As the Chinese Communist Party begins its second century, it’s useful to identify enduring patterns that might aid us in understanding China today and the directions it might be heading.
- To that end, I interviewed Tony Saich of Harvard Kennedy School.
Tony has just published From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party.
- One reviewer wrote: In this, ‘magisterial account of the hundred-year history of the Chinese Communist Party, Tony Saich identifies themes extending from the genesis of the CCP in the early 1920s all the way through the rule of Xi Jinping over a rising global superpower today.’
And it was these themes that I talked with Tony about. He identified five that are especially useful:
- ‘Establishing a world order to fit China’s needs’
- ‘Ambivalence toward foreigners’
- ‘Ambivalence toward the private sector’
- ‘Putting the collective over the individual’
- ‘Control of society, the economy, and governmental practices.’
About the world order, Tony pointed out:
- ‘Just think of Deng’s key phrase that we keep going back to, about “hiding your strength and biding your time.” ’
- ‘Hiding your strength for what purpose and what are you biding your time for?’
- ‘Well, it was until China could become powerful enough to be able to reassert its authority on the global stage, which is what Xi Jinping has picked up.’
- Keep that in mind the next time a pundit tells you how far Mr. Xi’s objectives differ from Mr. Deng’s.
Concerning ambivalence toward foreigners, he gave cautions, based on CCP history, for foreign businesses in China:
- ‘When the party was founded in 1921, it was going to get rid of the foreigners who were working in China and investing in China.’
- ‘And that's pretty much what it did after 1949. It got the foreigners out of China.’
‘China now needs global engagement to meet its own objectives.’
- ‘That means that foreigners can be used when they're beneficial to help China meet its objectives, but they can easily be removed or criticized when they do not.’
- ‘We see, if you run afoul of Chinese policy, you will be hammered.’
- ‘So yes, China wants the foreigners, but it only wants the foreigners entirely on its own terms.’
‘Where China has a need, it will let the foreign enterprises come. It will let them grow. It'll let them invest.’
- ‘At the same time, it tries to set up its own competitive businesses to rival them.’
- ‘And if it feels it can compete, slowly but surely, it will squeeze down the space that the foreign businesses have to operate within China.’
Tony is the director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.
- He has a unique perspective gained from his early on-the-ground experience living in China in the 1970s during the Cultural Revolution years.
- As he says: “Forty-five years ago, when I was a student in the country, I could not have imagined the changes that China has experienced. If anyone had dared to suggest that it would be possible to pull China out of the morass of the Cultural Revolution, I would have told them that the idea was crazy.”
I have known Tony since my time as an Asia Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School many years ago.
- He has often been a speaker at my CHINARoundtable, a member community that brings together top China experts for discussions with leaders from business and institutional investment.
In fact, his was a speaker at the first CHINARoundtable in 2012.
In pre-pandemic days, the CHINARoundtable would meet about once a month at the Harvard Club of New York.
- Now, we are preparing to launch the ‘CHINARoundtable Virtual.’
- By removing the limits of time and space, we will be able to include experts and participants from around the world.
Below you find more of Tony’s explanations of the five themes from the history of the Chinese Communist Party.
- You can also watch his interview and read the full transcript which will posted soon on our new CHINADebate website.
And be sure to check out From Rebel to Ruler. I wholeheartedly agree with the reviewer who wrote:
- ‘While questions about what China is and is becoming will continue to perplex, readers searching for a road map toward sound answers would be well advised to begin with From Rebel to Ruler. A better primer on Chinese elite politics and political history cannot be found.’