May 25, 2021

Axios China

Welcome back to Axios China. Today's newsletter is a special look at the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

  • Of note: Axios China will be taking a break starting next week. I'll be on leave the next four months as I finish writing a book (about China, of course!). I'll be back in your inboxes come October. Have a wonderful summer!
  • In the meantime, you can follow the Axios stream for China news.

Today's newsletter is 1,568 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: At 100, the CCP claims credit for the Chinese dream

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Chinese Communist Party leaders are pulling out all the stops to celebrate the party's founding 100 years ago.

The big picture: As China's geopolitical prominence is cemented abroad while authoritarian pressures grow at home, the CCP claims to have delivered the modernity and prosperity Chinese people have dreamed of for over a century.

What's happening: From elementary school essay competitions to patriotic films to an unending parade of speeches, banners and news headlines, China is in the midst of celebrating the CCP's 100-year anniversary.

Background: When the party was founded in July 1921, China was riven by feuding warlords, deeply mired in poverty, and powerless on the international stage.

  • By that time, a generation's worth of Chinese intellectuals had already dedicated their lives trying to reform and modernize China, proposing everything from enlightened imperial rule to a constitutional monarchy to a democratic republic.
  • The Republic of China was established in 1912, but its government was weak and largely unable to solve China's problems.

By contrast, the China of 2021 is an emerging superpower. Beijing has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a nuclear arsenal and the world's second-largest economy.

  • The CCP continues to claim full credit for these accomplishments. But this isn't new: A well-known 1950s-era propaganda song popularized the slogan "Without the Communist Party, there would be no new China."
  • The centennial celebrations are "an opportunity to draw continuity across the party and across Chinese civilization," says Peter Mattis, a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
  • "Especially since the 19th party congress in 2017, Xi Jinping has been talking about Chinese solutions and providing Chinese contributions to humanity. This is an opportunity to speak of a Chinese project, not just a party project — but they can say the party is the one who achieved this."

Details: Top party leaders, including Xi, are trying to further associate China's achievements over the past 40 years with the party, especially through emphasizing the realization of several specific goals laid out years ago.

  • In 2012, the same year Xi was selected as party secretary, the party began heavily promoting the "centenary goal" of achieving a "moderately well-off society" by 2021.
  • Related goals included eliminating poverty, building China's own space station and becoming an "Internet power."
  • Xi has often connected this centenary goal to the "Chinese dream," his signature slogan referring to achieving a modern, powerful and prosperous nation.

Between the lines: "Linking the two concepts means that there is effectively a deadline for achieving the Chinese dream. By 2021, the 'dream' must be at least partially complete," Diplomat editor Shannon Tiezzi wrote in 2015.

  • That explains, in part, the big push over the past few years to alleviate poverty — including initiatives for funding local infrastructure and incentives for businesses to invest in China's inland region as well as relocating some populations and forcibly putting others, including Uyghurs, to work.
  • In February, Xi declared the end of extreme poverty in China.
  • Earlier this month, China successfully launched a key part of its new space station into orbit and successfully landed a rover on Mars.
  • And its internet and fintech sectors are among the largest and most profitable in the world.

Yes, but: China's GDP per capita remains far below that of developed countries and hovers just under the global average of around $11,000. Access to high-quality health care and education is still out of reach for many.

  • For many Chinese people, especially ethnic and religious minorities, a succession of ideological crackdowns carried out by Xi and his hardline supporters has also cast a shadow over their futures.

The bottom line: The Chinese Communist Party has made it through a century of turbulence, and it's come out on the other side more powerful than ever.

2. Timeline: 100 years of CCP history at a glance
Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Getty Images; Graphic: Shoshana Gordon, Andrew Witherspoon/Axios
3. Propaganda films take over China's box office

Moviegoers sit in front of a poster of film "Cliff Walkers" at a cinema on May 3 in Shenyang, China. Photo credit: VCG via Getty Images

Chinese theatergoers have a huge selection of patriotic films to enjoy this year as the party has prioritized propaganda at the box office in the lead-up to the centennial.

The big picture: These days, propaganda in China isn't necessarily clunky or boring. Sometimes it comes in the form of wildly successful box office hits, other times as irresistible viral memes.

What's happening: Back in March, the China Film Administration ordered theaters to show at least two propaganda films every week that were "closely focused on the themes of loving the party, loving the nation and loving socialism."

  • Many of these are classic films brought back for the occasion.
  • Others are new. "Cliff Walkers," a film by director Zhang Yimou about CCP agents in the 1930s who track down enemy spies, has raked in more than $150 million so far this year.

Context: Hollywood movies used to win the Chinese box office, but patriotic films now often claim top spots, and studios make lots of them.

  • "The Eight Hundred," a film released last year that follows Chinese soldiers protecting a warehouse from the Japanese army in 1937 Shanghai, brought in $472 million in revenue, making it the world's second-highest-grossing film of 2020.

Between the lines: "It’s not as explicit as Beijing handing out orders," writes Amanda Morrison for Foreign Policy.

  • "Instead, the government has shifted its approach from direct intervention to indirect incentivization by shaping the economic conditions of the film industry to favor patriotic cinema."
4. China's centennial fervor affects its international ties

Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

As the party's 100th anniversary draws nearer, China's domestic environment has become more focused on nationalism and hardline ideology, a trend also affecting the country's international relations.

The big picture: Beijing is broadcasting confidence and swagger, often for the benefit of domestic audiences, but other countries and international companies are feeling the effects.

  • China's leaders often tighten political restrictions around major events and anniversaries; the centennial so far has seen an exaggerated version of this response.

Taiwan: 2021 has seen big shows of force, with Beijing sending jet fighters on numerous incursions into Taiwanese airspace and holding naval drills in nearby waters.

  • "In the lead-up to the centenary of the founding of the CCP, it would be very hard to see Beijing, or Xi Jinping, giving any leeway whatsoever on issues related to national sovereignty," Russell Hsiao, executive director of the DC-based Global Taiwan Institute, told Axios.
  • But "an uncontrollable event could potentially spoil Xi Jinping’s desire to have a choreographed display of nationalism and patriotic fervor in support of the Chinese Communist Party," Hsiao said.
  • Hsiao added that Beijing isn't likely to intentionally engage in actual military hostilities during this time. "An uncontrollable escalation over Taiwan would not be in Xi’s interest."

Patriotic boycotts: In March, international brands from H&M to Hugo Boss to Adidas were targets of a state-fanned consumer boycott, as Chinese netizens expressed outrage at these companies' disavowal of Xinjiang cotton amid reports of forced labor in the cotton industry there.

EU sanctions: The Chinese government levied unprecedented sanctions on European researchers, organizations, and even members of the EU Parliament for calling out the party's repression in Xinjiang.

  • The sanctions were largely symbolic and seem to have backfired; the EU has suspended the EU-China investment treaty approved just months earlier.
5. What I'm reading

Image credit: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

From a tiny group of intellectuals both supported and underestimated by Moscow to a scrappy army fighting the invading Japanese to the world's largest and most formidable political organization, the Chinese Communist Party has had quite a century.

  • A new book, "The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives" (Cambridge University Press, 2021), looks at this history through the lives of 10 people, one for each decade of the CCP's existence.

Some interesting figures include:

  • Henricus Sneevliet, a Dutch communist, sent by Moscow in 1921 to assist the fledging CCP. Sneevliet was not impressed and wrote back to Moscow that he was discouraged by what he saw in the small party cell in Shanghai.
  • Zhao Ziyang, the former party secretary whose vision for liberal reforms in China was smashed after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, after which he spent much of the rest of his life under house arrest.
  • Guo Meimei, a young woman who posted photos of herself on social media posing in luxurious surroundings — what today we would call an influencer.
    • After falsely claiming to work for what appeared to be a government organization, she found herself at the center of an online storm, as netizens sought to investigate what they saw as corruption in Chinese government institutions — a mostly short-lived phenomenon after Chinese authorities cracked down on such citizen-driven accountability.

What they're saying: "This book does suggest that the Chinese Communist Party is not one thing, wedded to a single dogma and a set way of doing things," the book's editors write in the introduction.

  • "Xi Jinping represents a centralizing, dictatorial, nationalist, even militarist tradition. But our ten stories show that there were important alternatives."
6. 1 vacation thing: "Red tourism"

Tourists at Baota Mountain in Yan'an, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party from 1936 to 1947, on May 9. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Domestic tourist sites that memorialize important events in CCP history are flourishing in the months before the centennial.

Why it matters: Chinese tourists are seeking a sense of pride and connection with their nation's history, while the party is looking to reinforce its association with the trajectory of Chinese history.

Some popular sites include:

  • Yan'an, Shaanxi province, which served as party headquarters after the Long March, a lengthy retreat from advancing Nationalist forces during which a core group of dedicated party members was formed.
  • Jinggangshan, Jiangxi province, known as the "cradle of the Chinese revolution," where Mao Zedong and his followers set up a rural base after the Nationalists led a purge of the Communists in 1927.
  • Zunyi, Guizhou province, the site of the Zunyi Conference in 1935 during which Mao cemented his leadership of the party.