17 June 2021, The Tablet

The Chinese century

The Chinese century

Mao Zedong pictured with revolutionaries from Marx to Stalin in a 1940s propaganda poster.
Photo: Alamy


The Chinese Communist Party is about to celebrate its hundredth birthday. The stakes in preventing its authoritarianism corroding the politics of the twenty-first century are high. Hong Kong’s last British governor sees trouble ahead – but liberal democracies are facing their own crisis

The first National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in July 1921 in what used to be the French concession in Shanghai, in rooms now turned into a museum near the Huangpi Road station of the city’s metro. Its first leader, Chen Duxiu, was subsequently expelled from the party as a “right opportunist” (a description that might occasionally be appropriate these days in British politics). Chen died a believer in Western-style democracy. China’s Communist Party – the oldest governing Communist Party left in the world – will be celebrating its centenary on 1 July. I doubt there will be the traditional birthday message from Her Majesty the Queen, but maybe the Vatican will oblige instead. Spoiler alert: when the Vatican begins to flirt with “realpolitik”, recent history suggests that the Catholic faithful should look the other way lest their simple faith comes under uncomfortable strain.

China’s Communists, originally Marxists but today Leninists, emerged after a bleak century in their country. The nineteenth century, under the increasingly enfeebled Qing dynasty, saw China treated by the imperial powers of the day as a hulk to be carved up at will. Britain’s share of the spoils was an archipelago in the south of China, below the Tropic of Cancer and close to the Pearl River, its adjoining islands and its “fragrant Harbour”. Hong Kong was in time to become a great international trading city, with citizens who were in the most part refugees from the China created by the Communist Party.

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