The year 2021 marks the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded by a handful of revolutionaries in 1921 with the support of the Soviet Comintern. The party’s leadership wants to make the centenary a moment of triumph, the year when the country it controls achieves “moderate prosperity” (小康) and starts preparing for its second centenary, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC), founded in 1949, becomes a “modern socialist country” and, it is presumed, the leading power in the world.
In its 100-year history, the CCP has a very mixed record, as has the PRC in the 72 years since its founding. There have been periods of dismal performance and colossal failures, like the Great Famine of 1959–61 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966–76. The regime’s current self-confidence is derived not so much from the past century, but rather from the last 20 years of rapid growth since the country joined the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Two Decades in a Century
The first two decades of the 21st century have brought enormous changes in China’s economic and political standing. The past decade, and especially the second half of it, has also seen major swings in the perception of the PRC in the rest of the world. As we enter the third decade, China has become a pre-eminent topic in international relations, at the centre of many fundamental issues and dilemmas unfolding before the international community. It is no coincidence that Chinese leaders now speak of the “community of shared destiny for mankind” (人类命运共同体) as their vision of a “reformed” international order, for their ambition is truly vast, potentially impacting all of humanity in important ways.
China’s rapid rise in the last two decades is the more striking because not so long ago—within living memory—the country seemed on several occasions to be on the verge of collapse. By the time of Chairman Mao’s death in 1976, after a decade of the Cultural Revolution, China was devastated economically and politically. The popular reflection of this existential crisis came in the short-lived, unofficial “literature of ruins” (废墟文学),1 playing on visual symbols such as the decaying remains of the Imperial Summer Palace (Yuan Ming Yuan) in Beijing, destroyed during the Second Opium War in 1860 by French troops. (In the late 1970s, these images were largely devoid of the later pervasive nationalist sentiment, as the national ruin they symbolised at that time was entirely self-inflicted.)
China managed to fend off the post-Mao malaise with the introduction of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in late 1978, which redefined for several decades the meaning of the special brand of Leninism known since the 1980s as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Yet only a decade later, the PRC became an international pariah again after the brutal suppression of the 1989 democracy movement known as the “Beijing Spring”. In the outcry that followed, one might have been forgiven for concluding that the PRC regime appeared forever left behind “on the wrong side of history”, especially compared with the subsequent triumphant democratisation of communist Eastern Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union shortly afterwards in 1991.
Few would have contemplated, much less predicted, in 1989 that the PRC would rise again so soon and so dramatically, and become within a few short decades a major global player, aspiring, plausibly, to (re)design the “future of all mankind”. Yet it was, arguably, exactly this hopeful, pivotal year of 1989 that set China on this path and ultimately led to its current position in the world.
The Premature End of History
Just as in the traditional Yin and Yang dialectics, it was in the moment of the triumph of the “Third Wave of Democratization”2 in the Soviet bloc that its dialectical opposite was born, a new kind of viable Leninist system, eventually to evolve into a credible “systemic rival” to liberal democracy.
The new, reinvented Leninist system in China fed off and thrived on the West’s short attention span. The initial shock of the Beijing regime sending tanks against its own people to suppress their democratic aspirations gave way later the same year to the euphoria of the mostly peaceful democratisation in the rest of the communist world. Suddenly, the violence in Beijing and elsewhere in China started to look like a mere temporal aberration, soon to be rectified by history, whose “long arc”, after all, “bends towards justice”.3
History had ended,4 and the PRC would soon have to follow the trend, its momentary bucking of it notwithstanding. The horror had been gradually replaced with condescendence: notwithstanding the temporary survival of the harsh Leninist system, in the end, China would have to liberalise like everybody else, because such is the iron logic of history.
Beijing deftly played into the West’s complacency. Following Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum to “hide its shine and bide its time” (韬光养晦), China kept a low profile on the international scene, seemingly only concerned with economic development. The new wave of globalisation following the demise of the bipolar world in 1989 offered an opportunity to cash in on China’s large supply of cheap and disciplined labour, and attract ever more investment in manufacturing, with the accompanying know-how and technologies.
To be able to take full advantage of the re-energised globalisation after 1989, the PRC needed access to foreign markets, most importantly the American one. With memories of Tiananmen still fresh, there was some reluctance in the US in the early 1990s to open up entirely to Beijing. These reservations coalesced regularly in the annual ritual of the Most Favoured Nation status confirmation process, inevitably resulting in criticism of China’s human rights record, an inconvenient nuisance for business.
Chimerica: The Proletariat Finds its Capital
Such concerns largely faded away in the Clinton years. After all, it was the economy, stupid.5 Cooperation with China seemed to make complete business sense: cheap labour in China was a perfect match for American and Western know-how and investment. The US gradually moved much of its manufacturing base where the proletariat abounded, and much of the world followed. The synergy was such that some started to talk of “Chimerica”.6
Clinton came into office as a critic of the outgoing Bush administration’s “coddling the tyrants of Beijing”.7 Ever a pragmatic man, he too allowed himself to be persuaded that the unfortunate events at Tiananmen may have delayed, but would not thwart, the long arc of history. China cannot sustain its repressive Leninist system in the long term, just as it cannot control the inherently uncontrollable internet; that would be like “nailing Jell-O on the wall”.
The scandal over Chinese money in Clinton’s campaign finance may or may not have played a role in his change of heart, but this new approach had quickly become mainstream, and percolated into the official US policy of “engagement”, driven by the assumption that closer economic ties with the outside world would inevitably lead to the PRC’s “convergence” towards the liberal mainstream in international relations. Clinton cancelled the MFN ritual in 2000 and prepared the ground for China’s entry into the WTO the following year.
2001 was another eventful year, and China’s WTO breakthrough was overshadowed by the spectacular attacks on 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror. Yet the former proved much more consequential in the long run. The PRC could finally take full advantage of globalisation by gaining access to foreign markets, without necessarily opening up its own. After 20 years, some of the concessions that should have come in 2001, such as phasing out the joint venture (JV) requirement for foreign investors, have been announced with great fanfare as a success of the EU’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China at the very end of 2020.
Of equal importance to uneven market access has been the transfer of technologies, some of it forced through the JV arrangements, some perpetrated through the outright cyber theft that became rampant in the new millennium.8 The US mostly turned a blind eye, distracted by the War on Terror, but also by its Engagement Policy. China kept climbing up the manufacturing food chain, sucking in investment and technologies, by hook or by crook. Its self-confidence rose significantly after 2008, when it managed to survive the global financial crisis in good shape and successfully held its major international coming-out party by organising the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. Simultaneously, its suspicion and hostility towards the West grew after the March 2008 unrest in Lhasa (Tibet) and the international campaign against the Olympic Torch Relay.
As the War on Terror began to fade, the realisation dawned in Washington that it might have a bigger problem on its hands in the Far East than in the Middle East. However, the resulting policy—Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”9—seemed rather half-hearted and achieved little beyond coining the phrase “New Silk Road” (intended by Hillary Clinton as a trade and security corridor between Afghanistan and India), to be briefly appropriated by the Chinese counteroffensive that eventually grew into the major geopolitical plan now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Xi and the Crisis of Complacency
The shattering of Western complacency towards China was in the end only forced by the accession of Xi Jinping in 2012 (as General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee) and 2013 (as Chairman, or “President”, of the PRC). It took a while for his intentions to become clear. The seasoned New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof famously divined in late 2012 that Xi would usher in an era of more openness; the same misperception was widespread inside China itself, as manifested by the ill-fated 2013 Constitutional Debate, driven by a misreading of Xi’s ideas on the role of the Constitution and the rule of law.
The Constitutional Debate in China was abruptly brought to an end with a series of tough commentaries in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily in the summer of 2013, explaining that the role of the Constitution in a “People’s Democracy” was different from that in decadent bourgeois democracies. Simultaneously, an internal circular known as Document no. 9 was leaked to the Hong Kong press, listing seven liberal “misconceptions”, such as judicial independence and freedom of expression, as the gravest ideological dangers to be fought against resolutely. That effectively ended the illusions about Xi within China. Things only got worse from there, with the new Xi administration systematically targeting all the remaining pockets of independent activity not fully controlled by the CCP.
This shift towards more orthodox Leninism was not clear to outside observers at first, even though it was, from the beginning, accompanied by a more muscular foreign and military policy, such as the unprecedented annexation of the South China Sea, achieved by—in addition to inventing historical claims out of thin air—a rather innovative tactic of building artificial islands in the disputed waters and then claiming exclusive zones around them.
The simmering tensions eventually boiled over into the open with the start of the Trump administration’s “trade war” in 2018. The recently declassified NSC Indo-Pacific Strategy, adopted by the White House in 2018, made it clear that the new US policy towards China had in many respects been inspired by Australia, which introduced its anti-interference legislation implicitly targeting the PRC the same year. After some hesitation, other Western, and some Asian, nations joined the chorus with their own complaints about China’s behaviour. In 2019, even the EU named the PRC a “systemic rival” in a significant shift in terminology, acknowledging the CCP’s ambition to present itself as an alternative socio-political model, capable of challenging the liberal democratic system in the West on all fronts, not just in trade.
In 2020, all of these trends were reinforced by the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic only intensified the “systemic rivalry”, after the PRC forcefully claimed superiority over the “failing democracies” in dealing with the emergency. A host of other issues deepened the rift, from the dystopian repression in Xinjiang to imposing on Hong Kong the PRC’s own system of State Security (国家安全) through a piece of legislation still mistranslated in the West as the National Security Law.
By the start of 2021, it had become increasingly difficult to ignore all the signs that, at the time of its centennial, the CCP felt empowered by a “historic window of opportunity” in the New Era to advance its own vision for the global order and its system of innovative Leninist one-party dictatorship.
On the global stage, the CCP aims get around the existing international alliances—mostly built by the US after World War II—with its own network of state-to-state partnerships (伙伴网) with China at the centre. In any such bilateral arrangement, with a few possible exceptions, China is by definition the stronger party. Given the power differential, the PRC is even comfortable in grouping these bilateral partnerships into pseudo-regional organisations like the 17+1 (in reality, no more than 17 bilateral relationships between the member countries and China, with no mechanism for collective coordination or action). The doctrine of “partnerships, not alliances” (结伴而不结盟) was supposedly put forward by Xi Jinping at the work conference on external affairs in 2014, and reconfirmed at the CCP’s 19th Congress in 2017.
Unlike the post-War alliances, the Chinese bilateral partnerships are not based on shared (“universal”) values like human rights, but rather on the vague notion of “shared destiny”. In practice, there are no ground rules; everything is open to negotiation based on the actual balance of power between the “partners”. Partners are equal, but size matters and the bigger partner is that much more equal. The “network of partnerships” helps China offset the existing alliance system to which it came late and from which it was mostly left out, and the underlying international order based on universal values (or values considered in the liberal community to be universal). The PRC’s foreign partners can well be members of alliances such as NATO or ASEAN, but at the same time nurture “strategic partnerships” with China. These partnerships enable China to throw its weight around without taking on the alliances head on.
When the partnerships finally prevail over the alliances, we will presumably arrive at the community of shared destiny, in which the PRC will not be held to Western-imposed “universal” values, but will be able to assert its own priorities. These are shifting over time, lately expressed in the declared “core interests”, but foremost amongst them is the political security (“state security”) of the CCP rule.10
Back to Basics in the New Era
After the introduction of Deng’s reforms in late 1978, many people believed (or wanted to believe) that the PRC had shed its disastrous Maoist legacy for good. Xi Jinping, however, sees things differently. One of his key slogans declares that “the two (periods) cannot negate each other” (两个不能否定). To him, both the Maoist and the Reform periods remain valid in their own right, and form a dialectical unity of opposites, now coming to a synthesis at a higher level in his own self-declared “New Era”.
Xi considers his New Era the third phase in the evolution of Leninism in China since 1949. In the first phase of orthodox Maoism (1949–76), the CCP followed correct Marxist-Leninist principles but lacked the economic and technological base to implement them in effective policies. The centralised control of the economy, and society, were not technically feasible at that stage of development. By the time of Mao’s death, his correct but premature policies resulted in a profound economic, political and social crisis.
As a result, the communist regime in China almost collapsed and had to be saved by Deng Xiaoping’s “Reforms and Opening” (改革开放, 1978–2012). The party embarked on a tactical compromise, introducing elements from the capitalist mode of production and allowing greater freedoms for the masses to unleash their entrepreneurial potential. The decentralisation averted the crisis, and led to an unprecedented economic boom, but also compromised fundamental Leninist tenets. Society became unruly, the party corrupt.11 Moreover, Deng also introduced basic political reforms, such as elementary separation of state and party, to limit the concentration of power that had led to the disaster of the Cultural Revolution. All of these reforms may have been necessary at the time, but they ran their course and went too far, threatening the nature of the regime and the very survival of the CCP.
This new crisis of encroaching liberalism (aptly described in “Document no. 9”) is now being resolved by Xi Jinping in his New Era (新时代, since 2012). The New Era synthesises the previous two phases into a qualitatively new period. The CCP now finally wields the economic and technological tools (thanks to the rapid development in the Reform era) to effectively implement the ideals of the Maoist era. These rediscovered early ideals are now reemphasised in the omnipresent slogan “Don’t forget the original intent, firmly remember the mission!” (不忘初心、牢记使命).
Apart from the solid material base, the main tools that now make it possible for the CCP to implement the original communist “intent” are the new technologies, in particular big data and artificial intelligence—or, in Xi’s parlance, the overall “intelligisation” (智能化) of governance (and everything else). AI-enabled analysis of big data will facilitate efficient centralised control over the economy, previously an Achilles’ heel of all Leninist systems. Similarly, the population can now be controlled (and re-educated, where necessary) much more efficiently with the assistance of computerised systems like the Social Credit Scores and large-scale “intelligised” electronic surveillance. Technology plays a key role in Xi’s innovation of the CCP system of governance, sometimes dubbed “Digital Leninism”.12
China’s economic might and its mastery of new technologies furthermore create a “historic window of opportunity” for the PRC to claim its proper place in the international pecking order, and to remake that order to better suit its needs. The main vectors of its influence projection are “economic diplomacy”,13 as manifested in the BRI (or the 17+1 initiative, now subsumed by the BRI), and a peculiar tactic for political co-optation called “the United Front Work”14 that underlies the vast web of “friendly contacts” with key individuals and constituencies in target countries and international organisations.
The co-optation mostly leads to “elite capture” in these targets. The CCP is not as interested in disrupting or seizing alien institutions as it is in repurposing them to align with its own goals. The UN Human Rights Council offers an instructive example. With its dismal human rights record, one might expect the PRC to downplay the existing international human rights mechanisms. Instead, it is trying to redefine them. The Chinese delegation in Geneva systematically tables resolutions aimed at redesigning the very concept of human rights. By privileging the right to development over basic rights and freedoms, it is moving the subjectivity of rights from individual human beings to states.15 It is the states that deliver development to societies, and they cannot be hindered by petty complaints from individuals. Humans need to give way to history, and to history’s leading force: the Chinese Communist Party.
The Party Leads Everything
In the year of the CCP’s centennial, the party’s leadership (with comrade Xi Jinping as its core) believes that it has finally developed a “comprehensive system”, after some trial and error, to effectively govern their vast country and population, combining an overall Leninist state structure with selected mechanisms adopted from the capitalist mode of production and, crucially, deploying advanced digital technologies. This comprehensive system of governance is a hierarchical, top-down regime with the Communist Party as its Leviathan with full and incontestable sovereignty. In practice, the monopoly on power is exercised by the party’s top echelon (and its “core”, “the people’s leader” (人民领袖)—Xi himself).
There is no place for dissent that would disrupt the harmony between the wise rulers and the devoted masses. The market economy and private ownership are only tolerated insofar as they help the party achieve its goals.16 The country is ruled by law, but it is the party that decides what the law is and interprets it as needed. As Xi Jinping declares, the main feature of the New Era is the unquestionable leadership of the party in all aspects of life. He is fond of quoting Chairman Mao’s adage: “The Party, the government, the army, the people, the education; East West South North and the centre—the Party leads it all 党政军民学，东西南北中，党是领导一切的.17
While the West was busy in the first two decades of the 21st century daydreaming about “convergence”, the CCP managed to reinvent itself and build up from the ashes of 1989 a powerful Leninist system of technology-enabled one-party dictatorship. Thirty years after the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, the new Chinese techno-Leninism emerges as a credible rival to liberal democracy that we had taken for granted too long.
The research for this work was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through the Project “Creativity and Adaptability as Conditions of the Success of Europe in an Interrelated World” (No. CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000734).
1 On the half-forgotten “Literature of Ruins”, see Chen Ruoxi, “Democracy Wall and the Unofficial Journals”. Studies in Chinese Terminology, No. 20. Berkeley, CA: Center for Chinese Studies, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1982.
2 See Samuel Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave” in Journal of Democracy Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1991.
3 Martin Luther King’s quote, repopularised by president Barack Obama.
4 See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press, 1992.
5 One of the main slogans of Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign.
6 This somewhat ambivalent term was coined in 2006 by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick.
8 For a comprehensive treatment, see Didi Kirsten Tatlow & William C. Hannas, China’s Quest for Foreign Technology: Beyond Espionage. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020.
9 See Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century”. Foreign Policy, 11 October 2011.
10 On the CCP concept of security, see Matthew D. Johnson, “Safeguarding socialism: The origins, evolution and expansion of China’s total security paradigm”. Sinopsis, 11 June 2020. Available online at sinopsis.cz/en/johnson-safeguarding-socialism/.
11 See 卸任常委后的署名文章，王岐山谈了什么？news.sina.com.cn/c/nd/2017-11-01/doc-ifynmnae10523….
12 The term has been coined by Sebastian Heilmann. For a brief early overview of the concept, see his summary, “Big data reshapes China’s approach to governance”. Financial Times, 29 September 2017. Available online at www.ft.com/content/43170fd2-a46d-11e7-b797-b618094….
13 See Martin Hála & Jichang Lulu, “Lost in translation: ‘Economic diplomacy’ with Chinese characteristics”. Sinopsis, 11 March 2019. Available online at sinopsis.cz/en/lost-in-translation-economic-diplom….
15 See Andréa Worden, “The CCP at the UN: Redefining development and rights”. Sinopsis, 17 March 2019. Available online at sinopsis.cz/en/the-ccp-at-the-un-redefining-develo….
16 See Martin Hála, “A New Invisible Hand: Authoritarian Corrosive Capital and the Repurposing of Democracy”. Washington DC: National Endowment for Democracy, March 2020. Available online at www.ned.org/sharp-power-and-democratic-resilience-….
17 On the history and use of the slogan, see Hála & Lulu, “Lost in Translation”.