Some thoughts on whether the CPC has been a historical failure
HUALIEN, Taiwan, 3 July 2011
The current 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will cast a light on this unique organisation whose leadership of nine individuals commands a membership of 80 million people, and exerts tight control over nearly 20% of the world’s population. It provides an opportunity for friend or foe to praise or criticise the party, with some celebrating its achievements and others castigating it, mainly for its poor human rights record. Few new insights are anticipated from this debate, as both perspectives are well known, and both sides essentially share the same narrative about the CPC being a success story. What the implications are for this success are disputed. For one side, the success, a triumph over adversity, has meant that nearly a quarter of the population’s material quality of life has improved enormously. For the other side, this success means the CPC’s stranglehold over the people within the PRC has tightened, further stifling the country’s vast human potential.
But is there any truth in this apparent consensus? That depends on the criteria we use to define success.
From the point of view of history and that of declared intentions vs real results, there is a strong case for considering the history of the CPC a series of failures rather than a success. In fact, for most of its history the CPC can be seen as having inhibited rather than led progress on the Chinese Mainland. This becomes particularly apparent when one compares the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with other East Asian countries and in particular other Chinese or Chinese-dominated constituencies like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.
Despite the Soviet support it initially benefited from, in its first two decades of existence the CPC was not particularly successful, being just one of many reformist groups that had proliferated in China from the late 19th century onwards. Mao Zedong himself admitted that it was only the Sino-Japanese war, which raged from the 1930s until 1945, and the concomitant weakness of the Guomingdang, that allowed the CPC to win the so-called “Liberation War”. Soon after it assumed power in 1949, the CPC launched a broad range of “reforms” and campaigns and used all means at its disposal to enforce them.
These reforms and campaigns can be divided in roughly three types.
The first type is represented by those campaigns that were simply disastrous, the most notorious being the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution”. Much has been written about these and it is not necessary to dwell longer on them. It is sufficient for our purpose to underline that the number of Chinese who died directly or indirectly as a consequence of the CPC’s campaigns can only be compared with the number of those who perished in the war with the Japanese or the Taiping rebellion, the bloodiest conflicts in Chinese history. Some historians suggest the death toll might even have been higher.
Less discussed, but perhaps even more significant for today’s China, is a second type of reform that was effectively useless if not nonsensical and indeed seriously hampered China’s development. A case in point is the preposterous reform of the Chinese script that led to the emergence of Simplified Chinese. There had been script reforms in Chinese history prior to this, but certainly none as radical and on the same scale. The declared intention was to make Chinese script more accessible to “the masses”, make it easier to learn and as a result broaden the education base of the nation. The idea echoes similar though less fundamental projects in the West (where they too have often been controversial). In China’s case, the only tangible result was that the majority of Chinese students are unable to read classical Chinese texts in their original form — a high cultural price to pay and a surprising move considering that the CPC sees itself as the champion of Chinese culture. No long debates are needed to prove the lunacy of this endeavour. A glimpse at Chinese students outside the PRC, who still learn the “long signs”, shows how useless the initiative was. Not only do these students not face any greater problems learning the script than their PRC peers, they also invariably have a far higher level of education and the societies they live in have long achieved universal literacy while preserving unhindered access to their traditions.
There is also a third category of reforms introduced by the CPC — those which came up due less to insight than because there appeared to be no other option. The economic reforms, often labelled the “opening of China”, which started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, are probably the most momentous of those as the PRC has become the second largest economy in the world. Today this success appears to many to be the ultimate achievement of the CPC, but the reality is that, due to the party’s hitherto devastating policies, in the late 1970s China was almost broke. In development terms, it lagged so far behind many surrounding countries, that it left the CPC with no option but to change tack and relax its Communist ideology, loosening the net in which it kept the Mainland Chinese people prisoner. It is primarily this last minute, partial withdrawal from the compulsion to marshal even the most intimate aspects of people’s lives that unleashed the energy and creativity of the Chinese people and at last permitted a true “great leap forward”. While “raising 300 million Chinese out of poverty” is a deed often ascribed to the CPC, the truth is that the 300 million in question raised themselves out of poverty because they finally could since the CPC had withdrawn from its former centralistic dirigisme doctrines. In other words, they could achieve this primarily despite the CPC’s policies not because of them. Seen from this perspective, any praise for the CPC for China’s economic progress is misjudged when, for over half its period in power, it has actually inhibited development.
How enlightened the CPC’s current economic policies are, is still a matter of debates. The PRC economy certainly features impressive growth, but with its unsteady back and forth between interventionism and laissez-faire, its astronomic amounts of bad loans, its still inexistent rule of law and its fierce protectionism it is doubtful whether it can be considered as healthy. There are some who argue that a better run economy would grow slower, but better benefit the masses. But then again the rich class which currently benefit the most is also closely entwined with the party.
The real dimensions of China’s history under the rule of the CPC are first graspable when compared with the situation in the surrounding Chinese constituencies where it did not rule.
The “liberation of women” in the PRC (Mao called them, a bit patronisingly, the “other half of the sky”) is a good example. While Chinese women today doubtlessly have a better legal status and a more just place in society than in the past, it is outside the PRC that Chinese women enjoy the highest status, the highest levels of education and the highest level of control over their lives. Their emancipation was more thorough, without much downside (emancipation has often put a double burden on women in the PRC) and without all the self-justifying fanfare typical of the PRC, the CPC’s fiefdom.
After the ravages of the Second World War, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were desperately underdeveloped countries, but because they were lucky enough to escape the control of the CPC their economies could take off much earlier and develop in a more rounded way without sacrificing large sections of their own populations or imposing decades of misery on them. Today, Chinese people living there have better education, a better standard of living, less pollution and a far better general social climate. Taiwan in particular, the sole true democracy of the three (and a vibrant one at that) appears, after a trip through the PRC, as a small paradise, with friendly and educated people, no brutal competition and a sanctuary of free speech; a perfect contrast to almost everything that makes up the PRC today. What has the CPC’s PRC got that can offer more? The endless, self-praising speeches during the National People’s Congress sessions? The many monuments to national unity?
At this point the question arises, could there be any better proof for the failure of the CPC?
About the author
Thierry Dodin was a board member and then the executive director of Tibet Information Network from 1998 until its demise in 2005. He is the founding director of TibetInfoNet and works as an academic researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany.