The Big Ideas

Tony Saich

Professor, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Ed Steinfeld | Brown University

'From Rebel to Ruler': Tony Saich on Chinese Communism at 100

Harvard Magazine

Ed Steinfeld | Brown University

Harvard Magazine

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'From Rebel to Ruler': Tony Saich on Chinese Communism at 100
'From Rebel to Ruler': Tony Saich on Chinese Communism at 100
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Tony Saich

Professor, Harvard Kennedy School of Government

Heading

Ed Steinfeld | Brown University

July 1, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘At so many points during its century-long existence, the CCP appeared to be in its death throes, whether as a result of external attack or self-inflicted internal strife.’
‘Yet it has not only survived but has led China to a level of worldwide power and influence that just a few years ago, let alone a century ago at the party’s inception, would have been unimaginable.’

‘In his magisterial account of the hundred-year history of the Chinese Communist Party,  From Rebel to Ruler, 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.’

‘Immediately striking among these themes is the omnipresence of struggle:’

  • ‘Struggle against the foreign-controlled police and local warlords in the 1920s; struggle against the rival Nationalist Party (KMT) for revolutionary and national leadership; struggle within the party among various elite factions; continued struggle within the party under Mao’s leadership after the official establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949; and struggle against all manner of foreign threats, including a cataclysmic rift with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and ’60s, and a deepening conflict with the United States today.’

‘With struggle has come the additional theme of profound sacrifice and bloodshed:’

  • ‘Near total annihilation in the face of the KMT’s 1927 “White Terror”; near total annihilation yet again at the hands of the KMT during the Long March retreat of 1934-35; ghastly battlefield losses in the Anti-Japanese War (World War II) and the War to Resist America and Aid Korea (Korean War); millions of deaths stemming from the famine induced by the Great Leap Forward, a grievous error by the party itself; and at least another million lost through the internecine violence of the Cultural Revolution, yet another grave leadership error.’

‘But, struggle and sacrifice have generated still another theme, the party’s almost mythic capacity for resilience, endurance, and re-creation.’

  • ‘At so many points during its century-long existence, the CCP appeared to be in its death throes, whether as a result of external attack or self-inflicted internal strife.’
  • ‘Yet it has not only survived, but has led China to a level of worldwide power and influence that just a few years ago, let alone a century ago at the party’s inception, would have been unimaginable.’

‘What do these historical patterns and legacies mean for governance in China now? At least two points underscored by Saich stand out.’

‘First, despite dizzying ideological zigzags over time, and equally head-spinning volte-face with respect to policy practice, China’s political leadership today still goes to extraordinary lengths to insist on its own infallibility and inevitability.’

  • ‘As Saich beautifully documents, whenever the party has undergone major internal power struggles no effort has been spared to totally rewrite history, erase inconvenient truths from the past, and thoroughly massage the facts so as to justify both the historical inevitability and moral rectitude of the leadership cadre that emerged.’
  • ‘Saich writes: “The party believes that it possesses the ability not only to correctly interpret the past but also to outline the future, and this belief has led the party to declare its infallibility. Thus, when mistakes are made, blame must lie either with members of the party following the incorrect political line and leading party members astray, or with ‘outsiders,’ especially foreigners, meddling in party affairs.” ’

‘That leads to a second point raised by Saich. For all the fragility of China’s governance model, and for all its costly blunders past and present, the CCP enjoys a relatively high degree of legitimacy among Chinese citizens.’

  • ‘The party is inextricably associated with a revolution and modernization process that many Chinese still see as their own, something linked to their personal identity.’
  • ‘Alas, in the eyes of many Chinese citizens right now, CCP-style authoritarianism looks pretty appealing relative to what the world’s leading democracies, especially the United States, have on offer.’

‘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.’

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