On the 23rd of July 2021, the Communist Party of China (from now on, CCP) will officially turn 100 years old—an event that marks the achievement of the first ‘Centenary goal’ set by President Xi Jinping in 2013. Despite Covid-19-imposed international mobility restrictions, posts and videos on social media platforms like Weibo or Douyin conjure vivid images of the ‘red fever’ currently running through the country. Among others, Yan’an has risen to the status of a ‘sacred city,’ while museums all over China have been refurbished to highlight the stories of personal sacrifice that have characterised the Party’s history. As skilfully put by Bhagyashree Garekar of ‘The Straits Times,’ it is ‘Party time’ in China.
Longevity is strength
Celebrations are scheduled for the 1st of July—a date that has come to be a reminder of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover in the past few years. Contrary to expectations, there will not be a military parade held in Tiananmen Square, as it had been on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2019 or previous landmark political events. As a matter of fact, it was made clear that this is a time for the Party—not the State nor the army. The over 91 million CCP members and the Chinese population were indeed invited to “follow the Party forever” (Yongyuan suizhe dang永远随着党), meaning that the conferral of medals and awards to loyal Party cadres, a series of speeches and a nationally broadcasted gala will make up most of the celebrations. After successfully managing the national epidemic outbreak (now a source of ‘national pride’) and notable achievements in poverty alleviation goals, the CCP enjoys high levels of support domestically and shows no pressing need to further boost its legitimacy.
Moreover, the Centenary symbolically marks the Party’s ultimate triumph over the threats to the CCP’s political survival of the late 1980s and early 1990s – namely, Zhao Ziyang’s public opposition to the use of military force against the 1989 Tiananmen student protests and the fall of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), against whose example Chinese party leaders have often measured their performance. The Centenary indeed crowns the CCP as the longest (and largest) serving Communist Party globally. The CPSU fell after 88 years since its launch, while the Communist parties of Cuba and Vietnam – four years the CCP’s junior – are nowhere near competing with China’s centrality in international affairs, as recently argued by Minxin Pei. World-record longevity has thus turned into an additional source for the CCP’s strength.
Despite the benefits of this artificially construed nexus between longevity and strength, the Centenary leads the CCP to formulate new narratives to justify the strategies Xi has chosen outside traditional practices—that is, Party-brokered economic development and extended Party leadership succession.
Party-brokered economic development and extended leadership succession
Under Xi, the CCP has assumed a more pervasive role in national economic development, especially in the private sector. This assertiveness shows a clean break from the policies chosen by previous leaders like Deng Xiaoping or Hu Jintao, who had been more willing to close an eye to ‘irregularities’ such as corruption. At the same time, the 2018 abolition of the constitutional limits to Xi’s two consecutive presidential mandates dramatically transformed the roles and expectations of the sixth generation of Chinese leaders. As a result, these Party members had to come to terms with the reality that they will conduct their entire political careers under Xi’s leadership, never having the chance to compete for the Party’s top position. Moments like the Centenary and the upcoming 2022 20th Party Congress further stress the lack of a successor, thus requiring a solid narrative to be put forward in defence of Xi’s extended leadership. After all, acting outside traditional practices is risky for authoritarian regimes, as their exposure to internal political instability is heightened.
Moreover, the CCP’s tightening grip over public and private enterprises – affecting even China’s economic spearheads like Alibaba – will need to counter-balance the deterioration of the country’s economic and demographic makeup, which the recent ‘dual-circulation model’ and the ‘three-children policy’ attempt to solve. However, as stressed by Daniel H. Rosen in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Xi’s 2013 assumption that ‘if the Party fails to transform the economy, we will find ourselves in a blind alley,’ continues to shape economic and strategic thinking, thus indicating that no relaxation should be expected in the short term.
At the beginning of 2021, Oxford University’s historian and political scientist Rana Mitter argued that the Centenary would be the time for Xi to present the narratives accompanying China in the ‘next phase’. However, it is of little surprise that what has emerged so far has pointed to a Party-oriented political system that is unwilling to ease its grip, not even over the country’s economy. After all, the goal of ‘regime survival’ has moved the Party’s policy choices so far, which will remain among the CCP’s priorities for years to come. Nonetheless, issues like political succession and ‘top-down’ economic development are bound to acquire even more primacy shortly, as regime survival will likely become more and more tied to the success of Party-brokered strategies.
 The first Centenary goal pursues the establishment of a ‘moderately prosperous’ society (xiaokang shehui 小康社会).
 The city of Yan’an was the centre of the Communist revolution between 1935 and 1947.
 To contextualise, see Fewsmith, Joseph. 2021. Rethinking Chinese Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.