The 100-year-old Chinese Communist Party: what’s next?

History rhymes. As do leadership cycles in the Chinese Communist Party. Ironically, the current undisputed leader is a product of Mao Zedong, of similar stature and power, who purged Xi Jinping’s father and inflicted struggle sessions, public ridicule and hunger on Xi as a young man.

Mao taught the CCP that an unconstrained leader was dangerous for the party and for China’s people, because they could take large wrong turns and persist even as they failed in plain sight. But that lesson only held from 1980 to 2012.

It’s hard to forget that Mao killed 36 million of his own people in the disastrous Great Leap Forward, a failed grand agricultural and industrial reform package, or the brutal Cultural Revolution that cemented Mao as the single voice within the state until he died at 82 in 1976.

Since then, Xi has inflicted his own major life lesson on the party and China’s 1.4 billion people: power must be continually reaffirmed and strengthened. That means ensuring other centres of power don’t arise to complicate or challenge Xi within the CCP, or to challenge the party from within China—like its large and successful big tech companies.

I’m thinking of former CCP rising star Bo Xilai and of Alibaba’s Jack Ma—and the 7.5 million people of Hong Kong, with 1 July marking the first anniversary of the brutal national security law’s implementation. Then there’s the Catholic Church’s odd acceptance of party nominations of Chinese bishops.

For Xi, you maintain power by struggle—including against a dangerous external world he sees as hellbent on getting in the way. That’s why he told a hand-picked Tiananmen Square crowd that ‘the Chinese people will never allow foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.’

Three main elements wrought the surge in Chinese prosperity, and all have ended under Xi.

Two domestic elements were the step back from party direction that Deng Xiaoping’s reforms brought after Mao’s death, along with the deeply pragmatic approach to collective leadership and succession he instituted. (Not forgetting that Deng used tanks on his own citizens in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 to maintain party rule—an anniversary it doesn’t celebrate.)

The external element was an open and welcoming global environment, including China’s 2001 acceptance into the World Trade Organization and numerous countries’ China policies that focused mainly on mutual economic benefit, with little attention to large security and strategic differences.

That too is ending, as we see with the historic collapse in views of China across Europe, North America, Japan, South Korea and Australia. And in the converging assessment of the world’s most powerful open societies and economies that Xi’s drive to create a Sino-centred (CCP-centred) global economy and order poses a systemic challenge and isn’t just a matter for Washington to handle. Xi banks on none of this mattering, because China’s economy is at a point where domestic demand can create future growth, and because the China market will remain attractive enough to suck in foreign investment, regardless of how the party uses its power within China or the wider world.

He might be lucky, despite China only now lifting the last of its population out of extreme poverty into plain old poverty, right as the demographic destiny of its ageing population kicks in. At least some of the world’s business leaders agree, musing about the shame that business can’t be disconnected from human rights. Here Xi is banking on no one paying attention to the goals of his ‘dual circulation’ economic strategy: to make China less dependent on other economies, while making them more dependent on China’s. In a world that now understands the leverage others gain if they control your critical supply chains, and where international cooperation is expanding among governments and economies that can trust one another, it’s less likely that bet will pay off.

The next decade looks like it will be at least as tough for the CCP as any of the 72 years it has held onto power. It’ll need to do what it has been doing—increasing spending to maintain internal security.

Xi will also need to conduct rolling purges within the party and within powerful government agencies to ensure his rule and keep potential successors from emerging. We already know that includes the internal security forces he uses to maintain party rule. And Beijing will have to continually reassess whether its active cultivation of ‘struggle’ and difficulty in its international relationships, as with Xi’s rhetoric this week and through military aggression, is the path to global power and influence.

Unfortunately for the CCP, these balances are likely to get harder and Xi may need to take more and bigger risks to stay in power. He may also be at a point where showing signs of changing his mind may weaken his hold on power. That dynamic will grow in importance as Xi, 68, ages and power transition becomes inevitable.

The flip side is the party’s and Xi’s own narrative of the ‘China dream’, the vision that China’s further rise under the party’s wise leadership is inevitable, as is the decline of external powers who might complicate this. In the dream, the 1.4 billion Chinese people identify more and more closely with the party and focus their nationalism on the directions it is taking China.

That’s what the stage-managed ‘flash mobs’ celebrating the party centenary this week with hand-picked adoring crowds with smiles fervent and forced are meant to show.

For the CCP, it’s almost lucky the celebrations are happening during the pandemic, because these orchestrated events become substitutes for actual public gatherings it doesn’t control.

And not having world leaders there congratulating Xi can be explained by travel restrictions, rather than their absence graphically showing China’s soft-power collapse. A few years ago, they would have queued up to share Xi’s moment.

In the party’s China dream narrative, Beijing’s poor international relations and the collapse of Chinese soft power don’t matter for three reasons.

Population views don’t count if elite buy-in to China’s economy is maintained. And any resistance to China’s use of power against and within other societies is simply a growing pain as the world adjusts itself to the CCP—as China’s people have had to. Lastly, great chunks of the less developed world want the wealth they’re told will flow from deeper engagement with China’s market, while being happy to discount or just live with the nastier aspects of Chinese power. Even if that continues to hold true, it’s probably not enough to underpin China’s rise.

The ‘inevitable rise’ narrative ignores the increasing economic health of the US and other open societies as they recover rapidly from the pandemic’s economic impact. It also ignores the growing, if loose, cooperation to deal with the challenge Xi’s China presents to governments and economies that benefit from an open and rules-based order.

Australia has shifted its China policy reluctantly in the past five years, and it is in growing company. That shift is likely to accelerate, given Beijing’s coercive behaviour. The growing gap between Xi’s words of ‘win–win’ mutual benefit in a ‘community of common destiny’ and his own and the CCP’s relentless, threatening drive to power is an unmentionable within China, but an increasingly obvious observation in the wider world.

It’s hard to see Xi disconnecting the linkages that his use of power has created in minds outside China of economics, technology and strategic power.

Forced but fervent celebration was on show in Tiananmen Square because there’s a lot to play for, and a lot of risk to be understood and engaged with. The stakes are high, not just for China, the party and the world, but for Xi and the individuals who orbit around him.