fear of reprimand either, since they were pretty harsh in their critiques of the General Secretary.
I think most people here don’t view the Communist Party as an oppressive force beating them down. They aren’t happy with everything but they seem pretty happy with how the CCP is leading their country.
And think about it from their perspective. Under the Communist Party’s leadership, China has gone from an unstable rural backwater to the second most powerful country on the planet. In a single generation. Millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, and the country is now a major player in global politics.
Most recently, when COVID-19 left Western countries completely scrambling and unprepared, China was able to manage the epidemic and become relatively safe in a relatively short amount of time. Despite the virus originating here.
Barring any major fuck-ups, I’m guessing we may celebrate another 100 year anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.
If you want to know more of the Chinese perspective on the Chinese Communist Party, Shanghai Daily has put up some questions and answers about the Chinese Communist Party. I’ll leave the best one here.