The Life — and Lives — of the Party: Communism in China, 1921–2021

Martin Laflamme evaluates “The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives” and “From Rebel to Ruler.”

By Martin LaflammeJuly 22, 2021

The Life — and Lives — of the Party: Communism in China, 1921–2021

From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party by Tony Saich. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press. 560 pages.

The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives by Timothy Cheek, Klaus Mühlhahn, Hans van de Ven. Cambridge University Press. 302 pages.


LIU SHAOQI DIED early in the morning of November 12, 1969, in Kaifeng, the capital of Henan Province. It was not a pleasant death. He had been separated from his family for months and was mentally exhausted. His body was covered in bed sores, his lungs were ravaged by pneumonia. He breathed his last on the floor of a cold cell, drenched in vomit and in his own feces. It was a shocking end for a man who, until just the previous year, had been China’s head of state and the heir apparent to Mao Zedong.

Not all senior members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) met an equally gruesome fate. Nevertheless, power struggles at the top can be vicious, and many careers have been prematurely cut short by tussles gone wrong. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) is notoriously rich with examples, but cases span the Party’s entire history.

Take Zhang Guotao, a student leader and labor activist who was one of the most important figures in the Party’s early history. Zhang presided over the CCP’s inaugural conference in Shanghai in 1921 and was involved in the August 1, 1927, uprising in Nanchang, which is now celebrated as the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). From the mid-1930s onward, however, he repeatedly clashed with Mao over political and military strategy. After he was pushed aside, he defected to the Nationalists and eventually fled into exile — he died in Toronto in 1979. In the 1980s, not one, but two CCP general secretaries fell to power struggles: Hu Yaobang was compelled to resign in 1987, and Zhao Ziyang was forced by the Party to take the blame for the disastrous mismanagement of the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Zhao then spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest.

These historical vignettes are fascinating in their own right. But they also have contemporary relevance insofar as a thorough understanding of the Party’s past can offer clues about its future. In this particular instance, the tragic fate of Liu, Zhao, and others point to one of the CCP’s most significant and persistent structural flaws: its inability to establish stable and reliable internal governing mechanisms. According to Tony Saich, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, this “deficit is most apparent with respect to succession.” “Only once,” Saich writes in his most recent book, “has the party achieved a smooth transfer of power from one generation of leaders to the next.” In theory, the CCP’s system of collective leadership was designed to minimize the risk of a single individual becoming dominant. But in practice, Saich concludes, “this has rarely worked.”


There is arguably no organization in the world today that is more important to understand than the CCP. Alas, it is also one of the least transparent. Its archives have largely remained closed, policy planning is opaque, and its top leaders, as a general rule, do not meet journalists except in rare or highly scripted circumstances. On top of that, the collected speeches and memoirs of senior cadres are thoroughly scrubbed before publication to ensure they do not contradict official narratives. On the plus side, the Party is an old organization — it is celebrating its 100th anniversary this summer — and, as such, its fingerprints are all over the country. It has affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people and, despite official efforts to obscure or rewrite the past, there is plenty of material for historians to mine.

Two volumes have just been published in conjunction with the Party’s centenary — an event that was marked with great pomp in the PRC on July 1. The first, Tony Saich’s From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party, provides a comprehensive narrative of the CCP from its inception to this day. Saich starts his book with an overview of China’s cultural and historical context at the turn of the last century and thence proceeds chronologically to review the Party’s entire history. He is meticulous in his research and descriptions, but there is a certain workmanlike quality to his prose. He spends comparatively little time sketching the personality of his protagonists and thus, his narrative at times falls flat. He is at his best when he takes some distance from his material and teases out larger historical trends. The chapter in which he weighs the various factors which made the Communist victory in 1949 possible, e.g., Soviet support for the CCP, Japanese military pressure on Nationalist forces during World War II, or even pure luck, is a model of insightful analysis.

By comparison, there is plenty of color and moxie in The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives. Its 11 contributors, mostly historians from China, the United States, and Europe (though two have a background in journalism) do not profess to offer an “alternative grand narrative” on the rise of the CCP. Instead, they present “a series of snapshots” that explain what it was like, in each decade of the Party’s history, “to live in and with the most powerful political machine ever created.” Saich himself contributes an engrossing chapter on Hendricus Sneevliet, a Dutch national and Comintern representative who helped facilitate the establishment of the Party in 1921. Other sections focus on figures such as Shangguang Yunzhu, a film star like Mao’s fourth wife Jiang Qing, who was one of China’s best-known actresses from the early 1940s to the mid-1960s; Wang Guangmei, the fifth wife of Liu Shaoqi; and Guo Meimei, the general manager of China’s Red Cross Commercial Society, whose garish display of wealth online in 2011 attracted the wrath of netizens. The two books operate on different historical scales and thus, they complement each other wonderfully. They are best read as a pair.


It is impossible to deny the remarkable resilience and longevity of the Party. When it was established in the summer of 1921, it faced long odds. It had only 53 members and the road to expansion looked bumpy. For one thing, Saich points out, the mere “idea of a modern mass party was alien to traditional Chinese culture.” Then there was the problem of the Party’s ideology, i.e., Marxism-Leninism, a foreign creed which purported to mobilize the proletariat into an urban force capable of bringing about revolution. In theory, that was all well and good, but at the time, China was still overwhelmingly rural, more so than Russia had been when the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. It was also home to a weak labor movement, particularly in the north. Uniting the workers of China was not going to be easy.

From day one, there was tension between “theorists” and “pragmatists.” Many early CCP leaders were trained in Moscow and returned home with a very precise idea of what revolution should look like. The Soviet experience had emphasized political agitation in cities, but Mao, who never studied abroad, realized early on that this would not work in China and that the Party would have to shift its efforts to the countryside. An internal debate raged for some years, but after 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek wiped out CCP cells in Shanghai and other large cities, there were few alternatives left.

In the relative safety of its rural base areas, the Party could be surprisingly pragmatic. Saich explains that it was most successful where it was “handled micropolitics well.” In practice, this often meant tailoring land reform to accommodate local conditions and allowing “capitalists” to retain some room to operate. The 1931 Party constitution even recognized the right of ethnic minorities to “complete separation from China,” if they so wished. Whether the Party sincerely meant the latter is open to question, but judging from the way in which it has been treating many of its ethnic minorities in recent decades, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet, it clearly had a change of mind.

Despite the Party’s efforts to build trust, violence was never far below the surface. As early as 1932, a bloody purge in southwest Jiangxi Province led to the killing, arrest, or dismissal of 90 percent of all cadres. There would be dozens of other cases over the following decades, each deploying various levels of brutality.

This was not unique to the CCP. In fact, it was a feature of most — if not all — Maoist movements. Julia Lovell, a historian and translator at Birkbeck, University of London, wrote extensively about the influence of Maoism worldwide. In a chapter of The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives, she examines the particular case of Abimael Guzmán, a Mao devotee who, in his youth, was a “reserved, intellectually self-confident young man with a passion for philosophical abstractions and a horror at the poverty that he witnessed around him in urban Peru.” In a bitter irony, just as China was distancing itself from the worst excesses of Maoism in the late 1970s, Guzmán, then in his early 40s, moved in the opposite direction: he established his own Maoist outfit, the Shining Path, which he led from 1980 into a murderous guerrilla war against the Lima government that lasted more than a decade.


Ideology played a crucial role in the Party’s rise to power — and beyond. As with most Leninist organizations, however, it was never just a roadmap for making policy, though it certainly played that role. Equally important, it was a tool to condone, cajole, or condemn. In extreme cases, like that of Liu Shaoqi, it became a hammer to clobber political enemies.

Abuse was inevitable. Though the CCP was nimble enough to adapt to local conditions when it needed to, there were — and still are — no independent checks on its power. Besides, pace enthusiastic proponents of the mass line, it was never a bottom-up organization, one that developed policy based on the freely expressed needs of local populations. This does not mean the Party was insensitive to the concerns of the laobaixing (“the people”), but it generally sought to impose an agenda from above, one initially based on the broad precepts of Marxism-Leninism and, subsequently, on those of Mao Zedong Thought and various CCP doctrinal offshoots.

As a result, ideology in Communist China became intimately connected with legitimacy. Publicly contesting a Party policy was — and remains — tantamount to attacking the credentials and integrity, even the loyalty, of its proponents. Put another way, the survival of the Party ultimately hinged on its ability to secure at least tacit compliance with its policies, no matter how often they changed or how disastrous their results. This is why propaganda, along with self-criticism and public confessions, became so important: the first shored up the Party’s narrative while the latter two deflected blame, thereby helping to maintain its claim to “infallibility.” As Mao wrote, the “mastery of ideological education is the principal factor in consolidating the Party and in carrying on its great political struggle.” Today, Saich points out, the CCP operates just under 3,000 Party schools across the country.

Those inclined to minimize the Party’s obsession with controlling the narrative might do well to review the story of novelist Wang Shiwei. In an illuminating essay he contributed to The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives, Timothy Cheek, a professor at the University of British Columbia, describes Wang as a “fanatical idealist,” a man “easily outraged and quick to expose and denounce corruption.” But he was also a convinced Marxist and a true believer in the communist cause. Above all, Wang was determined to ensure the Party would not go down the degenerate path of the Nationalists. Disappointed by what he saw in the CCP headquarters of Yan’an in the early 1940s, he wrote biting essays, with great courage — if much naïveté — faulting the leadership for various sins. His criticism was meant to be constructive, of the “loyal opposition” kind, but this is not how it was received. Mao was mightily annoyed and quickly went on the offensive: Wang was denounced, put on trial, and sent to jail. He was shot in the spring of 1947.


Martin Laflamme is a Canadian Foreign Service Officer who served in Tokyo, Beijing (twice), and Kandahar. He is currently posted to Taipei. The views presented here are his own.

LARB Contributor

Martin Laflamme is a Canadian Foreign Service Officer who has served in Tokyo, Beijing (twice), Kandahar, and Taipei. The views presented here are his own.


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