Butterfly Effect: Chinese Communism Turns 100. Will It Live to 200? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Chinese Communism Turns 100. Will It Live to 200?

It's a special birthday for the world's most influential political party. The secret to its long life? Acrobatics.

Butterfly Effect: Chinese Communism Turns 100. Will It Live to 200?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

It's a special birthday for the world's most influential political party. The secret to its long life? Acrobatics.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

It’s a very different question to the one that observers were asked in June 1989, when Beijing cracked down on student protesters at Tiananmen Square, shocking the world and exposing deep fissures within China’s political elite. Two years later, when the Soviet Union collapsed and socialist rule ended in Eastern Europe, obituaries to communist China were prepared too.

Yet in the three decades since, China has risen from a struggling nation to an economic superpower. It hasn’t just survived; by many measures, it has thrived in ways few other nations have over such a short period.

On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its centenary, defying doomsday predictions and global trends. Understanding its secret sauce is critical to decoding the mystery of its longevity and success, as well as to identifying the weaknesses that could undermine and — perhaps someday — end the CCP’s rule.

Speaking at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum last July, former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the CCP as a Marxist-Leninist party committed to communism, rigid in its beliefs and driven by ideology. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a circus acrobat more flexible than the CCP is on questions of ideology. It is its ability to adapt — often hypocritically but always nimbly — that marks it out as different from every other communist party that has been in power.

It is that malleability that has allowed it to move with the times, surprise others and grow its influence when other so-called socialist states have fallen around it. It allows a country ruled by a communist party to also be the world’s biggest market for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton.

Beijing calls it “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” It’s a model that’s been decades in the making.

china collage

From left: Mao Zedong; a Beijing demonstrator blocks the path of a tank convoy along the Avenue of Eternal Peace near Tiananmen Square; Deng Xiaoping and President Jimmy Carter meet with the press on January 31, 1979, in Washington, D.C.; Mao Zedong declaring the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949; Chinese President Xi Jinping, bottom, is applauded by members of the government as he arrives at the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference; Mao Zedong greets Richard Nixon.

Source Images Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Back in the early 1970s, when China was locked in a bitter rivalry with the Soviet Union, Beijing built the unlikeliest of new friendships: with capitalist America. Their shared worries about the Soviet Union brought the U.S. and China into a strategic handshake epitomized by President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Beijing. That friendship gave China a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, and, by the early 2000s, a perch at global bodies such as the World Trade Organization, allowing it to shape international rules.

That breach in ties with the Soviet Union — and openness to the West — also meant that, unlike many other socialist nations, China wasn’t dependent on aid from Moscow. So the collapse of the USSR didn’t seriously damage Beijing’s economy, which was already moving in a very different direction.

As it recovered from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution inflicted upon it by founding leader Mao Zedong, China adopted bold economic reforms starting in 1978. But while it embraced capitalism — there are now almost as many Chinese companies in the Fortune 500 as American firms — it maintained strict political control. The model for China’s opening up wasn’t America. It wasn’t Europe either. It was Singapore, a country that had used a similar combination of fast-paced capitalist economics with what is effectively single-party rule and limited freedom of expression to rapidly become one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

During the Cultural Revolution, books authored by the philosopher-sage Confucius were publicly burned. Six decades later, China is using the global recognition of Confucian thought to project its soft power. Its cultural schools around the world are known as Confucius Institutes.

All of these shifts were underpinned by one central strength: political stability. Deng Xiaoping, the leader behind China’s reforms story, also transformed the approach by which the party ruled. In order to avoid the excesses of the Mao era, China adopted a principle of “collective leadership” under which the party’s top-most body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, would rule by consensus. That policy stood firm through the 1990s and 2000s, with the peaceful transfer of power to new leaders every decade.

But current President Xi Jinping has broken with that principle, amending the constitution to effectively stay the country’s leader for life. China runs the risk of failing to clearly identify his successor — a scenario that sets the stage for a power struggle whenever he does go.

Such an internal crisis could widen cracks within the CCP, especially as signs of social unrest grow. Labor strikes have increased manifold in recent years as economic inequality has risen sharply.   

Still, China today has a rare advantage: Even its biggest rivals aren’t sure they really want it to fail. For all the talk of a new Cold War between the West and Beijing, the global economy today depends as much — if not more — on China as it does on America. The West’s biggest industries and companies crave access to China’s market and need that country’s economy to do well, or their profits will suffer.

That places limits on the pressure Western nations can actually put on China, no matter what they say in public statements. There’s a reason why Nike and the NBA, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana apologize to Beijing when they’ve upset the CCP.

It’s not because these organizations like socialism. It’s because they love and believe in capitalism and profits, much like the CCP does today. If you look beyond the name, you can call its economic model what it truly is: “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics.”

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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