A century ago this year, 13 delegates gathered together in Shanghai for the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Soon driven out of the city, they eventually concluded the meeting aboard a boat in the neighboring province of Zhejiang.
If the party tried to do something similar today, it would need a bigger boat. The CCP had almost 92 million members in 2019, making it the largest political organization in the world. Yet the role of the CCP in Chinese society, and by extension its members, remains internationally controversial. At least one factor contributing to this suspicion is relatively easy to explain: The CCP doesn’t look or behave like the political parties found in Western Europe or North America. Yet this takes too limited a view of what makes a political party.
No one contests that political parties play an important role in the political life of modern societies. Historically, parties generally emerged in one of two ways: The earliest, which could be called “election-oriented” parties, emerged alongside the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. After the monopoly on political power held by the feudal aristocracy and landlord class was broken by the bourgeoisie, the latter set up their own parties to facilitate participation in competitive elections.
The second type, “mission-oriented parties,” emerged in a very different context, amid the decline of colonialism, the rise of communism, and the rapid growth of national liberation movements after WWII. They were established by local political elites across Asia, Africa, and South America with the aim of ending imperialist oppression, overturning unequal political and social systems, and achieving national independence.
Although the goal of both these types of parties is to obtain political power, they are fundamentally different in how they relate to society. Election-oriented parties operate under the framework of “the party as part”: Each party only represents the interests of certain members of society. They pursue these interests through parliamentary politics and election campaigns, while simplifying the election process by allowing voters to quickly compare and judge a relatively small number of candidates. The election-oriented parties prevalent in Europe and North America essentially broke the monopoly on political privilege once held by royalty and the aristocracy, replacing them with a system characterized by inter-party competition, in which the people regularly choose their rulers from candidates nominated by different political parties.
In contrast, mission-oriented parties hold the principle “the party as whole,” positioning themselves as representatives of the entire nation, rather than speaking for the interests of just some members of society. This kind of political party was founded not to realize their political ideals through parliamentary competition, but to create a new political order and state, often through political and social revolution.
Mission-oriented parties had to rely on strict organization and iron-like discipline if they were to overthrow the old systems and build new ones. Those that succeeded established a governance model that allows them to act as the “brains” behind national construction and to take a leading role in social development. This means they wield influence over the entire political system and government. It also means that, if a mission-oriented party collapses, the country not only loses its direction and momentum, but also its entire political structure.
The CCP is a classic example of a mission-oriented party. Karl Marx once said: “A single violin player is his own conductor; an orchestra requires a separate one.” He meant that the social transformation of any country must involve the organization and guidance of a subjective supporting force. As a mission-oriented communist party, the CCP takes this idea seriously. Its power extends into every corner of society and has established connections and links to almost all mass and social organizations, thereby laying a solid organizational foundation for social mobilization and political guidance.
But Chinese society is more complex now than it was when the CCP first emerged 100 years ago. By the year 2000, with the rapid development of China’s non-state sector economy, various new social classes had begun to emerge. Members of these new social classes — including managers and technical personnel in private and foreign-funded enterprises, as well as the self-employed — were playing an increasingly large role in the country’s socio-economic development. They began to demand more access to political participation, the ability to express their interests, and the opportunity for party-promised democratic supervision.
For the CCP to adjust to these new social changes, it first had to reconsider its approach to the party-society relationship. Although as a mission-oriented party it had long positioned itself as representative of the entire nation, there was a time in history when membership was limited to those from “good” political backgrounds: families of peasants, workers, soldiers, and cadres, as well as students. Those from “bad” backgrounds — rich peasants, capitalists, and landlords, among others — were explicitly barred from membership. In effect, this excluded many willing and highly capable people from the party, even as it was in dire need of new blood.
A decision was made to address this legacy of exclusion. On July 1, 2001, the 80th anniversary of the party’s founding, private entrepreneurs were declared to be “builders of socialism with Chinese characteristics” for the first time, and promises were made to treat them fairly and equally in politics. In 2002, the party’s constitution was amended to change the term “other revolutionaries” in the list of those eligible for membership to “any forward-thinking … person from any other social strata.” This allowed entrepreneurs, white-collar workers at foreign-funded enterprises, employees at business agencies, and self-employed people to apply to join the CCP.
Many soon did so, not just out of a sense of self-interest, but because they actually craved the sense of mission and responsibility involved in being party members. For its part, the party itself benefitted greatly from the shift. In 2018, on the 40th anniversary of “reform and opening-up,” China published a list of 100 people who had played leading or model roles in the country’s reforms. There were scientists, educators, engineers, entrepreneurs, doctors, community workers, and others from all corners of Chinese society, especially outside the government. Of them, 80 awardees were CCP members, highlighting the role played by the party’s membership at the vanguard of reform and opening-up.
This new diversity is particularly evident at times of crisis, when party members, by virtue of their diverse positions and identities, are well-placed to take a leading role. For instance, many of the heroes in the fight against last year’s COVID-19 outbreak were party members — not just cadres, but doctors, nurses, and social entrepreneurs. This was true of Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who tried to expose the outbreak, as well as Zhong Nanshan, who helped provide authorities with a reliable, widely trusted public face.
And it was Zhang Wenhong, a doctor and the party secretary of the infectious disease department of Huashan Hospital, who took the opportunity to remind the entire party that with its sense of mission comes certain responsibilities. “We’re replacing all the frontline doctors,” Zhang declared late last January. “With whom? With the party members in each clinic. Isn’t that the oath all party members take? To put the interests of the people first and welcome challenges? Well, from now on, they (the frontline doctors) are stepping down, and party members are stepping up. Show me what you’re made of.”
Despite early difficulties, China’s performance over the ensuing weeks, taking control of the country’s epidemic and containing the virus in a matter of months, suggests Zhang’s call to arms went answered. Today, the CCP’s presence can indeed be felt in every corner of society, in ways that aren’t true of election-oriented parties. But for the majority of China’s 1.4 billion people, the heart of that presence lies in its 92 million members. They’re the ones who represent the party’s mission of national rejuvenation, whether in villages or cities, government departments or hospitals, or in state-owned enterprises and tech companies.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A worker polishes a Communist Party emblem in Anqing, Anhui province, 2011. People Visual)