Political Science Chinese Communist Party
by
Kerry Brown
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0218

Introduction

The Communist Party of China (CPC) is the world’s largest political organization, with a history approaching one hundred years. Since its foundation it has been distinctly Chinese. Understanding it involves knowledge of its ideology, its political mission, organization, and narratives of history, as well as its complex and evolving internal composition. Key figures throughout the last ten decades since its foundation in 1921 have also shaped phases of its development, from the immense impact of Mao Zedong to the elite leaders who have succeeded him. The different emphasis of these elite leaders has also supplied a means by which to understand the deep differences between the party when it was coming to power before 1949, and operated as a fugitive force, to when it became the governing party after that date. In the Maoist era up to 1976 the focus was on class struggle and the conduct of mass campaigns. These had immensely destructive outcomes. After 1976, the focus became the material enrichment and modernization of the country. Under Xi Jinping, however, since 2012 there has been an increasing shift back to focusing on ideology and party organization. The link between these separate phases is the desire to create a rich, strong, and powerful country, one that has been restored to its centrality in the region and the world and will never again be subject to colonial or foreign aggression. The CPC has many different dimensions—from its narrative of its own history to its internal language, the cultural aspects of its message, and its links to Chinese traditions and society. In many ways, therefore, studying the CPC today is studying the key events and structures that made modern China. The author would like to thank Jana Gorski for her assistance with the compilation of this article.

Historic Studies

During its rise to power from its foundation in 1921 in Shanghai to the moment in which it finally became the governing party of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has attracted a great deal of attention in the outside world (see Barnett 1951, Bianco 1971 and Saich 2021). There is a rich corpus of written material about its rise to power, and then the ways in which it has exercised that power, going back to the seminal, and highly sympathetic accounts, contained in reportage like that of the American journalist Edgar Snow in the 1930s, to work in the 1950s and 1960s by political scientists predominantly in Europe and the United States who tried to work out in which ways the development and experience of Communism in China was following the path of the elder and more established party in the Soviet Union, and in which ways it was plotting a different trajectory. Comprehensive overviews of the history of Marxism, Leninism, and the Communist Party itself have been available since the very first decade of its time in power. These show the very different frameworks in which scholars attempted to understand Chinese Marxism. Many of them placed the founding figure of Mao Zedong at the heart of their understanding. And the parallel development of Mao and the party is one that recurs throughout much of the literature that exists in English (and much of that which exists in Chinese, though in very different ways). A striking feature of the earlier histories of the CPC is the ways in which they were often produced by a very diverse international cohort of scholars, some from a more military and policy background, some from diplomacy, and some who used their vantage spot of Hong Kong, then under British rule, to try to work out what was happening within China and use this information to inform their accounts (see Guillermaz 1972). One problem that almost all this material shows is the lack of access to archives, or, for that matter, to good quality field research. From 1949 to the death of Mao in 1976, the country was largely inaccessible to foreign researchers, and Chinese experts had little experience to travel into the outside world. So much material used as the basis of histories, or attempts to understand the CPC, was second hand. Ironically, the Cultural Revolution from 1966 did see the leaking of much more material to the outside world, which was then used as sources for books on the party and its inner divisions over this period. The celebration within China of the one hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the party in 2021 also saw a new Resolution on Party History issued (Institute of Party History and Literature of the CPC Central Committee 2021). This adapted some of the positions found in the previous 1945 and 1981 resolutions.

  • Barnett, A. Doak. “Mass Political Organizations in Communist China.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 277 (1951): 76–88.

    DOI: 10.1177/000271625127700109

    Published two years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, this study provides valuable insights into the use of mass movements by the Communist Party before it became the ruling party, and how these were set to be incorporated into its institutions.

  • Bianco, Lucien. Origins of the Chinese Revolution, 1915–1949. Translated by Muriel Bell. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1971.

    Open in its political sympathies to the Communist experiment in China, but lucid. Starting from the very earliest era of the Communist movement before 1921 when it counted only a handful of followers in Republican China, this book covers the development of the Communist Party until the victory of the Red Army over the Nationalists in 1949.

  • Cheek, Timothy, Klaus Muhlhahn, and Hans van de Ven, eds. The Chinese Communist Party: A Century in Ten Lives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.

    Ten separately authored chapters on the history of the Communist Party over the last one hundred years through studies of figures Wang Shiwei in the 1940s during the rectification campaigns the party held then, and Wang Guagmei, the wife of Chinese president at the time Liu Shaoqi, with the campaign attacking her in the Cultural Revolution. This study shows the diversity, richness and complexity of the last one hundred years and the ways in which many different kinds of people and lives have contributed to its development.

  • Dirlik, Arif. The Origins of Chinese Communism. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    The strongest account before the twenty-first century of the intellectual roots of Communism in China, and the forefathers of Chinese Marxism from figures like Chen Duxiu to Li Lisan. This book also has an original and provocative account of the ways in which the ideology of the Soviet Union was then readapted to conditions in China by, in particular, Mao Zedong.

  • Doyon, Jerome, and Chloe Froissart, eds. The Chinese Communist Party at 100 Years. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 2024.

    A collection of articles offering up-to-date assessments on the evolving ideology and leadership position of the party, and the role of emotion in the rhetoric that the party has used in recent decades in its messaging, party narratives, and organization.

  • Guillermaz, Jacques. History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921–1949. Translated by Anne Destenay. New York: Random House, 1972.

    Produced by a former French general and covering the era when the CPC was out of power and then the first two decades of the CPC in power, this is strong on the military strategy of the party during the period in which it was most vulnerable. See also Jacques Guillermaz, History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1949–1976 (London: Methuen, 1976).

  • Institute of Party History and Literature of the CPC Central Committee. Gongchangdang Jianshi. Beijing: People’s Press, 2021.

    Translated as “A Brief History of the Communist Party of China,” this is the first comprehensive reevaluation of the Communist Party’s own history, undertaken by itself, since the early 1980s. While covering the Mao, Deng, Jiang, and Hu eras, it brings Xi Jinping to the forefront, and it was noteworthy when issued for having very little on key events like the Cultural Revolution and almost nothing on the 1989 uprising.

  • Lescot, Patrick. Before Mao: The Untold Story of Li Lisan and the Creation of Communist China. Translated by Steven Randell. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

    Written by a French journalist, a narrative about one of the key figures in the rise of the CPC before Mao Zedong became the dominant leader from the mid-1930s. This volume also contains an account of the fate of those who crossed Mao or lost out in the power struggle against him.

  • Saich, Tony. From Rebel to Ruler: One Hundred Years of the Chinese Communist Party. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2021.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv33mgbp9

    A comprehensive overview of the CPC’s history since its foundation to the era of Xi. This book is based on the author’s long research on party materials, in Chinese and in English, and their deep understanding of the ideology and organizational attributes of the party. It offers a balanced critical evaluation, one that is particularly valuable because of the ways in which all eras of the party’s history are presented and their significant differences from each other made clear.

  • van den Ven, Hans. From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920–1927. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520910874

    A comprehensive account of the foundation period of the CPC up to the Nationalist onslaught on the CPC in 1927. It is based on Chinese-language material, giving the full background to the first National Congress, held over nine days in Shanghai and then Zhejiang Province in 1921, as well as its aftermath.

  • Walder, Andrew G. Fractured Rebellion: The Beijing Red Guard Movement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    A highly detailed account of the clashes between Red Guards and party work teams at Beijing universities between 1966 and 1968, which challenges the former scholarly interpretations of a division between “radicals” and “moderates.”

  • Zhonggong Zhongyang dangshi yanjiushi. Zhongguo Gongchandang Lishi. Vol. 2, 1949–1978. Beijing: Zhonggong dangshi chubanshe, 2011.

    Translated as “History of the Communist Party.” The most comprehensive historic overview of the official view of the Communist Party of China, produced by the party research department itself. This follows the assessments of Mao being largely good, with a few mistakes (the Cultural Revolution being one of them).

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