100 years of the Chinese Communist Party
Ten moments that shaped the Chinese Communist Party
The most-powerful authoritarian political party in the world is about to celebrate its 100th birthday.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in July 1921 in a small room in Shanghai's then-French controlled district, with only 13 people in attendance -- at least according to the official history.
Today, it has more than 95 million members -- almost 7% of the country's population -- and pulls the levers of the second-largest economy in the world, which is on track to overtake the US in the next decade.
Here are 10 defining moments from 100 years of the CCP.
A party is born
In the early 1920s, China was in chaos.
Its first republican government had fallen apart less than 10 years after taking power from the last emperor of the Qing dynasty. The country was riven by infighting between powerful warlords, each ruling over a region with their own armies, and a devastating famine in the north had killed hundreds of thousands of people.
Meanwhile, the Nationalist Party, known as the Kuomintang (KMT), was attempting unsuccessfully to reunify the country under a central government.
In this atmosphere, small groups drawn to communist ideology were springing up across the country, inspired by socialist writer Karl Marx and the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin.
The groups met for the first time in Shanghai on July 23, 1921, when -- according to its official history -- party membership was only about 50 people.
The order of business? "To overthrow the bourgeoisie by means of the revolutionary army of the proletariat," according to the party's official history.
Only two men from that meeting would be present at the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 -- Mao Zedong and Dong Biwu. The rest had either died, left the party or fallen out of favor.
At the time, the significance of the meeting was clearly unknown: today the party celebrates July 1 as its anniversary because for years the actual date of the first congress was disputed.
“A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery … A revolution is an insurrection.”Mao Zedong
The Long March begins
The 6,000-mile (10,000-kilometer) Long March was not only a pivotal moment in the history of the CCP -- it also resulted in Mao being instated as the party's undisputed leader.
To CCP historians, it was a heroic period when the party persevered against all odds to emerge triumphant. To its critics, it was a military disaster that cost tens of thousands of lives.
By 1934, the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek had mostly taken control of China but was still clashing with the guerrilla forces of the fledgling Communist Party.
Eventually, the outmatched Communist army was forced into a long retreat from its southern base to northern China. Along the way the old leadership of the CCP was ousted, as Mao guided the remaining troops across 18 mountain ranges and 24 rivers, constantly under attack by the Nationalist army, according to party lore.
About 100,000 people set out on the Long March, including 75,000 soldiers and 20,000 non-combatants. Only 7,000 eventually reached safety in the city of Yan'an.
But the party had survived. From Yan'an, the CCP rebuilt itself under Mao, the beginning of a cult of personality in the party which has arguably been revived today under current leader Xi Jinping.
The People's Republic of China is founded
The Japanese invasion of China disrupted the KMT's plan to eradicate the Communist insurgents.
Mao and Chiang's forces had put their clashes on hold in 1937 to cooperate in winning the Sino-Japanese war, but with Tokyo's defeat in 1945 all bets were off.
Taking advantage of the Nationalist government's corruption and military incompetence, Mao's Communist forces steadily overcame the opposition, and gained popular support by promising land to China's large peasant class.
After losing a bloody civil war, Chiang and his remaining forces fled to Taiwan, beginning a standoff between Taipei and Beijing that remains, with the CCP claiming the island as its territory.
On October 1, 1949, Mao stood on top of Tiananmen -- the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” -- in Beijing and announced the creation of "a new China:" the People's Republic of China (PRC).
The ‘Great Leap Forward’
With many countries experiencing post-World War II economic booms, Mao prioritized rapidly advancing China's economic growth. In a speech to Soviet leaders in 1957, he claimed in 15 years that "we may have caught up with or overtaken Great Britain."
But Mao's plan for jump-starting China from an agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse would prove to be disastrous.
Some farmers were made to leave their fields to make steel, a key resource for building the machinery needed for industrialization, while others were forced into unproductive land communes, which were aligned with Communist ideology but caused food production to plunge.
A great famine swept China, devastating the country. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 30 million people.
The “Great Leap Forward” is not acknowledged as the main cause of China's famine in the official party history -- it blamed natural disasters.
The Cultural Revolution
The failure of the “Great Leap Forward” weakened Mao's grip on power. So he launched a campaign to destroy his political rivals and create total loyalty within the party.
Without warning, Mao claimed that groups opposed to communist ideology had infiltrated the party and needed to be cleansed.
His calls to remove the "counterrevolutionaries" and "rightists" quickly spiraled out of control. Mobs of students, now known as Red Guards, attacked anyone believed to be harboring bourgeois ideals or imperialist habits.
Students across the country turned on their teachers, who they accused of being capitalists or traitors. Anyone who fell foul of the mobs was tortured and abused, forced to publicly confess. Others were locked up in makeshift camps.
Some died as a result of the torture, others took their own lives. As the situation escalated, different groups of Red Guards began to fight each other, using weapons from the People's Liberation Army.
The chaos finally ended with the death of Mao in 1976. The Cultural Revolution is widely recognized as a catastrophe that may have resulted in millions of deaths, according to some estimates.
In 1981, the Communist Party passed a resolution saying the Cultural Revolution "was responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the state and the people since the founding of the People's Republic."
Reform and Opening Up begins
China's path from one of the world's most-impoverished nations to the second-largest economy began with the policy of Reform and Opening Up in 1979.
After Mao's death, Hua Guofeng, the party's second-in-command at the time, took power as chairman of the Communist Party -- but he was quickly outflanked by another party veteran: Deng Xiaoping.
Hua was responsible for restoring Deng's positions after he fell from grace during the Cultural Revolution. But Deng rapidly built a power base inside the party, and in 1980, he ousted Hua.
One of Deng's main polices was Reform and Opening Up -- an experimental approach that maintained the one-party political system while loosening government controls on the economy and certain personal freedoms.
It moved China away from a strict planned economy towards something closer to capitalism.
At first, farmers were allowed to sell excess produce, then entrepreneurs could found businesses. Special economic zones were set up to allow free trade.
But Deng's policies raised an important question for the party -- could a communist state enjoy the economic benefits of trade and capitalism while keeping a tight grip on power?
“It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”Deng Xiaoping, in speech to the Communist Youth League.
The Tiananmen Square massacre
As China's economy opened up, corruption worsened and some people began to demand greater freedoms.
Economic liberalization was slowly making China richer, but the party still controlled many elements of public life, restricting free speech and international travel.
In April 1989, the death of a popular liberal Chinese politician sparked nationwide pro-democracy protests, the largest of which was held in Tiananmen Square.
Internal debate on the response to protesters in the party's upper echelon ended on May 20 when the leadership declared martial law. Two weeks later, on June 4, the Chinese military turned its guns on its own people.
The government's official death toll was 241 people, including soldiers, but human rights groups estimate thousands could have been killed in Beijing alone.
The crackdown became a milestone in the CCP's trajectory, initially leading to sanctions and international condemnation before economic considerations took priority and China's integration into the global economy restarted.
Since the massacre, economic liberalization has accelerated in China. But the party has all but silenced calls for democracy and civil liberties.
China joins the WTO
China began to see rapid growth but its potential was restrained by one thing: it wasn't a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The WTO regulates trade between member nations, who are able to strike better deals with other countries within the group.
But in the 1990s, despite its new policies, China was still far from being a market economy. It took 15 years of negotiations before it was allowed to join the WTO, with Washington's blessing, and in return it had to agree to further liberalize its economy, including removing certain tariffs and pledging to protect intellectual property.
After China officially joined in December 2001, the country's economy began to boom. In 2000, China's annual GDP growth had been 8.5% -- in 2007, it had risen to almost 15%.
The Beijing Olympics
At the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, China stepped onto the world stage as a global power.
Some Western diplomats and human rights activists had pushed for a boycott of the event over China's human rights record, especially its crackdown in Tibet and forced evictions to make way for the Games.
Others hoped that giving China the Olympics might draw the country further into the international rules-based order, encouraging greater political and economic liberalization.
The Games went ahead as planned -- and were spectacular. But they didn't inspire China to become more like the West.
Instead, China's ability to hold one of the most-expensive Games ever, as Western economies buckled under the Global Financial Crisis, demonstrated Beijing's growing economic clout, and ability to chart its own path.
The event was a triumph for the Communist Party, which had answered a question perplexing authoritarian rulers across the world for decades -- can a non-liberal political system gain the rewards of a liberal economy without losing its hold on power?
As the world watched fireworks explode over Beijing for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Games, the answer seemed to be a resounding yes.
Xi Jinping takes power
When Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Communist Party, his tenure was greeted with widespread, if cautious, optimism.
Some, including then-US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, thought he would be a liberal reformer. Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said of the son of a former Chinese vice premier: "I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons."
In reality, Xi became one of China's most-powerful leaders since the founding of the People's Republic, taking the party back to personality-driven leadership.
Xi holds more titles than anyone since Mao -- not only does he head the party, state and military but he also sits atop numerous super-committees in charge of everything ranging from national security to economic reform. "Xi Jinping Thought" has been written into China's constitution.
“Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken.”Xi Jinping, speaking to CCP officials
100 years on
Under Xi, the CCP has more geopolitical clout and economic power than ever, but at home that dominance has come at a cost.
Xi has cracked down on all liberal thought. Human rights lawyers and advocates have been thrown into prison. Think tanks that disagree with the CCP are shuttered.
The party is back at the center of all aspects of life -- in private businesses, in politics, in the military, even on people's phones through new CCP-ideology apps.
The CCP now talks about a "new era" under Xi, the "people's leader" who can stay in power indefinitely after the scrapping of presidential term limits.
For Xi, his top priority is undoubtedly to make sure the CCP is strong enough to rule another century. How long he will personally drive that mission remains to be seen.
- Reporter: Ben Westcott
- Editors: Jenni Marsh and Steven Jiang
- Photo Editor: Fruhlein Chrys Econar
- Video: Sofia Couceiro, Teodora Preda
- Top animation: Emma Beinish
- Design: Sarah-Grace Mankarious
- Development: Curt Merrill