Photo Credit: ForeignPolicyNews.org
By Milica Cosic and Brian Wickizer, Reporters
On April 14, 2016, Dr. Timothy Heath joined the Center for Security Studies (CSS) lunch series to discuss the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party. Dr. Heath is a senior international defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation specializing in China’s national strategy, politics, ideology, and military. He is the author of China’s New Governing Party Paradigm, a book elaborating on the fundamental idea at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda—a central theme he discussed with CSS.
Dr. Heath began his discussion with a historical synopsis of the CCP. In 1921, the CCP was founded as a Communist revolutionary party. The revolutionary identity of the CCP persisted after Mao Zedong’s death and endured even as Deng Xiaoping shifted its focus to “reform and opening up.” However, the CCP abandoned its identity as a revolutionary party and adopted a new identity as a “governing party” throughout the 1990s and 2000s, fundamentally changing governance in China.
During the 1990s, Dr. Heath elaborated, a consensus was built among CCP leadership that “a very dramatic change was required” to extend the party’s life following the demonstrations and crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989. In 2002, this change was formally adopted with the proclamation of the “governing party paradigm” at the CCP’s 16th Party Congress, which codified the CCP’s commitment to good governance, law-based and institutionalized authority, and economic growth. Since then, the CCP has focused on ushering China into a new era by ensuring a rising standard of living and making China a great power in the world.
The CCP presided over the transformation of China from one of the poorest nations in the world into the second largest global economy. Through this transition, the party has become more flexible and resilient. As social unrest and revolutions sweep the Middle East and North Africa, Dr. Heath stated that the CCP understands the need to respond to the demands of a rising middle class
According to Dr. Heath, the drivers of the CCP’s reinvention include an expanding Chinese middle class, internal social change, growing international challenges, and the threat of party atrophy as a result of political disenchantment. Despite predictions of collapse in the 1990s, China shifted course and focused on revitalization—the CCP, and now President Xi Jinping, enjoy high rates of popular support.
As part of this evolution, the CCP has reorganized state institutions in a coherent, systematized, logical, and rational fashion. The push to standardize and promote more transparency in decision-making is just one attempt to address entrenched corruption through governance. Throughout the 2000s, China published planning documents to bolster transparency, such as the elaboration of China’s agricultural policies in its Five Year Plans.
Fast forward to today—President Xi’s strategic policy agenda demonstrates his commitment to the governance party paradigm. The president’s attempt to address political, legal, and foreign policy reform is designed to give China the respect it deserves as a revitalizing power. His top-down emphasis is an outgrowth of the attempt to overcome historic, systemic, and structural obstacles that hamstring sustainable economic growth and continue to hamper the delivery of the CCP’s promises to its citizens—an increased standard of living and the revitalization of China as a great power.
President Xi faces massive political, bureaucratic, and technical hurdles in reconciling systemic reform with centralized control. At the conclusion of his talk, Dr. Heath left us to ponder the following question: While the CCP’s adoption of the governing party paradigm represents a necessary step for long term survival, will the party be able to overcome the challenges it faces in its quest for political renewal and national rejuvenation?